While it is true that ground poles are most commonly seen in the English disciplines, particularly those that involve jumping, their use can be of benefit to any ridden horse or pony. The value of ground poles lies in their ability to cause a horse to be thoughtful about using and placing his feet carefully. But there are other benefits to ground pole exercises as well.
Properly used, ground poles will increase a horse’s flexibility and strength while encouraging more engagement of the hind quarters. As with all exercises, it is important to understand the skill and intended results. Whole books have been written on such exercises and a quick internet search will yield many articles and videos with great details. Walking over poles might seem an easy enough effort for the horse, but at the walk there is little forward momentum so all effort is through the horse’s muscles. Thus this is an excellent way to build core and hind strength.
The Fan Shape exercise is used by many to help the horse find balance and rhythm. Three to four poles are set up in a fan shape with spacing from middle of one pole to middle of the next pole to be about 3 big, human steps. Of course, the distance is shorter towards the inside and longer towards the outside, which gives the rider options to challenge the horse in its stride. This can be ridden at all gaits and is often seen in Western Trail classes at the canter. The horse really engages his hind and core for this exercise.
Ground poles have benefits beyond the physical aspects too. Team Roping and Barrel Racing trainer, Blair Roy of Rafter R Ranch in Somerville, Tenn. says, ”Sometimes I’ll set up just a couple in the round pen and use them with the young ones. But it’s more of a trust thing that I’m working on. Also to keep them thinking and not get bored with the groundwork.” Horses learn very quickly to be alert to the poles so they don’t trip or step on them.
Robyn Miller of Point Pleasant Farm in Holly Springs, Miss, uses ground poles “with all kinds of horses whether new horses under saddle or older horses for finding balance, foot placement, and mental focus.” Robyn says they give horses a “sense of going somewhere and the rider a sense of purpose to help accuracy” Her go-to exercise is to put four poles at the quarter marks on a circle. So on a clock shape they would be at 12:00, 3:00, 6:00, and 9:00. She likes this setup because there are many ways to use the poles to change bend and accuracy. She encourages horses to have the same number of steps between all four poles without chipping, stepping short or stepping long. She also has riders do an outside bend and flow back to the same pole or do an inside turn and bend back to the pole (roll back). Horses can be asked to lengthen or shorten strides between poles or even skip every other one, going inside or outside to skip while making the circle. All of these help the horse and rider gain accuracy, strength, and balance. Robyn notes these exercises keep the horse listening to what you want of them and also keep the rider thinking. Robyn advises riders to always think, “Is my horse with me? Is he gonna be late because he’s mentally somewhere else?” She encourages riders to “keep the horse in your aids, which can be thought of as a rectangle, and when you feel him come out, then bring him back into the shape (rectangle).”
With all the benefits of ground pole work for both the rider and the horse of all disciplines, a few painted poles seem to be as essential to training as a saddle and bridle.