Most horsemen recognize the value of trotting poles and cavalletti to develop suppleness and to aid training in nearly every discipline. Placing the trotting poles on a circle rather than on the more familiar straight line adds degrees of suppling, strengthing, versatility and variety to the exercise.
This arrangement is particularly useful for developing greater hock activity and engagement, since the inside hind foot must accept more weight. It can be used to re-establish a four-beat walk rhythm for a horse that tends to a lateral walk.
The exercise also helps develop straightness, since the haunches can’t be carried to the side while within the poles. It may help a horse learn to adjust its stride, to shift its center of balance, and to respond to the aids for both lengthening and collecting strides.
The circle of poles can also be used by a variety of horses without changing the spacing because each rider will soon learn the ideal track through the poles for his particular horse’s length of stride.
This curved line with poles can also be a check for lameness: If the horse because uneven for a few steps after leaving the poles, this could point toward muscle pain or stress in the horse.
Three poles are ideal. It’s more difficult to maintain the stride’s cadence on a circle with poles than it is on a straight line because the increased difficulty will incline the horse to drift out and change his line. This, in turn, will alter the spacing of the strides and thus increase the chance that the horse will step on a pole. With more than three poles, he will then start to scramble.
Therefore it’s also ideal to use poles that won’t roll, either because the sides are planed or because they have fixed cavelletti standards at the ends. Your horse is less likely to stumble if the pole can’t roll, and if he does step on a pole it won’t slide out of position. If you use round poles, even if in a straight line, stick to the limit of three so the horse can regain his balance if he steps on one. If you have low standards, blocks or fixed cavelletti, you also can raise the poles off the ground for both riding and lungeing. When working on a circle, the maximum height should be 6” to 8”.
Using jumping poles with stripes painted on them makes it easier to step off the spacing and to maintain the line while riding through the exercise.
Footing is also a consideration, and sand footing is best because of its consistent traction for both the horse’s hooves and to prevent the poles from rolling. You don’t want footing that is slick, deep or uneven.
The three poles are arranged like a fan or the spokes on a wheel, with tighter spacing toward the inside. They should be placed in the ring so that a clear 20-meter circle is available nearby for either riding or longeing. If the ring is already strewn with jumps, you can place the three poles near a standard so that they are pretty much out of the way for the jumping lines.
Lay out the “wagon spokes” and then step off the spacing while walking on a curved line, working out from the center pole. The distance just inside the narrow end should be three “baby steps” or about 2’6” between each pole. The distance in the middle of the poles should be your horse’s normal trot stride, around five baby steps or 4’6”. The wide end should be around six baby steps or 5’3”.
A horse that has never done trotting poles before should be introduced first to a single pole on the ground and then poles set in a straight line. When the horse can be longed and/or ridden over a set of straight poles without speeding up or breaking, the round line can be tried. If the horse is being longed, sidereins should be adjusted so that the horse can stretch its nose down and out while going through the poles.
Work over circular poles is more strenuous than over poles set in a straight line, especially if the poles are set off the ground. Depending on the horse’s overall condition, this work should be limited to no more than 10 minutes at a stretch and no more than two or three times a week. It can be done at the walk and trot, but the canter should be avoided because the balance and spacing on the curved line is too difficult to regulate.
An advanced version of this exercise, where five poles are set up and then the second/fourth pole are removed to allow an extra stride in between, can be attempted at the canter with an advanced rider on a well-trained horse that has a clearly adjustable stride.
The rider/longe handler should first trot the horse on the adjacent 20-meter circle (smaller for a walk circle). When the tempo and contact become steady, the horse can be directed out to walk through the narrow end of the trotting poles. The horse should enter/leave the poles on the same arc as on the circle where they are placed.
When the horse becomes calm and steady through the narrow end of poles at the walk, the rider can enlarge the circle to 20 meters and trot through the center. The rider should frequently change directions on the open side of the circle.
The rider’s equitation is particularly important during this exercise, since any disruption to the horse’s balance will alter the stride length. The rider should look ahead over the horse’s inside ear. The rider’s inside shoulder should be back, with the line of her shoulders parallel to the horse’s shoulders. She should keep a steady outside rein and not tug on the inside rein, which will cause the horse to lean on its inside shoulder or impede the reach of its inside hind leg. Her weight should be even on both stirrups or seat bones.
The trot should be ridden posting unless the horse is very advanced in accepting weight toward its haunches. If the horse drifts and changes the spacing of its stride, or if it raises its head too much instead of stretching down, the rider should take inventory of any equitation problems than could have affected the horse’s balance.
After the walk and trot work over circular poles becomes part of the horse’s routine, the rider can vary the routine and move further in or out on the line to develop more collection/activity or more reach. Those transitions can then be repeated on the open side of the circle to reinforce the aids.
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