A Non-Dressagey Exercise to Improve Shoulder-In, Haunches-In and Half-Pass

In this excerpt from 55 Corrective Exercises for Horses, respected trainer Jec Aristotle Ballou explains how and why to use trot poles with the outer edge raised in your schooling.

Photo courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books.

Schooling horses over ground poles can cure numerous gait irregularities or movement compromised by tension, crookedness, and weak muscle patterns. Because they require the horse to take designated stride lengths in sequence, they install good clear rhythm in all gaits. As the horse traverses over poles, he learns to push equally from both hind legs, correcting imbalances in the effort of his hind limbs. Pole work contributes to straightness and symmetry through his core and mobilizes the spinal joints. The postural adjustments needed for crossing poles recruit the horse’s interconnected abdominal muscle group, thoracic sling, and gluteal chain. Schooling different arrangements of poles helps re-pattern existing habits within each gait, and leads to the creation of new signals from the nervous system.

  • As a general rule, walking over raised poles improves core stability, joint flexion, and intervertebral joint spacing. It assists horses recovering from sacroiliac pain, back injury, or disrupted muscle use from stiffness. Walking over poles contributes to the horse’s looseness and range of motion.
  • Trotting over poles plays more of a strengthening role. It develops strength in the larger back muscles that effect limb movement plus utilization of quadriceps, pelvic stability, and stronger spinal stabilizing muscles. As these muscles are recruited, it can lead to a release of stored tension from the extensor muscle chain, which is a common culprit of horses that tend to be chronically hollow in their toplines.
  • Cantering over poles tones the thoracic sling, loosens the shoulders as the body rocks between forehand and hindquarters, and lifts the back. It can greatly improve flexion and extension of the back, which allows it to lift and carry the rider better. It is believed to deliver the most mobilization of the lumbosacral joint, which enables the horse to engage his hind limbs.

Here’s an exercise to be ridden at the trot with the poles arranged on a curve with the outer edge raised. This setup will encourage greater mobility of the horse’s scapula and engagement of the latissimus on the outside front limb. For horses with asymmetrical reach from their forelimbs, this exercise can help correct it. The stability required from the oblique muscles and latissimus carries over to improved dressage movements like shoulder-in, haunches-in, and half-pass.

1. Place five to six poles on a curved line. The curved line should be approximately the degree of curve on a 20-meter circle. Space them so they are slightly less than four feet apart at the center.

2. Proceed in working trot around a circle that crosses over the center of the poles.

3. Maintain a light contact with the reins, asking the horse to travel in a rounded frame.

4. Keep the horse bending to the inside around your circle, and be sure to maintain consistency of rhythm throughout, including when you cross the poles.

Ride 10–15 repetitions over the poles in each direction. Be sure to ride this exercise in posting trot. Adjust the spacing of poles as needed; it should feel like the horse takes a comfortable trot step between each pole, not that he has to extend or shorten his stride to negotiate them.

This excerpt from 55 Corrective Exercises for Horses by Jec Aristotle Ballou is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (www.horseandriderbooks.com).