Today was Barry's first day back "jumping" since Badminton. I use quotation marks because it was over poles on the ground, which isn't nearly as exciting as the 5* fences we last jumped. However, it broke up the monotony of the hacking, jogging, and flat work we had done since he returned to work after a much-deserved holiday. Taking time to go back to basics over poles is a great way to build strength and confidence and have fun while you're at it.
I wholeheartedly believe that riding over poles should be incorporated into every horse and rider's training plan, no matter their current level. The benefits are high, and the stakes are low, so I say bring it on! Here are some reasons I encourage you to add pole work into your routine.
Develop your eye in a low-stress and safe way. Let's be honest, we all fear "missing" at a fence. No one purposely wants to get to a jump on a half stride. In fact, I'm willing to bet that a lot of misses result from being so afraid to do so that we stop riding, which turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy leading to...you guessed it, a miss. Am I right? Luckily, poles can be a part of the solution. Spread a few single poles around the arena (no particular pattern necessary), pick up a canter, and make your way around them. If you miss, no big deal. Learn from your mistake and try something different at the next one. I encourage my students to have one day of unsupervised (meaning not in a lesson) pole work each week because sometimes you need the space to figure it out on your own. Ground poles are relatively safe in the grand scheme of things, so it's the perfect way to gain confidence in your ability to see a distance.
Understand your horse's stride. Not all strides are created equal! So, it's essential to know what your horse's average, compressed, and open stride feels like and how to get the length you want. The best way to practice this is to put two poles in a straight line with roughly 5-6 strides between them. You don't need an exact distance between the two; just eyeball it. Then canter through them at your "normal" pace, count how many strides you get, and that number becomes your baseline. Once you have that come again, but this time add one stride by compressing your horse (from leg to hand). If that goes well, try taking out a stride by creating a longer step (not faster). After that, play around purposely switching between your regular, add, and open ride. With practice, you will become a master at stride control!
Create adjustability to, over, and away from poles (translates over fences). Use the exercise listed above in 2. notice how long it takes to set up for the normal, add, or open stride you want. Do you have to yank on your horse's face for half of the arena to get the adding ride to the poles? Or do you have to kick and flap down the line to get the open ride? If so, take a moment away from the poles to school transitions. Ensure that your horse is responsive to your half halts (using all of your aids, not just the hand) and is in front of your leg (use a stick behind the leg if necessary). Once their answer is an obedient yes to both the upward and downward transitions, go back to the poles. Also, be aware of changes to and away from the poles. Does your horse drop back in the turn? Or speed up on approach or landing? If so, again, transitions are your friend. If your horse is rushing, try making them trot in and then canter out or canter in and trot out. If you take the time to address the issue over poles, you will have a much better chance of having an adjustable horse around a jump course.
Develop suppleness and straightness between poles (and therefore jumps). Similar to the point above, it's all about noticing what's happening underneath you. Does your horse get tight in its body through the turns? If so, move them off your leg with almost a bit of leg yield before you make the turn. If you don't get the response you hoped for, put them on a circle in that turn until they bend around your leg and move into your outside rein. Or does your horse wiggle down the lines and get noodle-y in the corners? If that's the case, focus on riding both sides of your horse and channeling their energy into the shape you want. It helps me to picture my horse's body matching whatever line I'm riding. So, if I'm going straight, their body needs to do the same, and if I'm turning, their body needs to bend to match the angle. Being clear on body alignment over poles will serve you well over fences.
Improves jumping fitness with minimal wear and tear. Raise your hand if you would love to jump every day? I personally have both hands up, but this just isn't a reality if we want our horses to last. Horses in my program jump 1-2 times each week depending on their needs but could potentially do pole work every day if necessary. Going over poles is much less impact than jumping something of size but still works similar muscles. So by doing more pole work, you can build jumping fitness without the wear and tear. While I was prepping Barry for Badminton on our slow canter days (doing sets of 5-minute canters), I would lay several poles out to pop over randomly throughout the time. I genuinely believe this increased his fitness, leading to plenty of horse left after a challenging 5* track.
In case you haven't figured it out yet, I love poles! After reading this and making it a part of your regularly scheduled program, I hope you will too. Get creative, learn from mistakes, reap all the above benefits, and don't forget to enjoy the ride!