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With winter well and truly here, having horses in the dark, cold and rain can be hard work and make you question your sanity on some days. If you’re lucky enough to get to see your horses during daylight hours it might not seem quite so bad, but if like me, you only see your horse in daylight at the weekends, it can be hard going.

Sometimes in winter it’s just about survival from day to day and that’s fine, but if you want to try and make it through with some motivation and sanity intact, it’s good to try and have things to look forward to and a plan. Especially with the ongoing lockdown(s)!

My winter routine with Rock has no specific days off per week, but he will always get two. I try to plan our schedule around the weather rather than particular days, so we maximize day light and we don’t get soaked too often. Each week, in no particular order, we’ll do 1 lunge session; this could be completely on the flat or over poles or even include a jump. We’ll also do 1 ridden flat work session, jump once, do 1 ridden pole session and a good long hack at least 1 day at the weekend (but ideally both, weather permitting). If we do manage to hack both days at the weekend, I would generally ditch the lunge session and do 3 ridden sessions during the week; flat, poles and jump. But I’m not particularly hung up on sticking to 5 days of work a week and if the weather is awful and we can only manage 3 or 4 then that’s fine.

Poles make flatwork tolerable for Rock; he’s generally not a fan of pure flatwork and poles are such a great, easy way to vary the workload. You can do flat poles, raised poles (raise between 10cm and 30cm), alternately raised poles, in walk, trot and canter. They can be done in hand, on the lunge, with long reins or ridden. You don’t even need to go over the poles, you could go through them to check for and work on straightness.

Regular pole work will help to improve coordination, control, suppleness, flexibility, rhythm, balance, build muscle, increase limbs and joint motion, increase stride length and improve core strength and stability. Pole work can also help horses who rush keep their concentration and build accountability for their own feet.

Pole work in walk is massively underrated; as there’s no moment of suspension, all the effort to lift their feet over the poles has to come from the muscles.

I personally like pole work that gives you variety of options within the one setup, so you can lay them out and then ride them several different ways. This is particularly helpful as I generally ride during the week on my own and don’t want to have to get on and off to change the setup constantly.

Our go-to pole guide...

These are the pole exercises that I find easiest to set out, can generally be ridden a variety of ways and are “fun”... plus they appeal to Rock’s sense of humour for 3 days a week in the arena during winter.

For reference, I have size 5 feet and the strides I use are; 3 or 3.5 heel to toe steps for walk, 5 heel to toe steps for trot, and 11 heel to toe steps (or 3 generous strides) for canter.

3 trot poles, 4 trot strides, 3 trot poles

This one is the most difficult to set up as it has the most poles and requires the most striding out. It is really useful to help you keep your rhythm consistent so you meet the second set of poles correctly. You can also ride a figure of eight just by going over 1 set of poles. This can also be set up with 3 canter poles, 4 canter strides then another set of 3 canter poles (which is much harder than it seems, so you might want to extend the middle distance with no poles to 5 or 6 strides).

The square

Love it! Incredibly easy to set up and you only need 4 poles. Win! You’ll be able to walk, trot and canter through. Walk, trot and canter across the diagonal. Ride a circle either across the poles or over the corners; again this can be ridden in each pace just by increasing or decreasing the angle you ride each corner at. You can raise the corners too to make it more interesting and ask for more limb and joint motion.

The fan

Again, you don’t need many poles for this – 3 or 4 is ideal. If strided well, you can walk the narrow end, trot the middle and canter the wider section. This really helps to work on rhythm, accuracy and bend. In canter, it’s also really useful to help promote ‘push’ from the hind end. The outer ends of the poles can be raised too. I like this on the lunge as well, so you can really seem them moving.


You only need 4 poles. Set 2 at a generous horse-width apart, then the other 2 the same, in a straight line several strides away (ideally 5 or 6 canter strides). Have them placed in off the track or fence so you don’t use it for balance to keep you straight. You can walk, trot and canter through them in a straight line and this will really test your straightness – it’s so much harder than it looks! Once you’re consistently straight then you can vary your stride length to start opening up or shortening the strides between each set of poles.

And last but not least – a classic!

Walk or trot poles, flat or alternately raised

The more poles the better for this one really, but again if you only have 3 or 4 you can still make use of it. For alternately raised poles, raise the end of one pole, then the opposite end of the next, and so on.

Since I’m always up against time and generally set out the poles and put them away again in the same session, these are the ones that I find manageable. However... there are so many fantastic poles exercises available and if you have enough space, poles and time, you can be really creative.

Caroline and her over-height grey Connemara, Rock, compete in most unaffiliated disciplines and are working their way up to tackling a BE event. You can keep up to date with all their adventures by following them on Facebook or Instagram @grey_connieadventures.

Caroline Ramsay
Horsemart Content Contributor
Published on 03-12-2020
Caroline is a horse owner and rider based in bonnie Scotland where she juggles how to keep a native fit while working full time in IT and renovating a never-ending project house with her other half and 2 cats. Caroline holds an Equine Nutrition Award by The University of Edinburgh which covered feed composition and how this affects digestibility, nutrient sources, dietary management, general nutrient requirements of horses and ponies, body condition score and clinical nutrition. Caroline has experience with older horses as her first pony lived to the grand old age of 28, competing until he was 26, and is also sadly very familiar with broken horses as unfortunately, his replacement was extremely accident prone. Caroline set up her Instagram account to document the honest highs and lows of starting a young reluctant horse and chart their journey together.