When it comes to options to help your horse develop a better, more functional posture and increased strength as well as improving their awareness of where it is they are putting their feet and how they are controlling their body (proprioception), Polework is something every horse owner would benefit from understanding.
Proprioception (/ˌproʊprioʊˈsɛpʃən, -priə-/ PROH-pree-o-SEP-shən), from Latin proprius, meaning “one’s own”, “individual”, and capio, capere, to take or grasp, is the sense of the relative position of one’s own parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement.
One of the biggest problems I see in horses of all ages and experiences is a lack of this proprioceptive awareness, both in the core and the peripheries, which sets them up to use their body incorrectly and to ultimately be far more likely to succumb to soreness, under-performance and injury.
As well as appropriate osteopathic techniques and treatment which will free up restrictions and help allow the horse to use his body in a more biomechanically correct fashion, the work the owner does in the period between treatments plays a huge role in determining the outcome. All the manual therapy in the world won’t change a horses soundness and fitness for its work if the work it is doing continues to be done in the way it has always been done – the way that built it up to develop soreness and unsoundness in the first place. This is where polework, both on the lunge (or free) and under saddle, can really help change things.
It often seems believed that unless you’re doing something really complicated you may as well not bother, but in reality the majority of horses would hugely benefit from the regular inclusion of the most basic polework exercises. Consider this: Would you expect to launch straight into a high level gymnastics programme without mastering the very basics of how to use your body correctly? This is exactly how we need to be thinking about most of our horses who have, at one stage or another, whether due to training deficiencies or conformational tendencies, formed a habit of using their body less than optimally.
The pictures below, from my friend Sal, which prompted me to jot down these thoughts, are an excellent example of the value of poles.
The horse, Finn, is a 4 year old. He is in the process of being backed so has not had the years of vertical forces through his back that is the hallmark of the older ridden horse. He naturally carries himself ‘proudly’, that is to say he has a tendency to lift the head, disengage the core and hollow the back. Without specific work to help him learn to carry himself with his core engaged, lengthening and lifting his lower neck/thoracic sling muscles, and intentionally placing his feet, he shows a fairly typical young horse tendency to develop his musculature incorrectly. Fortunately he has a very diligent owner who has spent time regularly working him over trot poles at varied distances.
In the first picture it is easy to see how he is engaging the core and lifting the shoulder while using his body to slow the movement as he figures out where his feet are supposed to be landing. This is all part of the proprioceptive system at work – know where your legs and body are at all times or risk falling on your face.
This series of pictures illustrates beautifully the increased core activation, the lift through the thoracic sling, the lifting and lengthening of the epaxial muscles and ribcage, the engagement and intentional placing of the feet. All in all the horse is experiencing a huge increase in the amount of physical and neurological work he is doing, simply by being challenged to reach and place his feet between poles on the ground. By the 4th picture he had really figured things out, was lifting beautifully in front, measuring his stride, engaging the core and hindquarters and traveling really lightly over the poles.
Some pole work options:
Easy option 1: Stick 3-4 poles down in a straight line at a fairly normal 4-4.5 feet apart. For me this is simply 4 or so of my riding boots toe to heel or one decent step measuring from the heel of the hind foot to the toe of the forward foot. Give or take according to your horses size/length of stride so your horse can come through at its normal stride length without falling on his or her face.
Bring the poles together by a foot, and repeat. This will help your horse slow down, pick his way through more carefully and engage the core and the hocks some more.
Bring the poles apart by a foot or so. Try to keep your horse coming through with a nice steady rhythm rather than rushing full tilt and cat leaping over a pole or two in the process. This will help your horse reach, lift through the thoracic sling while also switching on the core and engaging the hocks.
Once your horse really knows to watch where he’s putting his feet, you can arrange the poles with slight variations in the distances or even in a pick-up-sticks kind of arrangement. For this I always recommend letting him walk through while he picks his way through. We’re aiming to reduce the chance of injury, not increase it 😉
Even easier option 2 (very good if you’re on board, less up and down for you):
Take your poles to a corner and set them up in an arc. Bring him through in the centre (normal stride length), then vary between closer to the centre for a shorter stride, or to the outside for a longer stride. You can even come through in a fairly straight line so you start with short strides and finish with longer stride. My most excellent illustrative capabilities show this below:
With the arc of poles, you can then progress to raising the outside of the poles to create a little more lift and activity in the outside limbs. This is especially useful if your horse has a tendency to lean or hang into one shoulder, or if you’re aiming to increase hock and glute activity.
Don’t forget to do both directions!
From these basics, you can progress to many and varied exercises which encourage both horse and rider to develop ever increasing levels of bodily strength and control, but always remember – if you can’t get these basics 100% then the chances of getting the harder ones done in such a way that both you and the horse are benefiting are slim.
And finally, when you’re doing these under saddle, do your horse a huge favour and try to stay in a light seat over the poles. But also, don’t throw your weight over his neck, forcing him onto the forehand either. Get a friend to video you, so you can really watch the way both you and your horse are doing these exercises. Ultimately you want him working with balance and engagement both front, back and core. If you’re achieving this both on the ground and under saddle then you’re good to start upping the ante and increasing the trickiness of the work, and even leaving the ground!
Finally, have a really honest and stern talk with yourself if you do find you’re struggling with your own balance, core and proprioception – Get yourself an Osteopathic treatment to unwind your own dodgy tissues, then get in touch with someone talented in helping riders develop these skills such as Rebecca Ashton at Equest Elite. You owe it to your horse!