One of my favorite exercises that we use frequently in the Skidmore College riding program is cantering over ground poles. This is a great way to work on course-riding skills without wearing out your horse’s legs. It removes the stress and anxiety about “the jump” and teaches you to focus on what really matters: the ride between the fences and through the corners of the ring. By understanding these fundamentals and consistently executing them properly, you will set yourself up for competition success. This is particularly critical in intercollegiate competitions, where riders have so little time to get to know their mounts before going into the ring.
Ground poles teach both horses and riders how to relax and feel confident on course. Students come to our program from around the country (as well as internationally) with a variety of backgrounds and anxiety levels. Over ground poles, they learn to control the horse’s straightness, balance and rhythm while maintaining correct position. With these skills, they can tackle courses with a more relaxed, “no big deal” attitude, even on strange horses. Ground poles also allow horses to chill out and tune in to their riders’ aids.
Exercises over ground poles are also an excellent refresher for students returning to school after a summer of not riding as much or riding in programs with a different focus. They help to fix bad habits—for example, slowing down an upper body that closes too dramatically over the fences—and reinforce good ones. Working over ground poles reminds riders to use the ends of the ring and stay in balance on the turns. It also helps them feel what is happening on course and react to their horses instinctively, so they can recover from little mistakes before they turn into disasters.
Later in the season, we use ground poles to refine skills even further and zero in on problems. For example, they teach riders to utilize the opening circle on a course for creating the correct canter and track to that elusive first jump.
Setting up a course of ground poles is much easier and more convenient than building a course of jumps. But riding over ground poles is not easy. When we jump, we can make a lot of mistakes and our horses usually still save us by going over the fences. But when we make mistakes over ground poles, our horses rarely help us out. They chip, break to trot, trip on the rails and so on. That’s the magic of ground poles: They magnify riders’ mistakes—so it’s easier to identify what needs improvement.
In this article, I’ll share some of my favorite ground-pole exercises. Remember as you set them up and canter through them, the goal is to reinforce good habits, not to catch your horse with tricks or surprises. Place all of the poles in locations that allow plenty of space for the approaches—so no tight jumper turns. Make distances between them long enough to avoid difficult striding questions—so no in-and-outs—and to enable your horse to add strides easily, when necessary. For the purpose of these exercises, make flying changes only in the corners, never over the poles.
We do these exercises with only well-broke, educated horses and with riders who are jumping at least 2 feet high. Keep in mind, the purpose is to create a confident rider to the jump. You cannot achieve this on a green or unruly horse. I also recommend practicing them with an instructor or ground person to give feedback on your position and canter quality.
Position and Track
From the beginning of every exercise, strive for the perfect position. Whenever in doubt, refer to the “bible” on this subject, George Morris’ Hunter Seat Equitation. Here are a few other tips to keep in mind:
• Adjust your stirrups for riding on the flat so when you take your feet out of the stirrups and hang your legs down, the irons hit just above your anklebones. Then place the stirrups on the balls of your feet.
• Stretch your lower legs down and around your horse’s sides. Always think “long legs,” enveloping your horse’s sides.
• Stay connected to the horse and saddle with your lower legs and thighs at all times, even on hotter horses.
• For these exercises, sit down on your seat bones in the center of the saddle as you would for an equitation flat class, rather than in the half-seat you’d use for jumping. Still, think of your seat supporting your leg, not the other way around. Different horses require different amounts of seat, but they all jump much better if you ride more off your leg than your seat.
• Balance your upper body with the horse’s motion, not in front or behind. It should be at the vertical or slightly ahead of it. If your hip angle is too closed, you will feel as if you’re falling forward. If your upper body is behind the vertical, you’re probably taking your leg off your horse and pumping too much with your seat. Ask yourself, “Do I feel off balance and vulnerable? Or do I feel secure?” Your ground person can help you identify the latter, correct position.
• Adjust your rein length short enough to bring your elbows in front of your body, but not so short that they are straight and stiff. The most common rein mistake I see is too-long reins, which often turn into rough reins.
• Wrap your fingers around the reins and try to maintain a connection with your horse’s mouth at all times.
From this solid position, you can apply appropriate aids to keep your horse’s body straight with his hind legs working underneath his body and on your chosen track, never falling in or out on the turns. Place your inside leg at the girth with the stirrup leather perpendicular to the ground, asking him to be supple in his body and curve it around that leg. Keep your outside leg slightly behind the girth to keep his hind end from drifting out. Always think of riding all four “corners” of your horse (his right and left hind and front quarters) with both reins and legs. Use your eyes correctly, always looking where you intend to go. To work on this, practice riding to specific points around the arena.
When your horse’s body is in proper balance, he can produce his best canter. Ideally, it should feel as if he has plenty of engine and yet is still polite. He should carry himself and not lean on your hands or try to run away with you. His canter should be smooth, consistent, rhythmical and easy to adjust. This is the canter that will get you to the jump with options—able to add or leave out a stride without risking a chip or awkward launch over the fence. Most mistakes occur because riders either don’t find this canter at the beginning of the round or lose it midway and fail to recover it. A consistent, balanced canter is essential to producing a good round.
One good tool for finding the ideal canter is counting in time with your horse’s strides. You can do this out loud during a lesson or to yourself in the show ring. This helps you to create a steady rhythm and pace so you can maintain the correct canter for the course that you are jumping. My students find it easier to keep the numbers low when they count: “One, two, three, four, one, two, ... .” If you have to pause to make adjustments and re-organize, start up the count again as soon as you can.
Learning to recognize the feel of a great canter takes a lot of practice. It is easier to do with some horses than others, and it can feel quite different from horse to horse. Some are more athletic than others. Some have bouncy canters while others are extremely comfortable. Fortunately, a horse does not have to be a great mover to have a great canter. He just has to be able to turn on his motor, balance his body and respond politely to your aids.
Once you find the best canter you can produce with your horse, try to create it every time you pick up the canter, whether you’re at home or in the show ring.
Throughout all of the following exercises, focus on your position, track and canter quality at all times. If anything goes not according to plan, fix the problem as soon as possible, then return your attention to these three essential factors.
Prior to working over poles, warm up on the flat just as you would to prepare your horse for jumping. Then walk and trot over a single ground pole several times before moving on to the canter so your horse is absolutely comfortable with the idea. Give him—and yourself—every chance possible to succeed.
Exercise 1: One Thing (And Pole) at a Time
My first exercise is very simple: two single poles placed on opposite long sides of the arena, several feet off the rail and about 100 feet from the corners.
Always start with an opening circle, creating that balanced, organized, solid canter with a medium-length stride. (If you have too much canter, your horse might be tempted to jump the pole.) Canter at least one circle. If the canter still needs improvement, make another circle.
When you like the canter, proceed to the pole, using the end of the ring in your approach and riding your turns very precisely. Use your eyes through the final turn, looking at the center of the pole. This will help to prevent you from caving in on the circle or falling to the outside. As you canter out of the final turn, you should already be straight and on track to the pole.
Instead of worrying about the striding to it, focus on maintaining your lead, canter quality and straightness. Keep your connection to the saddle and your horse’s mouth. Three or four strides away, elevate your eyes to a point beyond the pole and plan where you’re going. Remain sitting over the pole, reminding yourself, “This is not a jump. It is a pole on the ground.”
If you have a great canter, chances are your horse will meet the pole perfectly and canter neatly over it. If he chips or breaks to a trot, ask your ground person for input on what looked amiss in your position, track or canter. Did you not support him enough with your legs? Was your upper body ahead of or behind the motion? Is he falling in on the turns? Maybe you need more inside leg and outside rein. Try to identify the problem, then fix it in another circle before approaching the same pole again. Deal with one thing at a time. Eventually, you will get everything right and your horse will canter over the pole correctly every time.
If he jumps the pole instead, don’t make a big move with your body. Soften your elbows and follow his motion as best you can. Then rebalance his canter and repeat the exercise until he realizes, “Oh, it’s just a pole,” and canters quietly over it.
If he swaps leads over the pole, make a simple change afterward, then circle back to repeat the exercise. This time, check that you’re using enough outside aids to keep him straight. To end repeated lead swapping, work more on a circle and less on straight lines. The number-one reason for lead swapping is a horse who is not around your inside leg and whose hindquarters are not adequately supported by your outside leg. Never hesitate to circle after a pole to correct these mistakes.
Each time you canter over the pole, continue to ride straight ahead afterward, re-establishing your good canter and track before turning across the ring and returning to the same pole.
Once this single pole feels good, canter over it again, then make a circle and approach the pole on the other side of the arena. Ride it just the same way, maintaining your position, track and canter. If that goes well, canter the poles one after the other without making a circle in between.
Repeat the entire process in the other direction. Be aware that you may feel like you’re on a new horse riding a new canter, which may be either better or worse depending on which lead he favors.
Exercise 1: Single Ground Pole
Exercise 2: A Line Of Poles
Next, build a simple line of two poles about 72 feet apart, again placed far enough from the corners so you have plenty of space to practice maintaining your track and balanced canter in the approach and recovery.
Pick up the same great canter you had in Exercise 1 and begin counting out loud (or to yourself), still keeping your numbers low: “One, two, three, four, one, two … .” Over the first pole, stay connected to your horse’s sides with your seat and legs and to his mouth with your hands. Continue counting to the next pole to keep your canter consistent. Don’t worry how many strides your horse takes—it may be six or seven. Focus more on maintaining his straightness, quality of canter and rhythm. If he’s too strong down the line, go back to working over just one pole.
Just as before, be prepared to react to any mistakes. If your horse breaks to trot in the middle of the line, allow him to trot over the second pole. Then make a circle at the end of the ring, re-establish your canter, track and position and repeat the exercise. Use this opportunity to re-evaluate the effectiveness of your aids. Did you take your leg away? Did you lighten your seat? Did your reins get too long?
If your horse repeatedly meets the second pole awkwardly, the distance isn’t working. Ask your ground person to roll the poles a foot or two closer or farther apart. The purpose of this exercise is not to test him but to build his and your confidence over a comfortable distance.
Once you’re riding this line successfully, play with the striding. Try doing it in one less stride by riding with a little softer arm and, if necessary, a slightly stronger leg. Then try collecting a little to add a stride. This will make your horse more adjustable and you more confident about controlling the canter stride.
Exercise 2: A Line of Poles
Exercise 3: A Course Of Poles
Now you’re ready to try these skills on a course of poles. Have fun with your course design. Be sure to incorporate any questions you might encounter in the show ring—bending lines, rollbacks, fences on the diagonal and so on. Look online for courses used at competitions in the past, such as an equitation final. Just replace any in-and-out with a single pole. I’ve also given a sample, basic course on this page.
When you ride these courses, always start with a good circle. Practice holding your lead on the lines—including bending lines—and make any necessary flying changes in the corners. If you’re having trouble meeting the poles smoothly or balancing your horse in between them, try counting throughout the entire course. Anytime you feel things start to unravel, circle and get organized again.
Exercise 3: A Course of Poles—Rollback
Exercise 4: Incorporate “Speed Bumps” and Jumps
To begin practicing your new good habits over real fences, set up the same line of poles that you used in Exercise 2. This time, build the first pole into a small crossrail or vertical, about 1 foot high. Then canter to it, still sitting in the saddle, but staying somewhat looser in your arm and following your horse’s motion a little more with your upper body.
Think of this jump as just a “speed bump.” Your horse’s effort over it shouldn’t create enough thrust to push you up and out of the saddle. Avoid any exaggerations in your rein release or position. Simply reward your horse with a slightly following upper body and arm. After the jump, reorganize and canter to the pole. Then practice riding the line in the other direction.
In your regular jump schooling, throw a ground pole or two into your exercises and courses now and then. Many riders allow their canter and track to deteriorate after a few jumps. Adding a pole here and there reinforces the necessity of balance and control. When you approach each pole, sit down in the saddle and focus on your position, canter and track. This is a great way to remind you and your horse to pay attention to what really matters—and to take a deep breath and remind yourselves, “We’ve got this!”
Exercise 4: Incorporate “Speed Bumps”
Riding students have benefited from Cindy Ford’s words of wisdom for more than 40 years. She rode and taught at Peter Van Guysling’s Dutch Manor Stables in Guilderland, New York, for many years before becoming the director of riding at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, in 1988. Two years later, she accepted the additional role of team coach. Since then, she has guided the Skidmore Thoroughbreds to six Intercollegiate Horse Show Association national team championship titles, bringing the team’s total to seven IHSA national championships.
In addition to her Skidmore College students, Cindy also trains Juniors and Adult Amateurs and coaches them at U.S. Equestrian Federation-recognized shows year-round.
A big proponent of the sport as a whole and of horse shows in her region, Cindy was instrumental in creating the Skidmore College Saratoga Classic, a two-week A-rated horse show held every June since 1998. She is a trustee of the local Capital District Hunter/Jumper Council, which she helped to establish. In 2011, in recognition of her great contributions to the sport over the years, Cindy received the IHSA Lifetime Achievement Award.
This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.