If you’re an equine enthusiast and keen horse rider you’ll understand the importance of exercising your horse in the appropriate way. This is especially true if you enter into competitions.
In formal competitions judges will be looking for a horse that can perform movements without rushing with appropriate power in his hind leg during a trot. They will look for good balance during cantering with smooth consistent transitions and the rider to have a controlled rhythm.
In some competitions you will be asked to gallop, again a judge will look for clean and subtle movements. If you’re new to horse riding or thinking about showing your horse how can you prepare them, so they are in optimum condition?
Firstly, it’s vital to spend time getting to know your horse and how he behaves through observation. What is his predominant quality ? Is he an excited horse? Full of energy? A bit skittish?
This information will help you plan exercises to suit him and create a training regime that will help him modify any negative behaviors and strengthen positive ones.
Spending quality time with your horse will also help increase the bond and trust between you both which makes it easier for your horse to pick up on cues and respond to your instructions.
It’s a good idea when starting out with training to ask a qualified horse trainer to evaluate your horse and suggest the best ways to train them in preparation for competitions. They will help you understand him at a deeper level in order to get the best out of him.
As well as understanding their mind a trainer will help you prepare the best food regime to keep him strong and in great condition. A well-fed horse will make his mind quicker and sharpen reaction times.
Learning riding patterns and visualizing them will add a structure to your riding and help your horse develop learning cues, increase balance and help you both move together as one; a truly bonding experience.
As part of the training regime a trainer will suggest doing pole exercises with your horse, but what are they, and why are they beneficial?
The major benefit of pole exercises is that it strengthens the core muscles. In addition, It increases flexibility by prompting him to use his hind leg to step under.
If your horse is prone to rushing, pole work can slow him down and regulate his stride length and rhythm. If the horse tends to have shorter strides poles can be adjusted to encourage him to step longer.
Pole work will improve your horse’s balance and control as it requires accuracy and concentration. Pole work will also help your horse to walk straight without bending over. Moving over poles without knocking them over will prepare your horse for trickier competitive exercises including jumping.
Although initially pole work should start on the ground as you and your horse build confidence you can start placing the poles above ground and attempting jumps.
The techniques can also benefit riders themselves. It helps you learn to make your instructions clearer as you need to be precise. Riders should try to walk their horse over the center of the pole and using colored poles will help with focus.
There are many variations you can add into the pole session and rearranging shapes and lines will help switch it up and keep your horse engaged. Be sure to start with simple exercises at first as your horse will be engaging muscles that have been underused before, and you don’t want to cause him unnecessary strain.
If you want to be super creative with the poles you can make the poles yourself and paint them in unique patterns and bold colors. So, what exercises are there ?
Long Pole Line
This is the simplest of pole exercises and requires setting out the poles in a line. If your horse is doing a pole exercise for the first time just add a few poles whilst they get used to it.
Once your horse is familiar with the routine and If you have enough, 10 is a good number and should be placed in the center of the riding area. It will depend on the size of your horse as to how far apart to place them but it is also dependent on whether you are doing a walk or trot exercise.
If walking a general rule of thumb is 2.5-3 feet apart and trotting 4-5 feet depending on size.
You don’t have to walk/ trot the horse over each pole in sequence, play with it, or try weaving in and out. This will train the horse to be flexible with direction changes and master smooth transitions.
The box is a useful exercise and helps focus your horse. It can be made as simple or complex as required.
When first trying it, place the poles in the shape of a box and get your horse to trot in and out, weave throughout it and remain in it in a calm manner. The exercise helps you bond with your horse as he waits for your guidelines.
Once your horse can negotiate the box efficiently you can add in extra boxes. It can take a while to set this up, but it’s worth it. You can add single poles to each box that leads to a second and third one.
You can then lead your horse through a figure of eight trots starting with the center box. It’s easy to switch it up to a canter and incorporate some small jumps if ready. This is great exercise for improving flexibility and warming up for more intense training.
Using 8 poles creates a fish shape. It’s ideal for teaching your horse to weave in and out with precise and deliberate steps.
Once your horse has mastered the simple pole exercises you can use the poles to create a course over a larger area. A hunter course is common in horse competitions, and it’s crucial you train your horse to negotiate the course in readiness for the obstacles.
It takes a fair while to set up an obstacle course, even the ground pole ones. You’ll need 11 or 12 poles, and you can look online for a template to follow to place poles in the right shape and angle.
The course will help your horse memorize routines and develop the skills needed in an official course at a competition. It’s also great exercise and will continue to keep your horses’ bones supple and strong. You can also trot or canter through the course.
For this exercise you can use 5 or 7 poles, it’s very simple to set up just arrange the poles, so they form a half circle.
Using a tape measure helps if you wish to make specific spacing. You can place three poles slightly further up and use these as a canter circle. Concentrate on rhythm and consistency helping your horse to resist the urge to rush.
For those horses that have mastered controlling their movements try walking or trotting some circles. You can also switch to canter just before reaching the poles and move to trot or walk after; this will assist your horse to make swift changes in a controlled manner.
With the semicircle shape you can also walk the inner line in a slow smooth movement. This movement is great for helping your horse develop specific muscles as they rely on muscles to move rather than momentum.
Another simple exercise, the cross sign is easy to create different exercises. Only four poles are needed; this shape gives you the opportunity to circle your horse around the poles.
Another popular pattern in riding is the cloverleaf. Starting at the center of the X walk ahead and whilst circling to the right the center should appear on your right as you pass back through, keep repeating this pattern until you have completed a whole cloverleaf. When your horse feels supple and soft with a consistent pace you can do it at a lope.
Only requiring 4 poles, the zigzag is ideal for practicing circles whilst crossing over the poles. Circling your horse is one of the most important exercises to teach your horse. It helps build strong muscles and helps him achieve straightness.
A horse is considered straight when the entirety of his body is aligned. When he moves, his whole body should move consistently and his front and hind legs should be parallel.
In a formal competition a judge will look for these factors along with if the rider seems to have the right contact between hands, weight and stirrups. A flexible horse will learn how to move shoulders and neck in both directions smoothly, avoiding resistance at the topline.
The zigzag pole exercise is the perfect practice for mastering straightness between horse and rider.
The stick man is another good exercise for beginners. It requires five poles organized into a stick man shape; one pole of the body and two either end to replicate arms and legs.
You can cross your horse to the right then left, circling as you move. Repeating this exercise over and over will tap into your horse’s muscle memory, helping them learn the patterns and perfect the moves.
This unique little exercise can be enjoyed by all levels of horse and rider and is good fun to try. You can search for patterns online or make your own. Simply organize the poles like a maze with gaps for the horse to pass through.
You can start simple and add more poles as your horse learns to navigate around them. Be sure to organize it effectively, so the horse can find the way through and not get frustrated. Stepping under the bends will help improve strength in the horses’ hind legs.
The triangle exercise is another useful practice for helping your horse with straightness. Create a touching triangle with three poles, then add parallel poles at each end. Place them a trot or canter stride apart, creating a line of poles on each side.
You have the option of riding a straight line over the outside poles or a controlled curve bending right then left throughout the outer poles. It isn’t as easy as it seems and will be challenging for horse and rider, but it’s perfect for focus and engagement.
Horse training is a very noble hobby, and horses are wonderful animals to work with.
Using ground poles and creating patterns and courses will help you both get to know each other and teach your horse to respond to cues, which will lay a fantastic foundation for future competitions and build a long-lasting trusting relationship between you and your equine friend.