The Magic Behind the Poles
By Jec A. Ballou
Walking Ground Poles
For years, they sat on one end of our indoor arena — five ground poles anchored by concrete blocks. With unwavering consistency, we worked our horses over them once a week, either ground driving or riding. But it was not until the winter when my mom and I watched Dr. Reiner Klimke videos over and over that I realized why our ground poles remained set up all the time.
Their purpose was not to alleviate the monotony of training sessions as I assumed, but to physically improve the horse. As I sat in mom’s office and watched the videos of Klimke’s students beginning each ride walking and trotting over poles, I realized there is really something to this. On the screen, sleek Warmbloods became looser and freer in their bodies right before my eyes. Of course, it would be a couple of decades before I learned why they did; at that moment the mystery intrigued me enough to commit to keep using our own poles, no matter if I could describe why or not.
If world-class equestrians found it useful to ride over ground poles, then I thought we should, too. Various pole patterns have since formed a central part of my clinics and lessons. Most riders can feel the positive changes right away in their horses: their gaits become springier, jaws soften, cadence improves. Finally, about ten years ago, equine fitness studies caught up to some of the practices of old classical dressage masters. Now we had the why for riding poles.
Thanks to researchers and vets like Jean-Marie Denoix, Gillian Higgins, Hilary Clayton, and Andris Kaneps we have learned how successfully ground poles serve the horse’s neuromuscular coordination. They activate and release tension from his bottom line muscle chain, which in turn softens his jaw and poll, resulting in reflexive signals for relaxation throughout the body. Also, because of their fixed position on the ground, poles interrupt the horse’s habituated stride patterns. In this way, they stimulate activation between his brain and nervous system. This leads to gaits that are not only more rhythmic but also stay free from restricted ranges of motion.
Photo courtesy of Jec A. Ballou.
Ground Poles at the Start of Your Ride
The following are my tips for benefitting from ground poles on a regular basis:
1) The simplest way to use ground poles consistently is to walk back and forth over them 20 times at the beginning of your ride. You can do this every day. Do not assume there is more value in trotting them.
2) Make a place on your farm where you can LEAVE them set up. If you have to set them up each time to use them, you will not stick to a consistent plan.
3) There is no exact formula for how many poles you should set up. Just use what you have. Typically, four to six poles in a row works for most riders/horses. You do not need a fancy type of pole.
4) Take note of what changes in your horse as he works over poles. Does he stretch his neck lower? Does he have more energy? Does his back feel any different under you?
5) For walking, space the poles approx. 2’8” apart.
6) Do not micromanage your horse if he stumbles or trips. Try to stay out of his way and let the poles do their work. They WILL do the work.
Related: The Case for Lightness with Horses
Photo blog photo courtesy of Pam MacKenzie.