Tristan is both a) lazy and b) weak in his hind end action, both the hock and the stifle. He would happily drag toes all day long, and it's not at all uncommon for him to stumble even in the midst of going beautifully. In the space of one breath, he decides it's just toooooooo much work to pick his feet up, and he almost bites it.
Like many a horse with a less than ideal hind end, he really benefits from good work over poles. What's more, he likes it. Poles are a nice, straightforward challenge for him. He can figure them out, and get a sense of accomplishment from them.
How much would I love to set up full grids regularly, ride complicated zigzag patterns, jump off repeatedly and adjust striding to get exactly what I want? So much. How tired am I at the end of the long work day, before I've even looked at a pole, much less picked one up to set up a grid? SO TIRED.
Over the years, I've worked out a number of exercises to do with just a handful of poles at a time, and I thought I'd start sharing them here.
Today: what can you do with just one pole?
So many things!
Use it as a target
- Put it in the middle of the ring, perpendicular to either the center line or a quarter line, and count strides to it. Add more strides. Add fewer strides. Imagine it's a jump and nail down the exact feel and timing of coming up to it. Visualize where each hoof will land for an ideal bouncy step over the pole. Do this at the walk, trot, and canter.
- Put it in a corner, diagonal to the corner of the ring itself. Aim for different parts of the pole depending on how deep or shallow you want to make your corner. Use the pole as the target for bending, and if you're like me and have a constant death grip on the inside rein, use the poll as your target for your release.
- Put it on the quarter line, running right along the quarter line, at E or B. There's your target for leg yields off the rail, right up to the side of the pole, then straight down the quarter line or back to the wall.
Use it as an imaginary wall
- If you have a horse that rushes fences, pretend it's a brick wall. Trot up to it and then walk the last stride. Or trot up to it and HALT, right before it.
- How's your turn on the forehand? And haunches? Try setting the poll perpendicular to the wall and asking for just a quarter turn, instead, then go back. Or put it by itself in the middle of the room and take away the mental crutch of the wall, just using the poll as your starting point.
- Now imagine it's a half wall, and put your horse's front feet on one side and back feet on the other. Sidepass down it, keeping it in the middle. Try some shoulders-in. Try some haunches-in. The pole will keep you honest and not squirting out forward or rocking back.
Use it for precision
- Walk up to it. Put one foot over. Now the next. Now the next. Do this in hand for a horse that needs to learn patience in taking one step forward at the time. ("Step up" is one of the most useful things I've ever taught Tristan, who is a reluctant trailer loader at the best of times.) Do this under saddle for a horse who fumbles his way into and out of square halts.
- Put it on a circle, wherever you want. Ride a circle that hits the inside of the pole; then the middle; then the edge. That's roughly 10m, 15m, and 20m. (If you want to be extra precise, you can measure this out.)
- Ride circles around the pole: make two edges of the circle touch the ends of the pole. Do tiny, tight, figure 8s over the pole. Do longer but steeper figure 8s.
Use it as a quick tune up
- Put it anywhere in the ring, and use it as a diagnostic. How's your rhythm? How's your seat? Does your horse need to be pushed, or kept steady? Did you almost get bounced out of the saddle? Did nothing change?
- Not for everyone, but: is your horse refusing to listen? Send him over the pole. If he's more focused on resisting you than his own feet, he'll have something to pay attention to pretty quick. (Note: don't try this one with a horse that's truly acting up or truly oblivious; horses can still fall from just one pole.) But a horse that just needs an outside reminder real quick? It can be a great teaching moment.
- Put the pole back while leading your horse, OR ground tie your horse while putting the pole away. Both are important skills to learn and can and should be reinforced at every possible opportunity.