Ordinary Jump Poles Make Extraordinary Training Tools

by Gabriella Valsecchi

I’ve worked with cavalletti all my life, starting with hunters when I was a child. I had a very creative British instructor, Judy Whiting. She had us kids doing every kind of cavalletti and pole combination she could think of so her students and their mounts would be flexible when negotiating jump courses. It was great fun and our show results of numerous blues reflected its effectiveness.

With a little imagination, ordinary jump poles can be turned into super learning devices, showing the horse a new or non-habitual way of moving and becoming more elastic and gymnastic in workouts, which can make an extraordinary difference in their performance. When the horse (or the human) is doing something out of habit, they are generally not thinking. Take an example of driving the car; how many times are we driving down the road, only to awaken after driving a familiar route for 10 or 15 miles and wonder how we got there? If the horse or human can stay in present time and start to think anew about a situation instead of reacting, they start to get somewhere in changing a habit or a pattern. The ultimate goal, no matter what discipline, is a horse that is supple, correct in his given frame and balanced using his motor, the hindquarters. This horse is a pleasure to ride and happy with his work.

Work with ground poles or cavalletti enables the horse to override old patterns of behavior & movement and to learn with understanding. The results of ground pole work are obedience, self-control, focus, self-confidence, balance and coordination to name a few. The horse gains a greater awareness in his being as a result. Jumpers and trail horses benefit through increased hoof-eye coordination. They are effective for dressage horses, encouraging the horse to use his back, bend his joints and to collect and lengthen his gaits. Starting the work from the ground is important. It breaks up the horse’s old habitual patterns and gives them new things to think about. Leading the horse, the rider has an easier time slowing down the horse or asking him to drop his head and relax his topline. If a horse has been experiencing discomfort or offering resistance with a rider in his back, the ground work is particularly valuable. When the horse is taught from the ground, his body stays relaxed while learning patterns of movement and behavior that are desirable later as a riding horse. Everything you do on the ground, including leading the horse, is reflected in the performance under saddle.

I really like the basic ground work from the TTEAM method invented by Linda Tellington-Jones. Here are some ideas and exercises for you to try with your horse.

Be the leader
To facilitate the horse’s proper positioning through the poles, I use a six-foot lead with a 30 inch chain worn over the noseband (to encourage the head to come down so the horse can lengthen and relax his topline), and a stiff dressage whip four feet long, preferably white (they see it better). The whip is used to stroke the horse and gently guide him through the different grids. I use the butt end to stop the horse by gently tapping him on the chest. This action also helps him stop straight through the body and stay light on the lead. While leading the horse through the different combinations of poles, I stay out front of the horse, staying one step ahead of him and lifting my knees so the horse can mimic my actions. If the horse balks, I can touch him with the whip on the side or on top of the croup as a cue to bring him forward. Many horses are very tight in their polls and backs and when they drop their heads and lengthen their toplines they become more comfortable and forward naturally.

Any exercise I do with a horse is very simple at first, and increases with difficulty as the horse shows he understands it. For instance, if a horse is nervous about moving over poles, I might start him out by drawing a line in the dirt. It sounds silly, but I have worked with jumpers that were incapable of stepping over a line in the dirt much less a pole! Once over the panic and calm again, I can proceed to walking over a single pole; more elements can be added as the horse is more comfortable. After he is comfortable slowing down and stopping in the middle of the poles, I may back the horse over poles and through a maze. I work the horse 10-15 minutes over the poles with breaks between each obstacle to give the horse a chance to think about it. I light-heartedly call it my ‘walking meditation’ because it seems to have the same benefits of meditating or another movement discipline called Tai Chi. Every time I ride, I work with the poles a bit during warm up and cool down. During the week, I incorporate using the grids from the ground 1-3 times depending on the age and training of the horse.

The Labrynth
I use different configurations of poles set up in varying patterns to address a range of behavior or movement problems. The foremost is the labyrinth, a simple maze set on the ground with six poles. Four of the poles form a box with two openings diagonal to each other; the other the other two poles are laid inside the box parallel to each other. The benefits of leading a horse through the labyrinth include learning obedience and self-control, balance, focus and overcoming fear of poles. When I have a candidate who is afraid of poles or cannot bend, I spread them apart at first to make it less intimidating to the horse. By breaking the lessons into smaller pieces, the horse has a better chance of understanding what I want of him and being successful at it. I will the horse into the maze and have him stop at each corner and after each turn, it gives him time to breathe and think about it. He learns to control himself by not barging or falling forward. It has been noted in several different experiments using electro neurological equipment that the horse releases beta waves (the brains waves of thinking) while negotiating the turns of the maze. Variations of use include backing through, ground driving and riding through the maze.

The Star
Comprised of three to five poles arranged in a semi-circular fashion and raised at the hub, the star is an excellent tool to improve flexibility and balance while at the same time bending the horse. It can be used as a building block to make the canter more ridable or corners more balanced. Work through the star from the ground first, then ground drive or ride through. As a variation, have the horse stop in the middle briefly, then resume the walk as a test of his balance and patience.

One of the most beneficial exercises for horses to strengthen and free the shoulder, back and haunch are working over raised poles. I use four cavalletti raised 6-12 inches arranged at walk length (about 2 1/2 ft apart) or trot length (4 1/2 ft apart). Simply walk over these at first and you will notice a marvelous swimming motion the horse makes to get through the cavalletti. Several passes will relax and loosen the horse before strenuous exercise starts. After warm up, use the cavalletti as a strength and coordination builder at trot. A hint here, the horse who favors one posting or trot diagonal more than the other is a good candidate for cavalletti to even out the trot.

Pick up sticks
Just when the horse was getting used to poles placed linearly, we are going to mess it all up! I randomly place 4-6 poles on the ground haphazardly overlapping to teach the horse balance, focus and confidence. This configuration makes him think where he is going to put his feet in order to get through the poles. After a time or two through, I have the horse stop and stand in the midst of the sticks to teach him to wait and be patient. I have found this to be a good lesson when the inevitable problem of being stuck somehow comes up for the horse. They tend to panic less and listen to the handler more.

Poles raised at one end
Use this configuration by raising one side with a block, tire, bucket or bale, either alternating the raised ends or raising the poles on one side. Place the poles about four and a half feet apart to begin with. This exercise helps the horse to differentiate movement from right and left sides, is useful for horses who stumble as it helps to free up tight backs, shoulders and hips. You can ground drive or ride through as well.

Materials for grid set
Poles can be standard length jump poles which can be picked up new or second hand from stables moving or going out of business. Round fence poles also work quite well for all the obstacles except the labyrinth which works best with 10 - 12 foot poles as a matter of maneuverability around the corners.

I have a set of 10 foot 3 inch wide PVC poles I travel with to demonstrations. They are light to move around by comparison to the wood poles, stay ever white so the horses can see them and they travel well in the back of my suburban. Not having to paint the poles is a big plus as well. To stabilize the poles against rolling, I got some T joints which are removable. If this sounds like the right pole for you, make sure you buy the heavier duty schedule 40, as it will last longer in the sun.

PVC Bloc training sets are a lot of fun to work with, they adjust easily are light and you are only limited by your imagination. Wood blocks ’pared out’ also work for raising the ends of the poles, as do buckets, 55 gallon barrels and hay bales.
Negotiating poles and cavalletti give the young or green horse clear parameters for movement while staying relaxed.
I’ve noticed that knowledge picked from this segment of education carries over to other areas, such as loading your horse into a trailer. For the advanced horse the strengthening and suppling aspects combined with relaxation are tremendous benefits when grids are used as a cross training exercise.
Gabriella Valsecchi specializes in neuromuscular bodywork, focusing on soft tissue injuries and designing alternative training and healing programs for horses, dogs and cats. She helps enhance horse-owner partnerships through better education, training and health, and is available for seminars and private sessions. Call Gabriella at 805-686-1312, or e-mail to gcmv2@earthlink.net.