Riding and Training success with Ground Poles.

Riding and Training success with Ground Poles.

A few months ago I posted one of my ground pole pattern configurations on the North American Western Dressage Association (NAWD) Facebook page soliciting comments and thoughts.  Here is the resulting article and information we put together and I wrote up for sharing. 

Recently, this diagram of ground poles (shown below) was posted for discussion on the NAWD open group and NAWD Professional group.  The question asked “How many different exercises, movements, or patterns can you think of with this configuration of ground poles.  Looking forward to hearing from TD, WD, WP, HUS and everyone else here.  Look forward to hearing your ideas.

In both the open and Professional groups, great ideas where shared among the horsemen/women.  Jen Collman, Cynthia Stotler Koscinch, Patrick King, Bethe Mounce, and Michael Guerini took part in this discussion.  These Professionals come from a variety of backgrounds with experience in Traditional Dressage, Vaquero horsemanship, young horse starting, Dressage/Hunter Jumper, Western Horsemanship, Western Pleasure, cowhorse/cutting/reining, and Natural Horsemanship Together we covered four important discussion points including: 1) how many ways we can work the horse with these ground poles, 2) the importance of pre-planning the ride, 3) the importance of walk work, and 4) footfalls. 

How many exercises can you do with these ground poles?


This list includes the following: Walk through it, Sidepass to turn on forehand, Sidepass to turn on haunches, Walk through and sidepass out, Sidepass in and back out, Trot over the poles, Back through it, Get your horse to roll one of the poles with his nose, Use outside of the L for pirouettes, inside of the L for turn on the forehand, come at them from a 45 degree angle (like this — >>) to help the young horse go over without feeling overwhelmed.

Some list we developed, and rather quickly.  We are certain there are even more things that people can do with these ground poles in this configuration.  The key point we would all like to share is that the rider is only limited by his/her imagination.  Work with your horse and turn this into a learning opportunity and a way to make sure your backing, walking, turn on forehand, turn on haunches and side passing works everywhere and at any time.

The Importance of Pre-Planning the Ride.

One of the things we all discussed was that something like this can help the rider start thinking and pre-planning the ride.  Many times people “warm-up” their horses with walk, trot, canter (until the horse is sweating) and then figure the warm up is complete.

By going beyond the traditional walk, trot and canter warm-ups, you begin to ride your horse and engage his/her mind.  You also begin to pre-plan what you are doing, how you are giving your aides, when to give your aides and how to help your horse.  As the rider — you are active and guiding and this leads to success.

Take for example a drive on the highway.  If you’re driving on the highway, you do not wait until the last min to whip over four lanes of traffic to take the right exit because if you do so you are setting yourself up for a possible accident.  Same thing with a horse…think ahead, be pro-active instead of reactive.  😉

The Importance of Walk Work.

Simply walking your horse through the different exercises we just mentioned above can help you in getting your horse to use the correct muscles.  We all agreed that 30 to 45 minutes of walk work and using as many of the horse’s muscles as possible can lead to a rather warmed up (even sweaty) horse because we are achieving suppleness.  Walk work reveals so much about riders’ knowledge and the preparation of the horse.  😉 When youngsters are struggling, a “session” of walk work brings success because the horse answers a simple question of whether he/she understands what you are asking at the slowest of speeds.  If you do not have success at the walk, it will not come at the trot or canter.

Once you have used the correct muscles at the walk, the horse is then warmed up and ready for trot work that helps develop the push needed for canter and the canter helps warm the back up because both sides of the back are being used at the same time.


Regulation of size and placement of the step/foot is so critical in training your horse and learning to ride and is integral to the classical methods of horsemanship.  There are three key points in the stride of a leg that we must acknowledge.  Foot in mid air, foot forward and touching the ground, and foot backward just at the point in which it lifts off the ground.  All three are important in understanding where your horse is and what aides are appropriate to use at that moment in time.

It has been said by many that the moment in time where the horse is just starting to lift the foot to bring it forward is when the aide must be applied, any later or any earlier and the response is not clean.

So just as a reminder — think of your horse at the walk, then at the trot and the canter.  How fast are the feet rotating through the footfalls?  Each progressive speed increase makes your timing even more critical — hence why we had a good discussion on walk work.  Get your aides and footfalls together at the walk and you will be doing a favor for your horse.  You need to develop your feel of the horse’s hooves WITHOUT looking down.  With lateral work (sidepass, turn on haunches etc) and the poles, horses tend to move more slowly and rider can almost count the footfalls at the walk. 

On the horse training aspect, a young horse who is finding his balance with rider on board during those first few rides can help both rider and horse know where the feet are by using these poles.  This is a simplest of exercise but needs the rider to be active and it keeps the horse from rubbernecking because the horse begins to look to the rider for guidance to navigate these poles.

All agrees that is you have control of the feet, you have control of the horse…not his mind necessarily, but placement of those feet are crucial to rider being an effective rider and not a passenger.  This can become as detailed as the rider chooses or as detailed as the rider knowledge.

This exercise and Training Scale

So let us take a few moments and see how what we have discussed so far fits within the Training Scale. 

In a layout such as this one proposed, the horse and rider need to develop a Rhythm that comes with energy and tempo resulting from an active rider pre-planning and guiding the horse.  As the rider guides the horse and uses many muscle groups to work over these ground poles, Relaxation with elasticity and suppleness can be achieved.  It is often said that the hands connect to the bit with the weight of a fly and the bit in turn connects to the spine which in turn connects to the feet and this Connection results in accepting the guidance through the bit and guidance of the aides — all of which rely on controlling the footfalls.  As you advance the horse and rider skill and continue these maneuvers at the walk and trot, Impulsion is essential to get that increased energy and trust of the horse to the rider because the rider has established the placement and proper timing of aides through feel of the footfalls.  Straightness is on demand and display with the simple walk through or haunch turn or side pass because without straightness there is a lack of balance of horse and rider.  To work over ground poles and not stumble or fall over them requires a lightness of the front end that comes from engagement of the rear as presented in Collection.  Although we just went through the Training Scale list one at a time, the use of ground poles for exercises, with focus on walk work, pre-planning and footfalls can better help you as the team of horse and rider work within the principles of the Training Scale.

Dr. Mike Guerini is a clinician, author of multiple Horsemanship books, co-inventor of the Equine Hydro-T and specializes in western performance based instruction and you can learn more about Dr. Mike and his 6 C’s of Horsemanship at www.dunmovinranch.com. Dun Movin Ranch is also home to the Equine Hydro-T (www.hydrot.com).


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