I always told my riders “A jump course is 5% jumps and 95% everything else”. The size of the jump doesn’t matter if you ride all jumps as if they were big jumps.
Ground pole exercises are the perfect way to practice without putting a physical toll on your horse. Ground pole exercises teach your horse proper balance and technique and create an opportunity for you to work on being quiet in the saddle and to “feel” your horse when you apply aids. This results in understanding how to be consistent with your aids and the horse are willing to respond to you, creating a team in perfect sync.
The basic riding fundamentals of any successful hunter or jumper trip are Balance, Straightness, Rhythm, and Impulsion. Doing ground pole exercises with this in mind will prepare you for winning in the show ring. Focusing on these fundamentals you will be able to master the different components of a course through extensive repetition of individual parts without putting a physical strain on your horse. Once you have mastered the individual components you can put them all together for a winning round. Plus, it is much more interesting than riding on the rail for 30 minutes.
Nina Gill Photo / Fancy Footwork Poles and Grids
What do the fundamentals mean? To create a balanced horse the horse must be straight from head to tail, but straightness isn’t for just the horse, it also applies to the rider. The rider must be square and balanced in the saddle to create a straight and balanced horse. The rider must keep the rhythm and hold it in their head.
If you struggle, try counting your horse's hoofbeats 1-2-1-2-1-2, and if you hear yourself slowing down, speed up and vice versa. Impulsion is the hardest for many riders to understand. It is the quality of the forward movement, not the speed. You can go slowly with great impulsion or fast with little impulsion. When a horse has proper impulsion, it is easy to keep a horse straight, balanced, and “in front of your leg”. This means when you apply your leg your horse moves forward easily because your horse is balanced to his hind end. A horse cannot move forward easily if its weight is on its front end. It is also hard for a horse to jump with a lack of impulsion.
Remembering the fundamentals while staying focused and being a balanced rider is important for these exercises to be successful. Some of the exercises may seem easy but they are harder than they look. The goal is to ride each exercise to perfection. Make sure circles are perfectly round and if repeating a circle, it is the same size each time. Your horse’s body should follow the curve of the circle. Make sure you are riding over the center of the pole. Ride each exercise fully from start to finish. Always have a complete plan. Many riders tend to stop riding after the jump.
The exercises are great for beginners as well as experienced riders to practice the basics of riding.
- For beginner riders or horses new to jumping: Trot the pole exercises
- To practice components of a course, canter the exercises
- The jump gymnastics are excellent for starting beginner riders or horses over fences
- The jump gymnastics with added elements are for more advanced riders to sharpen their skills.
4 Best Ground Pole Exercises
1. Serpentine Through Ground Poles
How to set up: Set up six ground poles in a line spaced 9ft apart in the center of the ring. Adjust according to your horse’s stride. May need to adjust for the canter. Either ride as a bounce or can separate for one stride between each pole.
Objective: Ride a pattern through poles. Ride a perfect circle, ride a serpentine with equal through the center of the pole "chute" and ride a straight line down over the center of the poles. Keep the same rhythm the entire ride. Finish with a halt.
How to Ride: Beginner riders trot and more experienced riders canter.
- Start by trotting through the chute of the first and second poles. Be sure you are in the center of the space between the poles and your horse is straight.
- Turn toward the end of the ring and ride a large circle that ends between the center of the chute created by the first and second poles. Make sure your horse bends with the circle and doesn’t cut in or bulge out.
- Then start a serpentine pattern by turning the opposite way of the circle you just rode and ride through the "chute" created by the third and fourth poles. Make sure your loop has a perfect half circle at the end and your horse is bending with the loop as you turn. The horse should also be straight through the chute of the poles.
2. Circle of Ground Poles
(or as we call it the “Circle of DEATH”)
Objective: Ride a perfect circle over the center of the poles. Be sure to only do a few circles at a time and go in both directions. Keep stride equal between poles at trot or canter.
How to set up: Use a lunge line to create a perfect circle in your ring. Have someone stand in the center while you mark a circle around them holding the other end of the line. Place the center of two poles centered on opposite sides of the circle. Then place two more poles centered on opposite sides of the circle creating 4 equal quadrants (Figure A).
If 4 poles are too difficult to start with try adding the second set of poles when you have mastered 2 poles. If you need a challenge create a figure 8 by adding a second circle (Figure B)
How to ride: Beginner riders trot and more experienced riders canter.
- Trot or canter a perfect circle. Make sure to go over the center of the poles each time.
- Count the strides between each pole keeping them equal in each quadrant. Keep the same rhythm and make sure your horse is bending with the circle and not cutting in or bulging out.
- Ride the circle both ways. Most horses will find one way more difficult than the other. If your horse is stiff this will be more difficult at the start.
- If riding figure 8 plan a flying change over the shared pole keeping the strides between the quadrants of both circles the same.
This exercise seems easy but is far more difficult than it looks. It takes a lot of coordination of aids. Using your inside leg when the horse falls in or cuts the circle and your outside leg with the horse bulges. Keeping a soft elbow, maintaining contact to guide your horse around the circle.
Be sure to keep your eyes up and looking through to the next pole and feel where your horse is cutting in and bulging out. Check to make sure your horse’s body is bending with the circle. Their head should be turned slightly to the inside of the circle with their weight balanced to your outside rein.
Only do a few circles at a time taking breaks to do something else between circles. The goal is over time your horse will become equally comfortable bending in both directions. The benefits of the exercise are it teaches riders how to ride a perfect circle. This is important because every turn on a course is part of a circle. Creating a smooth and accurate turn when riding a course is key to jumping a course well. Keeping the same number of strides between poles teaches riders how to hold the rhythm and balance their horse.
3. Ground Poles using Different Stride Lengths
How to set up: Set two poles about 45-50 feet apart just inside the rail on the long side. Set two more poles at an angle next to the poles that are just inside the rail. Set these poles a few feet farther apart than the first set of poles.
Objective: Keeping the same rhythm, learn to lengthen the stride to achieve fewer strides between the poles and shorten the stride to achieve more strides between the poles.
- After exiting the chute turn the opposite way and create another loop of equal size to the last loop. Then ride straight through the shoot created by the fifth and sixth pole.
- After exiting the last shoot continue the serpentine pattern by creating a third loop.
- Then turn back and ride straight down the center of the poles. Your horse should have one trot step between each pole or be a bounce if at the canter.
- End by halting straight.
- Repeat and ride in the opposite direction or create your pattern through the poles.
The benefits of this exercise are that they aid in visualization, planning, and memorization. The horse will be looking for clear direction as to where to go next and you will need to be quick and clear with your aids. You will learn to think ahead about the next steps while riding the current step correctly. It is also the beginning of remembering a course for beginner riders.
For more experienced riders, you may try it at a canter. Practice making simple changes through the halt, walk, or trot as you go through the shoot of poles in the serpentine. This helps the rider practice the sequence of aids needed for flying changes and teaches getting a horse straight before asking for the change of lead. Being sure to focus on perfect circles because every turn on a course is part of a circle and feeling and correcting your horse when it cuts in or bulges out will help develop accurate turns.
How to ride: Beginner riders trot and more experienced riders canter.
- Start with a medium trot or canter and go over the center of the two poles on the long side. Focus on keeping the same rhythm and stride length. Count the number of strides between each pole.
- Turn and ride over the center of the first pole on the diagonal.
- Rollback and take a shorter approach at a more collected trot or canter and ride the two poles on the outside again from the other direction. This time add a stride between the poles.
- Turn and ride over the center of the other pole on the diagonal.
- Turn back to the outside poles and take the long approach and do the same number of strides you did the first time.
You can repeat the process over and over changing the number of strides between the poles riding at a medium canter or trot, then lengthen and shorten the stride to see how many you do between the poles. Ensure you maintain the same rhythm while keeping it smooth and relaxed. Don’t speed up and get faster or lack energy in the canter.
The Benefit: This teaches the rider to feel the length of the horse’s stride and to plan to achieve the correct stride length before the next jump and between jumps. Also great for riders who are beginning to jump lines to learn to count their strides between jumps. I suggest counting out load your strides. Remember not to start counting until all four feet have jumped the pole.
4. Basic Gymnastic: Trot pole grid followed by a cross rail.
How to set up: Place 3-4 ground poles spaced at about 4’6” or for your horse’s stride length. Then place a cross rail with a ground line double the distance after the last ground pole of the trot grid. Make sure the cross rails are not touching each other and have about a 4-6” gap. The center of the cross rail should be about 9”-12” high.
Objective: Ride straight through the center of the gymnastic landing and riding away at a canter on a straight line with a relaxed balanced horse on a consistent rhythm.
How to ride:
- Have a plan for before and after the jump gymnastic. You can ride several variations after the gymnastic.
- Ride straight to the end of the ring and halt
- Ride straight to the end of the ring turning and riding a closing hunter circle with a downward transition to a trot and repeat the gymnastic
- Land and canter a circle the direction of the lead you landed then change leads and add a closing hunter circle with a downward transition to the trot and repeat exercise.
- Land and do a change of lead and circle in the direction of the new lead and then change leads and do a closing hunter circle with a downward transition into the trot.
- Establish a trot rhythm before turning to approach the gymnastic. Keep your eyes up and find a focal point at the end of the ring. Before trotting the poles establish a strong 2 point position with hands holding mane about a third to halfway up the neck. Your weight should be in your heels and your lower leg should be securely against the sides of your horse.
- Just before going over the first trot pole soften your elbows to allow your arms to follow your horse. Ride up the center of the trot poles focusing on keeping your eyes up looking straight ahead and your weight in your heels.
- Push on your horse’s neck as your horse jumps the cross rail in a crest release. Ride away at a medium canter. Your horse should be relaxed and comfortable, if your horse is nervous or excited, transition into a trot a few strides after the jump and circle. Repeat the exercise until your horse is relaxed and comfortable completing the gymnastic.
- More advanced riders or once you master the trot grid and cross rail, you can add additional jumps after the cross rail. Focusing on a relaxed, balanced, straight horse on a consistent rhythm when adding another cross rail. The cross rail distance should be about 12’ or to your horse's stride length creating a bounce after the first cross rail.
- As you continue to master the gymnastic, you can then add several variations of bounce jumps, 1 stride, 2 strides, or additional ground poles or you can add complexity to the original combination by riding without stirrups (be sure that you are an experienced rider with a strong leg and secure balance before moving to this step and you are not riding a green horse when attempting this variation). Be creative.
Benefits: Ideal for starting riders or green horses over fences or for more experienced riders to work on a jumping technique such as quieting their upper body or fix a swinging lower leg.
Having a set take off point created by the trot grid develops consistency in the rider’s position and in the horses jumping form. The horse learns how to prepare for a jump and to get balanced. Using a cross rail over a small vertical, helps both horse and rider to stay in the center of the jump. The best way to have control is to make a plan for before and after a jump.
Having a set take-off point created by the trot grid develops consistency in the rider’s position and the horses jumping form. The horse learns how to prepare for a jump and to get balanced. Using a cross rail over a small vertical, helps both horse and rider to stay in the center of the jump. The best way to have control is to make a plan for before and after a jump. When jumping a course of jumps you need to be in control for each jump and not just the first jump. Often riders focus so much on the jump they forget to ride after the jump making it difficult to jump a course of jumps. The jump is only 5% of what you are trying to accomplish and most of your jumping course is flat so it makes sense to work on the flat before and after a jump exercise.
When adding a second cross rail or small vertical be sure to focus on doing as little as possible with your upper body. Be sure to give a release with your arms following your horse’s mouth. Let your horse jump up to you and let them figure out what they need to do to jump the obstacles. This is a great exercise to solve rider problems such as jumping ahead or ducking at jumps because it teaches you stillness and how to follow your horse letting them lead.
Be creative and add to any of the exercises as you develop your skill level. The repetition and consistency will improve your skills and riding in the ring will be more exciting as you give yourself more and more challenges. Get a riding partner or friend to help you set up the exercises. The great thing is that you can ride the exercises at any level and learn something.
Ride with someone more experienced watching how they handle the exercise or help someone that has less experience than yourself, either way, it will benefit you and your horse. Be sure to “feel” what your horse is doing underneath you and to ride each exercise with a plan and to perfection. The more you put into it the more you will get out of it! Good luck and have fun!
About the Author: Emily van de Merwe works in the e-commerce department at The Farm House. She had a successful Junior career working with some of the top trainers in the industry such as Michael Newman and Laurie Storey. Locally she worked for Jeannie Smith at Clear View Farm running her school horse program and coaching the Clear View Farm IEA team. She recently returned to Amateur status when her daughter decided to pursue a competitive Figure Skating career. She now spends her time at the ice rink instead of the barn!
Photo Courtesy of Nicole Tilton. Beca Tilton, UK Grand Prix Dressage rider. Taking part in a Nicole Tilton Pole Work clinic at Lower Haddon Livery.
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