In this excerpt from her book Pole Work for Dressage Riders, Ann Katrin Querbach explains why using groundpoles on circles and other bending lines is beneficial and provides two introductory exercises to try with your horse.
For the rider, pole exercises on bending lines are more difficult, since there’s a constant need to guide the horse. However, from the horse’s perspective, these exercises can be a bit easier than work on straight lines. When he’s in a bend, it’s easier for his muscle groups to correctly contract and release over a long period of time.
As you complete these exercises, make sure to weight your inside seat bone and drive the horse from your inside leg to your outside rein. Your outside leg holds and frames the horse. Your inside rein positions the horse, always softly giving and taking.
If your horse falls in and the circle is smaller than you’d like, you now know that his muscling on this side is insufficient to lift his shoulder correctly. This means his chest is twisting; a crooked poll can also indicate this.
Support your horse with clear driving aids from your inside leg and use specific exercises to strengthen the muscles that are lacking.
You might also find that your horse wants to trot straight ahead and struggles to maintain the bending line. Or maybe he keeps making the circle bigger. In this case, by the end of the bending line, you’re no longer crossing over the middle of the poles but finding yourself along the outside. This means your horse is finding it difficult to contract his muscles on the inside and stretch those along the outside. Use your outside rein to limit the horse. Often, the rider is not using the outside rein correctly.
Reminder 1: Take a break and then make sure to repeat the exercises in the second direction.
Reminder 2: Always measure your distances at the middle of the poles.
Try This Exercise: The Quartet
Before you begin practicing pole workouts that include bending lines, you need to start with the basics. Place four poles evenly spaced on a circle along the second arena track.
You can also use cavalletti. For this exercise, you’d want to use the lowest setting.
Ride on a circle at the trot. Establish the right working tempo. Use a half-halt to prepare your horse. Ride over a pole, framing him with your aids in the way he’s familiar with. The goal of this exercise is not necessarily to provide a workout that improves your horse’s muscles; instead, it’s a way of getting him familiar with pole work on bending lines. The rider is also learning how to frame the horse correctly, space the poles correctly, and correct the horse without causing stress should problems arise.
Solutions to Common Problems
“My horse falls to the inside and the circle keeps getting smaller.”
- Ride the exercise like a square. Your horse is demonstrating his crookedness.
- Make sure you’re sitting on your inside seat bone and not turning too much to the inside. Seat errors can cause this problem, too. Make sure there’s a give and take with your inside rein, and you’re not just “hanging on it.”
“My horse falls out and the circle keeps getting larger.”
- Here, too, crookedness is the most likely culprit, whether the asymmetry originates with horse or rider. Ensure your basic steering aids are working well. Make sure to limit your horse with a quiet, steady outside rein.
Try This Next: A Circle with Eight
Now we’ll try this exercise with four more poles. Place the poles as shown in the diagram. You can decide between a longer distance (2 to 4 strides) or a smaller distance, depending on how large a circle you plan to ride. The bigger the circle, the easier it is for the horse.
Ride on an even circle at the trot. You can choose to post the trot here. Frame your horse with your aids and then don’t bother him over the poles. Use your aids to steer when you’re between the poles, not when you’re riding over them. Use half-halts to keep your horse positioned and “on the aids”—always keep the goal of positive tension in mind. Make sure you maintain a straight line from your elbow, through your hand, to the horse’s mouth; this is what will allow you to execute your rein aids with refinement.
Solutions to Common Problems
“My horse constantly hits a pole.”
- Pay attention to which leg goes over the poles first. Repeat the exercise until he does it without hitting a pole and then praise him extensively, including the opportunity to stand and rest.
“The exercise works well in one direction, but not the other.”
- Your horse’s muscles have developed very differently on each side of his body. Repeat corrective exercises more frequently in his “bad direction.” Do this over several training sessions. If you find this doesn’t improve the situation, ask your horse’s veterinarian or physical therapist for advice, and consult your own human bodyworker as well. It could be that either you or your horse have a physiological block.