Pole work is an important part of training a horse, both physically and mentally, says Sally Amsterdamer, a British dressage instructor who specializes in flat work for show jumpers.
“The horse has to work a little harder, lifting his legs a little higher, therefore increasing the flexibility and strength of his muscles. Working a horse over poles with a lowered neck position, therefore arching its back, is a good suppling exercise; especially when done on a circle line including bend,” she explains.
“Poles also make the horse think a little bit more, he has to work things out, and balance himself.”
Here The Netherlands-based trainer teaches “The Cartwheel”, a pole exercise she uses to improve turns and obedience between fences.
Step 1: Build the exercise
Place four poles on a 18m circle, one on each tangent of the circle. “I normally walk a circle that is 18m [59 feet] from the middle of the pole to middle of the pole,” says Amsterdamer.
“The dimensions depend on the canter of the horse and how much it can collect. I don’t do this exercise with younger horses. This dimension is more for the horses that can gather themselves together and collect.”
Be sure to recruit a helper, she adds.
“It is very important in all pole work to have someone helping on the ground who can place the poles at the correct distances or adjust the distances when necessary, according to the horse’s stride.”
Step 2: Start small
Always canter over a warm up pole before starting any pole exercise, says Amsterdamer. “Some horses are a little excited and will do a leap over the first pole. You don’t want to attempt four poles until the horse is relaxed over one.”
Canter a single pole in the arena or one on the circle until the horse is relaxed and the canter stride is controlled and balanced.
Step 3: Canter the cartwheel
“The goal is to ride a perfect circle, incorporating each pole from middle to middle, with the same four strides between each element,” she explains.
“This is not a jumping exercise. It’s dressage with poles. You still have to keep the horse really round and supple through the top line, soft in the contact, and bending.
“If the canter is not controlled or collected enough, do a smaller circle inside the circle of four poles to help collect the canter a little more. Then go out to the circle and try the poles again.”
Do not attempt the circle more than four times in a row before giving the horse a break, she cautions.
Step 4: Stay with the motion
“Sit straight on the horse, lightening the seat over the pole,” says Amsterdamer. “The rider must learn to keep in balance with his horse, always being careful to ‘give’ with his hands so that the horse can use his neck to balance himself.”
It’s also an excellent exercise for a rider who does not turn correctly, she says.
“Turn the horse’s shoulders with two reins, never using too much inside rein or making too much inside bend in the neck as this can cause the outside shoulder to escape out. Outside leg pressure must be applied as necessary to help keep the horse turning.’
Step 5: Add variation
When the four stride exercise is easy, the circle line can be adjusted slightly by going to the outer side of each pole and increasing the number of canter strides by one.
“Again, it depends on the horse’s canter. If it has a really big canter, stay to the far outside of the pole to fit in five strides,” she says.
Step 6: Increase the difficulty
Once you can execute both four and five strides on the circle, alternate between the two.
“Gently move the horse up into a slightly longer stride and get the four strides. Then sit down and half halt to collect the canter and put in five strides. So you’re changing the strides between the poles each time,” says Amsterdamer.
“When poles are going well, you can try it over low cavalettis.”
Trouble shooting: “If it’s a horse that is not so easy, maybe he’s running a bit or there is a lack of control, do two poles. Canter one, then canter around the second pole to the third pole,” she suggests.
“With any exercise you’re always building it up, according to the horse. If you see it’s not working—it’s too difficult for the horse or rider—you always go back a step or two.”
Find more of Sally Amsterdamer’s flat exercises for show jumpers at rideability.info.