The Power of Poles

Improve your dressage and your jumping with athleticism and coordination developed over poles. 

The world-famous Cadre Noir of Saumur, France, always has jumps and poles in the dressage training area. When horses become a little jaded, or need to be refreshed, or even just taught another way, the jumps and poles are always available.

Scattered poles improve the horse’s spatial awareness, decision-making skills, and independence.

Exercises in Walk

When a horse walks over a pole on the ground he normally looks down at it and stretches his neck. This is a good reaction and should be encouraged. In this shape, when the horse lifts his front legs, he is loose and free of resistance in his shoulders. As you whisper to him with leg aids that say, “Keep doing what you are doing,” the horse lifts his hind legs and possibly his back, without resistance. Now the pole has produced a horse in the correct shape and listening to your quiet aid. This is a super beginning to all work and a precursor to good jumping later on when more information can be layered on.

Try the following:

  • Once the horse is quietly walking over a pole, start to aim for a specific point on the pole—a color, a mark, or something else that is measurable. Now we have increased the information we have given to the horse—the need to ride to a line or marker.
  • Add in a turn before the pole. The leg aids are now being used more independently with an offering rein added for direction. More accuracy is needed from you, while the horse is required to be more aware of his inside hind leg.
  • Add a change of direction. As the horse crosses the pole, you should change your leg aids to ask for a change of rein. You must coordinate your aids, while the horse must understand and coordinate his body to comply with the request. Now the horse’s other hind leg becomes more active as it becomes the new inside leg.

Other ways to use walk poles:

Walk Grid Poles 

Create a walk grid by scattering poles close together, but still with no set distance between them and no shape to their layout. Walk the horse through the grid and ask yourself to feel how you look, plan, and find your way through (fig. 1 A). This can also be done in trot (fig. 1 B). This simple exercise is really helpful for improving the horse’s spatial awareness, decision-making skills, and independence.

Fig. 1A
Fig 1B
A & B. By placing poles randomly on the ground, the horse has to focus on his footwork (A). The same exercise can be done in trot, but now the horse must make decisions more quickly (B)

Parallel Poles

I tend to use flat poles or laths for this exercise to avoid the horse standing on something round.

Set up two parallel poles about 3 feet (1m) apart and walk between them Then narrow the gap to 2 feet 6 inches (80cm). The horse should begin to look at the line ahead of him and buy in to what is being asked. He is listening to the aids, which are asking him to stay between the poles. His understanding is continually improving and he is developing trust in what you are asking.

Boundary Poles

Use two parallel poles facing the fence, which acts as a boundary—somewhere for you to aim at. You will need to coordinate your aids to make sure you get a response between the poles. The horse sees why he has to listen because he knows that something will happen at this point.

This exercise helps the horse’s speed of reaction, his understanding of the aids, and his interest. He is buying in. It also helps you speed up your coordination and understanding of your aids.

Halting Over a Pole

Asking for halt over a pole has many benefits. The timing and coordination of your aid are tested. So, too, is the horse’s understanding of the aid that is being applied and his belief that you really mean it.

As the horse walks over the pole, you should only ask for halt one in every three or so times. This means the horse will keep thinking forward and continue to bring the hind legs under himself. As you think halt and apply the aid, the horse is still thinking walk, so the hind legs are more likely to come in square. Another good link in the horse’s mind has been made—your legs influencing the horse’s hind legs.

The horse needs to be allowed to assess the poles and work out where to place his feet. 

For the rest of The Power of Poles, check out our August Issue. This excerpt provided by Two Brains, One Aim by Eric Smiley. Learn more about connecting with your horse and Eric’s methods from

ERIC SMILEY is a former international event rider who represented Ireland at European, World, and Olympic level, winning team bronze medals on two occasions. Smiley began his equestrian career in the Pony Club and continued it in the army and then the world-renowned Talland Equestrian Center, during which time he gained his British Horse Society Instructor’s certificate. In 1995 Smiley passed his British Horse Society Fellowship exam, the highest teaching qualification in the industry. He was Team Coach to the Belgian Eventing team for the 2011 European Eventing Championships and 2012 London Olympics and is an FEI judge who regularly acts as a Ground Jury member. Smiley is the author of the cross-country bible Look… No Hands! and travels the globe helping professional and amateur riders achieve their goals. He teaches regularly in the Pacific Northwest. 

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