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The stimulus of the pole helps the horse/rider combination to readdress the basics, ensuring all scales of training are followed to a high standard. The uses for polework are endless; it is prevalent when working horses on the flat, when completing a rehabilitation programme, during progression towards jumping and when jumping competitively to reduce the risks of injury.
When using polework with your equestrian partner, start slowly. The first imperative factor is the distance at which you set your poles; a horse will have a larger stride and a pony will cover a shorter distance, therefore the poles should first be adjusted based upon stride length. The standard distance between poles is 4½ to 5 foot for a horse and 3½ to 4 feet for a pony. Next, you will need to get the horse in a relaxed frame and a consistent rhythm whilst schooling, before continuing over the poles.
Depending on the horse’s ability, you can change the difficulty of the polework by altering the placement of the poles. If this were the first time, a single pole would be used as an introductory feature. Starting with walk and progressing to trot and canter, if a horse is green or young they may spook or jump the pole on first experience. In basic training, a ‘corridor’ could also be used, this is where two poles are laid next to each other and the horse goes through the centre, amplifying straightness and balance.
Once the horse has been introduced to the single pole, they can then be introduced to a line of three or five poles to intensify balance and proprioception. The use of an odd number of poles is important, because if laid out evenly, a horse (especially if green or young) tends to mistake these as a jump or bounce combination. Alternatively, raised poles could be used to increase suspension, allowing the rider to feel the energy and propulsion required for correct movement underneath them. In addition, the raised pole allows the horse to pay attention to where his feet must go. Poles can then be used on a circle both flat and raised, to help capture the bend. When created in an arc using three or four poles, this also allows for lengthening and shortening on the inner and outer segments of the poles.
From an anatomical view, polework not only helps with the horse’s confidence, coordination and focus, it is also crucial to teach the horse to correctly work across their back and promote development of the topline, with more flexion in the joints. Polework significantly works the core: Longissimus dorsi, Serratus ventralis thoracic/cervicis, Pectorals, Rectus abdominis, Pisiformis, Iliopsoas and Multifidus.
Poles raise the forehand and tone the thoracic sling. As they contract, they lift and lighten the thorax between the forelimbs and withers. As they strengthen, the horse may appear to ‘grow’ in height.
Conclusively, it is important to include polework activities in a horse’s daily routine. Thus, allowing the horse to return to basics, following the scales of training, by refining areas of rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, straightness and ultimately helping to build the musculature for collection.
Written by Emma Hamlet - Third year BSc (Hons) Equine Sports Therapy and Rehabilitation at Writtle College