Ground poles and cavaletti are, literally, the building blocks of the riding horse?yes, ?riding? horse, not just a jumping horse.
Walking, trotting and cantering over ground poles or raised cavaletti builds strength and suppleness in any horse, rather like a human doing yoga or Pilates. As a result of the increased strength and suppleness, the horse develops regularity in his gaits, which can then allow him to lengthen and shorten his stride and his frame.
Legendary horseman Bert de Nemethy, coach of the U.S. show jumping team from 1955 to 1980, writes in his book The de Nemethy Method about cavaletti, ?Trotting over the cavaletti encourages the horse to stretch its neck down from the shoulder and look where to put its feet. Because it must lift its feet higher over the poles than on flat ground, its tendons and muscles?especially those of the hindquarters?become stronger. The horse's balance improves tremendously, as does the control and coordination of his entire body.?
Riders benefit too by working over ground poles. By trotting and cantering over poles, you learn how to be soft in all your joints, but especially your hips, and how your aids affect the horse's balance and stride.
You can work your horse over poles or cavaletti on the longe line or on his back, at all three gaits. So let's talk about some exercises you can do in each of these ways.
LONGEING EXERCISES. To really benefit from working over poles on the longe line, the handler needs to know how to longe correctly and the horse needs to work obediently. So, if your horse isn?t trained to longe, you'll need to train that first. If he is, set the poles or cavaletti near or along the rail, which will act as a border.
Work your horse in a bridle and either a saddle or a longeing surcingle, so that side reins or other similar devices can be attached to encourage the horse to maintain a round frame and properly use his back and hindquarters to develop the strength and suppleness we're trying to achieve. Again, if you're not familiar with side reins, don't use them until you?ve had help with them. For an article reviewing some of these devices, see our June 2011 issue. We especially like the Humane Headsetter, by Schutz Brothers (www.schutzbrothers.com, 800-348-0576, about $90).
The most basic exercise is to set poles on one side of the circle, using from three to six poles in an arc. A good distance is four feet from the center of each pole to the center of the next pole, and move the horse in or out on the circle to lengthen or shorten his stride.
You can also set three or four poles on one side of the circle and three or four poles on the opposite side of the circle. This will double the physical effect and is a particularly beneficial exercise for horses that are easily distracted.
To increase the effect, set raised cavaletti around the circle. You can set them like the poles (four feet from center to center), or you can set one, two or even three cavaletti at two different points of the circle.
We recommend that you consider using Bloks (available from a wide variety of retailers) or Horseman?s Pride Jump Blocks (www.horsemenspride.com, 800-232-7950), or traditional cavaletti, to hold the poles above the ground.
For something more, place the cavaletti or Bloks on their highest setting (15 to 18 inches), which requires the horse to jump. Hopping over cavaletti like this is an excellent balance-developing exercise. It also develops a further awareness of their feet and a willingness to ?go forward,? a useful quality in any horse.
POLES UNDER SADDLE. Riding over poles allows you to do even more, because your reins and legs allow you to steer much better than a longe line and longe whip allow. Trotting over poles?whether on the ground or raised?can develop regularity in the horse's stride, but it can also develop the ability to lengthen and to shorten stride.
The basic poles exercise is to set four or five poles in a straight line and trot over them. To work on regularity, set them at 4 to 4.5 feet, depending on your horse's size and stride length (four feet is perfect for most horses). If you want to teach him to lengthen his stride, set them five feet apart.
You can add to the exercise with more poles (up to 10) or two sets of five poles with six or so strides between sets. Both exercises will help develop your horse's ability to maintain his regularity.
You can also set the poles on the arc of a circle, just like when longeing, so you can work on keeping the bend while your horse lifts his legs and works his back. If he wants to rush through the poles, putting them on a circle will make it easier to half-halt your horse while keeping him supple.
AT THE CANTER. Poles set on the ground can help you improve the ?jump? of your horse's canter and his response to the half-halt.
Set two poles at two opposite points of a circle. (For instance, if you're in a ring, set them 20 meters apart on the centerline.) Canter over them, maintaining the length of the canter stride and the rhythm by riding the same number of strides between each pole, while keeping a continuous bend.
Ride the exercise on both reins, being sure to get the same number of canter strides between the poles in both directions.
You can increase the difficulty of the exercise by placing poles at the four points of the circle. It will further add to your ability to ride the half-halt and your horse's ability to allow you to ride the half-halt.
Now put two poles on a straight line?on a diagonal, on the centerline or on a quarterline. Set them a certain number of strides apart, say six strides. Canter over the poles in those six strides, a couple of times, to work on maintaining the same canter. Now canter over the poles in seven strides. Then five strides. Repeat the exercise, as you're teaching your horse to lengthen and shorten his stride.
BOTTOM LINE.? don't expect any of these exercises to be a miracle cure. Use them as part of your overall program to develop your horse physically and to increase his understanding of your aids. See?More exercises.
Article by Performance Editor John Strassburger.