Saturday, October 20, 2012

Working The Poles

A few weeks ago I read an article entitled "24 Dressage Training Tips From Olympian Kyra Kyrklund". Most of it was the usual stuff, but one piece of advice stood out:

"... The collection in the pirouettes must be as great as it is in the piaffe.  For that reason I teach piaffe first (even though the pirouettes appear much earlier in the tests). " 

As I mulled that information over in my head, I remembered a conversation I had with my trainer several months ago. We were discussing Spider's canter, which is his weakest gait, and I remarked that it had improved even though I hadn't been working on it much. My trainer replied "The canter improved because the trot improved". Then the conversation moved on and I mostly forgot about that exchange. Until, that is, I read that little piece of advice from Kyra Kyrklund.

Then a little lightbulb went off in my head.  Instead of endlessly working to build more collection at canter (which really just annoys us both), maybe I should be working on more collection in trot.

Now, I am not yet competent to teach spider piaffe myself, although he does throw out a few steps naturally here and there. But, I do know a way to easily increase his collection: trot poles.

What did you think the title was about?  New ways to fund your dressage addiction?

Well, I suppose "easy" is a bit of a misnomer.  "Straightforward" is probably a better description.  Going over poles isn't easy, but it is hard to screw up.

I have my poles set 4 ft apart, and raised two inches off the ground (that's a total of 4 inches, since the poles are all 2 inches wide).  If I put them any higher than that, Spider tries to jump them.  Also, if I use less than four poles, Spider just jumps over the whole grid.  With this set-up, Spider trots through them nicely and collects.

While working him over it, I try to remember a few things.  First, keep my hands forward and my shoulders back. This makes my abs burn more than all the sit-ups, planks and sitting trot I've ever done, but that's how I know I'm doing it right!  Second, Spider needs to keep his head and neck down, his rhythm steady and his back up.  He gets really excited when we go through the poles, but I can't let him go all jumper on me.  He's got to stay in dressage mode, otherwise we aren't accomplishing anything.

Now, I don't know that I'd recommend that you just start with that set-up all willy nilly.  Spider is in good shape and doing solid 3rd Level work.  He has the strength to sit down and trot through a grid like that.  But, raised poles at a wider distance (say, 5-6 ft) will still help a horse build strength and collection.  I used raised poles set at that distance for many years to get Spider ready to collect.

I've been working through the poles about twice a week.  To prevent boredom, I don't just go through the poles over and over again.  I ride little patterns around and through them, sometimes even riding little figure eights in between the poles.  I especially like to trot through the poles, then half circle 10m and ride a half-pass.  It's also nice to ask for a canter depart right after going over the poles, then canter back around to the grid and trot through again (alternating leads or asking for counter-canter makes this even more interesting).

So far, Spider's canter is improving.  


  1. Yes! A concept I preach constantly. To build a good trot, you must first have a good walk. To build a good canter, you must have a good trot. The more your trot improves, the more everything else falls into place.

  2. That is a brilliant idea. I like the canter variations. I find that half-pass requires and improves collection, too.

    Transitions that skip a gait and tempo changes are challenging, but definitely make a difference for Harley and I.

  3. I'm in a similar position, but just trying to move Barley up from a First Level trot/canter to a Second Level trot/canter. I was tempted to drill the canter, but my instructor told me the same thing - improve the trot first, the canter will follow. And wouldn't you know it- she was right.

  4. Great exercises with the poles. A better engaged trot should certainly help Spider's strength as well as his gaits.

    The canter is a lateral gait, so anything you can do to help lateral flexibility will add to it as well. A trainer had me do an exercise of a little leg yield from the quarterline to the rail at the canter on the correct lead to help develop better engagement. You can also do a spiral in, and spiral out (leg yield) in a circle to improve the gait. And then, there is always counter canter.

  5. All sounds like it makes sense to me, I am still at the very basics but one day I will remember this post and when my instructor tells me the same thing I will go, yes I remember reading that in a blog years ago!!! ;)

  6. My first dressage teacher always told me you don't improve canter by cantering. I was riding my Appaloosa at the time and she had us do lots of trot poles, although not collected like you are. This looks like a really fun and beneficial approach Spider's training.

  7. Must try... Great exercises and advice!


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