Done correctly, simple in-hand pole work exercises can make a huge difference to your horse’s balance, mobility and physique. It’s a huge bonding and confidence-building experience as well.
Andrew Hoy, who recently contested his eighth Olympic Games in Tokyo, winning team silver and individual bronze for Australia, shares three of his groundwork exercises for you to try.
1 Zig-zag for stronger side muscles
- Set four poles up in a line.
- Leading your horse first from the near side, ask him to walk in a straight line parallel to the poles.
- Next, ask him to step sideways across the poles and walk in a straight line along the opposite side, again staying parallel.
- Ask him to step back across the poles.
- Aim for one or two strides each side of the poles.
- It’s very important that your horse leads with the correct foot each time he crosses the poles (he should always step over with the closest foot first — don’t let him cross his legs).
- The side-stepping action is vital as it’s that which strengthens the muscles along your horse’s sides.
- Don’t rush this exercise; simply ask your horse to stay straight and parallel to the poles for their entire length at first, then progress to zig-zagging.
- When you do ask your horse to step over the poles, simply allow him to come across.
- Repeat this exercise an even number of times on each rein, leading your horse from both sides.
- As you come to the end of the line of poles each time, make equal turns to the left and right.
- Encourage your horse to keep his head low throughout, so he can really round his back and work his shoulders and core as he takes each step.
“This pole work task is very easy to set up, and a great suppling exercise, but it’s important to be accurate and methodical,” says Andrew. “Keep your horse straight, make sure he leads with the correct foot as he crosses the poles, and remember to turn both ways when you get to each end. Your horse needs to work both sides equally in order to feel the most benefit.”
2 Back up straight to work the core muscles
- Stand in front and slightly to the side of your horse.
- Ask him to take three or four steps back.
- Check that he’s staying straight as he walks backwards.
- Look for a nice symmetry in his stride.
- Again, ask your horse to keep his head low so that he can work his shoulders and core as he takes each step.
“Asking your horse to walk backwards for a few strides may sound simple, but the devil’s in the detail,” says Andrew. “Straightness and symmetry are important here.”
3 Raised poles for a thorough thoracic workout
- Place your poles on the ground, spaced so there’s one walk stride between the first ground pole and the first raised pole. Andrew uses seven poles — five slightly raised and two on the ground — but play around with whatever equipment you have at home.
- The following poles, which are slightly raised, should be spaced so your horse can walk straight over them, one after the other.
- Place the final ground pole on a one- stride distance from the final raised pole.
- Ask a friend for help with this exercise, so you’re leading your horse from both sides. Doing this will ensure he stays perfectly straight through the grid.
- Work your horse in a bridle and unbuckle the reins so you have a rein each.
- Encourage your horse to look down at the poles as he steps over them.
- Turn your horse equally in both directions at the end of the line and repeat the exercise in both directions.
“Throughout all three groundwork exercises, it’s hugely important to encourage your horse to keep his head low, as this will help his back to round and ensure his thoracic and core muscles get a good workout,” says Andrew.