Polework is a really useful addition to your horses exercise program. It can be used as part of your normal routine, when trying to make improvements to your horses movement or in a rehabilitation program following injury.
It has benefits in a variety of problems but physiotherapists commonly suggest polework, alongside other treatments, for horses with back problems. Used correctly, the pole exercises encourage the horse to move in a certain way so that movement is in a correct pattern with optimal posture. The physical benefits are improvements to core strength, topline, limb activity, spinal mobility, balance, straightness and proprioception (awareness of where feet and legs are). The exercises challenge and cause activity of each of these areas and with consistent work and time, improvements are seen. All of these benefits are very relevant in horses with back problems.
Polework will also add variety to the horses exercise and further his education. It can help to achieve many of the qualities we strive for in well developed, athletic horse.
Polework can be done with the horse lunging, long reining or ridden. For young horses, weak horses, those returning to work or have had back problems, it is best done initially without the weight of the rider on their back. These exercises can be surprisingly hard work, so unridden polework gives the horse time to learn to balance himself, establish a rhythm and level of strength before a rider is added. It is also easier for him to work better along his back without the added complication of a rider (who may be unbalanced!).
The options for exercises are endless! They are only limited by your imagination and available equipment. It is important to start off with exercises that your horse can do easily and then gradually progress. Don’t underestimate how difficult some horses will find even simple exercises, both physically and mentally. Many horses will struggle to trot correctly over a line of four poles! The focus when carrying out these exercises is not the speed its done at or the number of times you do it but the quality of movement. You should be working towards a consistent, balanced, relaxed rhythm. In trot, the horse should be active but look soft and supple through his back. The simple exercises done well can be just as effective as the more complicated ones.
Once the basics are being done well, it is a good idea to progress the exercises to further challenge horse and rider. This can be done by changing gait, raising poles off ground, including transitions within the exercise, increasing number of poles and complexity. Ensure the poles are set apart at an appropriate distance for your horse and the gait you are working in. When looking for ideas to change exercises, remember you can go over, between, across and around poles as well as forwards, backwards and sideways. They can be in straight lines as well as on a curve. You can set up different exercises around the school to add variety. Remember to give the horse regular rests within the session so that they don’t become sore, tired or bored. Especially when starting off, it is a good idea to do a little and then work on something else and then come back to the pole exercise.
Below are some examples to start with, showing different options for each set of poles. Start with all poles on the floor and progress to raising them on one side where appropriate and when horse is able. There are many more options depending on what you want to achieve and equipment you have. If you are stuck for ideas, YouTube and Google are good for inspiration! Just remember to consider the appropriateness of any exercise you are using- will your horse benefit from it or will it cause him to work incorrectly, does it help to achieve what you are working towards or could you use something better, is it too easy/difficult?
If polework is new to you or your horse, seek advice of an experienced professional before you start. If your horse is too sore to work correctly, these exercises will not work and may make him worse. In this situation, the cause of the pain needs to be appropriately addressed before these exercises will be of benefit.