My Horse Doesn’t Care Where His Feet Are…

“My horse doesn’t care where his feet are.” I hear this from at least one student in every clinic as a reason to bow out on conditioning exercises involving ground poles. The student will explain that her horse knocks his feet against the poles rather than picking them up nicely to step over them and the rider, therefore, no longer bothers using ground poles when schooling despite my arguments in favor of their conditioning benefits.

For a few reasons, this statement does not make sense to me. First of all, as prey animals that need to hustle quickly from danger, horses care VERY MUCH where their feet are. Their evolution and survival has depended on this.

dressage training

Secondly, nearly all of the riders who decide their horses don’t mind banging their legs and feet against poles in their path of travel arrive at their diagnosis after a handful of attempts with ground poles. They might spend a total of six sessions, spread across a few years attempting poles before writing them off as unproductive.

In other words, they do not spend nearly enough time and consistency to develop the horse’s aptitude. It is akin to the impromptu gym sessions I tackled in my mid-twenties hoping to define my calf muscles. After a somewhat random amount of time and focus, I decided the exercises did not work. (much later on, I remedied my follies and found those calf muscles!).

Finally, I believe that when we decide a horse does not care where his feet are, it allows us to skip out on answering a much tougher question: WHY is he not able to step cleanly over the poles? Much as we like to believe that these big powerful animals can easily navigate up, over, and around exercise routines that seem so simple, the reality is often different. In fact, more often than not, our horses’ coordination, stabilizing muscles, and movement patterns are more compromised than we realize. Riding ground pole routines makes us address this.

Is it possible that some horses might not care at all about banging their legs and feet against objects in their path? Possibly. But it’s MORE possible that they have a weak thoracic sling; or poor proprioceptive conditioning; or deeply embedded asymmetry in the body; or a stiff neck. Basically, just because an animal (or human, for that matter) cannot perform an exercise well initially, it does not mean he does not care for what he is doing. It means he is not doing well and it is our job to improve it.

This is not an elusive idea, especially when it comes to ground poles. Over the years, of all the horses that came to my barn for training and knocked in to ground poles, not a single one went home banging them anymore. I believe horses care very much where their feet are, but that is no guarantee their fine motor control is as tuned as it could be.