I have a love/hate relationship with ground poles. They’re amazing tools to improve horse and rider skills and they’re fun! Repeatedly riding around an arena gets boring for me and my horses, potentially creating the bad habit of sloppiness or lack of precision. I love how ground poles break the monotony, making lessons more profitable and enjoyable.
What I hate about ground poles is carrying them into the arena to set up patterns, then putting them away when I’m done. Wood poles are heavy, expensive, and require maintenance. Even when I leave them in the arena, I still have to move them to drag it as well as replace them for the next ride.
The Older I Get the Longer it Takes to Prepare to Ride
Every year it takes more energy to groom and tack up. The thought of hauling around mini-utility poles throws cold water on more inspired riding options. I confess, some days are exercises in willpower, forcing myself to get up from my comfy, clean, climate-controlled office to make the 15-second trek to the barn.
Sounds easy, right? What’s 15-seconds? Well, nothing if I’m already dressed in riding britches and boots, slathered in sun screen, and armed with hat, hood, or visor. Visiting the barn is easy, it’s just nine-feet from our kitchen coffee pot. Saying “hi” doesn’t require anything but temperature-relevant clothes and flip-flops or scuffs.
Training is a completely different animal from merely dropping by. I love riding, blissfully spending hours with the horses once I’m out the door and the first horse parked at the tack room door. Dragging logs requires a whole ‘nuther level of mental preparation.
But it’s worth it, and I have a suggestion for you to eliminate that whole problem.
Walk, the Most Underappreciated Gait
My preference is a series of four walk poles, spaced 28-32 inches apart. To make small adjustments easier when a horse moves one out of place, I measured the distance my horses prefer and marked a short whip with duct tape. I use walk-overs in hand, on the longe, and under saddle.
The possibilities are endless and the benefits are amazing.
Asking a horse to downshift from canter to walk is easy once he sees the ground poles coming up. I time my cue and, Voila! – perfect transition. Okay, not every time, but I don’t have to nag, tug on the longe line, or move out of place in liberty work. Visual objects make natural impressions on a horse, making ground poles one of your best friends.
10 Benefits of Using Walk Poles With Horses
- Teaches automatic speed control, slowing chargy horses
- Helps your horse anticipate transitions in a good way
- Allows your horse to teach himself collection and stride length
- Creates mental discipline and the habit of thinking
- Keeps your horse’s brain from going AWOL, spinning somewhere else
- Connects your horse’s feet to his legs to his body to his brain
- Enhances responsiveness to your cues/aids/eyes
- Teaches your horse to be accountable for where and how he travels
- Improves physical balance, because all four legs have to work equally
- Builds symmetry: mental, spacial, physical, energy
Walk Poles Give Your Horse a Reason to Make Transitions
Ground poles give your horse a reason to change speed, collection, stride, or direction.
If you think about it, most cues seem purposeless your horse. Riders ask for behaviors and maneuvers that make no sense to the horse. Tracking a cow makes sense. Jumping a vertical makes sense. Spinning in place or performing flying lead changes have no connection to the very simple practical mind of a horse.
Let Your Horse Teach Himself to Walk Poles Correctly
The benefits of walk poles exist because the horse teaches himself. Don’t micro-manage or offer your horse a crutch. Some horses figure it out in one short session while others need a week of rapping toes, stepping on rails, or tripping. The greatest boon to every future lesson begins when your horse engages his brain, connects his feet to the ground, and figures out how everything works together.
I introduce walk poles on the ground, first leading the horse through a few times to let him know I expect him to remain cadenced and keep moving. The next step is working on a longe line or at liberty. Be sure you can guide your horse where you want and keep him moving before adding obstacles. Don’t let him ditch, avoid, or refuse to engage the poles.
Like any obstacle, once your horse is engaged on the walk poles, DO NOT correct him or intrude. Let him figure it out. Like people, horses must learn how to learn. The easiest exercise is walk poles. Once your horse masters it, progress will be quicker and smoother when you introduce more complicated puzzles and exercises.
How to Properly Use Walk Poles on the Ground and In the Saddle
How to walk poles with your horse in hand: Keep your eyes up and walk toward a fixed point. Don’t look down or back at your horse. Expect him to follow. Begin teaching your horse to walk the center of the poles from the beginning. That means you stay off to one side so his feet pass over the center, not yours. If his leading skills are rusty, work on that first. Don’t pull or correct. With every new maneuver or exercise, horses get participation awards for just showing up!
How to ride walk poles: Ride walk-poles the same way you engage a line of jumps. Identify your path to the center of the walk poles and once lined up, keep your eyes level, looking straight ahead, and let your horse carry you where you’re looking. Don’t look down, and don’t worry if your horse hits a rail, moves crooked, or loses form.
Your goal is getting to the other side of the walk poles without getting involved. Short of an emergency, leave your horse alone. Stay out of his mouth, off his sides, and sit quietly. If your horse tries to move smoothly but consistently misses the last pole, try adjusting the spacing.
Let your horse teach himself. This is hard! If you have to, tie a bandana over your chin or do something else to remind you to be a passenger when your horse engages the poles. Guide quietly set up on the center line, get out of the way, then lightly engage again on the far side. The entire exercise should be stress-free and easy. Clunky is fine. Tense isn’t.
Frequently Mix Up Your Patterns
I mix up patterns before and after the poles, frequently changing from circles to reverses to pivots. Walk or ride the poles equally in both directions. It’s great practice working on softening your horse’s body through a change of direction. Can you get a smooth reverse by changing only your eyes and leg position? When walking, is your turn to the right as pretty and correct as your turn to the left? (Assuming you lead on the left.) Walk poles teach your horse to think. Don’t waste the moment!
Begin walking or riding your walk poles twenty times to warm up or as therapy. Invite a friend over to play. I learned more about using ground poles from Jec Ballou, who learned from Ingrid Klimke. We all learn from one another.
The Best Ground Pole or Cavaletti Tip to Save Energy
NOT setting up poles is tempting when riding time is limited, you haven’t had a caffeine fix since your morning coffee seven hours ago, or you just don’t want to. When I have barely enough motivation to groom, saddle, and get in a basic maintenance lesson, lifting and toting ground poles just doesn’t make the cut.
You know that I love using walk-overs and other cavaletti patterns, but hate to pull, tote, rake, and measure. I overcame this conflict with a simple common-sense solution I discovered in a Jec Ballou article. Duh. I knew this but forgot I knew it.
Place your walk over poles in a place you can leave them, out of the way of normal traffic patterns.
Mine are set up on the paddock side of the arena fence on level ground. They live there 24/7, always available, no muss no fuss. One of the truths of life is that a saddled horse is a ridden horse. When I’m not hot to trot, tired, unmotivated, or tempted to skip a horse or two, I make a point to saddle every horse I hope to ride. Once saddled, the ride is a sure thing.
My four walk poles are centered outside the arena fence, with twenty-foot gates on either end, making it simple and convenient as a warm-up, or to refocus a horse who’s gotten a bit ahead of the program. All I have to do is ride out one gate, over the walk poles, and back in the next gate.
Unexpected Discovery When I Added Walk Poles
I was completely surprised the first time I added walk poles to a full lesson. Q, a 1997 gelding in rehab, learned the walk overs quickly, striding long and low, balancing equally on all four legs (the benefit I hoped for most) with greater confidence than he’d shown before. I decided to trot a circle, transitioning back to walk when we got to the poles. I expected Q to handle the walk overs the same way after trotting as he did two minutes earlier.
He did not.
Q stumbled over two of the poles. Thinking it might be a fluke, we walked the poles a few times until Q walked them cleanly. We trotted again. Same result. Which, once I thought about it, makes sense. Q performed the walk poles perfectly until I asked him to something that shoved him right back into movement and habits I hope to fix. Repetition over days and weeks creates muscle memory and fitness. Habits and compensations accumulated over months and years don’t disappear in a day.
Allow your horse plenty of time to make permanent changes in balance, symmetry, and concentration habits. Use your walk poles every time you play with your horse, even if you just lead him across a few time before turnout.
Bonus Benefit: Walk Poles and Barn Sour Horses
None of my horses are barn sour, but none are above cheating just a little either if they see an opening. They used to lean toward the barn on the north end of our outdoor arena. Connecting my small indoor in the barn with the large outdoor helped eliminate that annoying habit. I have walk or trot poles set up inside, returning frequently to ride the poles a few times before heading right back outside.
My horses no longer pull toward the barn, leaking shoulders or hips, being resistant to rein or leg cues. The barn has ground poles, as does the paddock between the inside and outside arenas. Everywhere we ride there’s an opportunity do a little easy, disciplined, thinking work, work that connect my horses mind and body to mine.
My horses don’t have any place to go without a convenient exercise waiting.
Did I miss a benefit? Do you have another helpful tip? Let me know!