One of the greatest tests of balance in an equine athlete is to transition smoothly from a maneuver requiring flexion of the spine and stride to one requiring extension. For example, a dressage horse surging forward from a collected trot to an extended trot and then downshifting again to collection, or a trail horse charging up a steep climb and then rebalancing to negotiate a downhill slope. If the horse isn’t using his back and stomach muscles correctly, these transitions will be unbalanced or even impossible. Asking your horse to walk over poles is a great movement to begin using the muscles correctly and regain balance.
Additionally, walking over poles increases the side-to-side swinging motion in the horse’s pelvis and lower back, which relieves tension that can exist in the performance horse. When the back is relaxed, the muscles deep within your horse’s core are able to flex and stretch.
These muscles play an integral role in core stability and collection. They can also be the source of crookedness habits in the horse, so any exercise that helps root out these issues benefits his overall performance. This particular pattern alternately recruits the flexor and extensor muscle groups along the top and bottom lines of the horse, which helps in all disciplines.
- Set up four poles on the ground spaced slightly less than 3 feet apart, or the approximate distance of your horse’s extended walk stride.
- Twenty feet away from these poles, set up four more poles spaced 2’6″ apart and raised 8 inches off the ground.
- Now ride your horse in a straight line over both sets of poles.
- Over the first set of poles, ask him to extend his strides so he places just one front foot between each set of poles.
- Then over the second set of poles, think about asking him to collect and shorten his strides, still taking just one step between poles. He should feel like he is walking with short, high, energized steps.
- Continue this extension-collection sequence for several rounds.
As you ride through this sequence, the horse should develop two very different feelings of walk underneath you. He should begin smoothly flexing and extending his spine with the help of the poles.
Be sure to maintain rein contact with him throughout the exercise; it’s much less effective to ride this exercise with loose reins as your horse walks over the poles.
Try it at a Trot
This routine can easily be modified to perform at the trot or jog. The same principles will apply to your set-up of the poles: one set of poles will be spaced with distances to extend the strides (approximately 4’2″ for a 15-hand horse) and one will be raised off the ground and spaced to collect the stride (3’8″ for a 15-hand horse).
This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!