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Perfect pole work - fun for you and your horse!

Updated: Sep 21, 2022

Pole work is a fun and beneficial exercise for you and your horse. Physiotherapists are qualified in providing tailored remedial exercise programmes and pole work is a crucial tool for strengthening and conditioning your horse.

  • Walk poles can be set up using the ‘heel to toe’ distance measurement. The average horse will be around 3.5 heel to toe strides in between each pole. A trot pole stride should be around 4.5 heel to toe strides. It is important to use this as a guide and to watch the horse going over the poles to see if the distance is correct for them.

  • Backing up between poles is a useful exercise to engage the core muscles and lift the back whilst also improving the horses proprioception. Walking the horse forward through the poles first is important so they understand the space they are in before being asked for a back up. You can use your body and hand to guide them. Backing up improves proprioception, neuromotor control, core muscle activation, and self-carriage. Negotiating obstacles slowly, one step at a time requires limb proprioception and activation of core and antigravity muscles as the horse collects itself and maintains the body's center of mass over the base of support.

  • A labyrinth exercise helps to improve proprioception of the horse and can also be used to encourage the horse to use their entire body to bend. This is also good mental stimulation for the horse and can improve the handling technique of the owner and will help them to gain confidence. The exercise should be completed slowly and can be walked through normally or alternatively you can ask the horse to stand and then bend around the owner. This can improve the horses understanding of correct bend by breaking the exercise down. The labyrinth is easy to set up and can also be used as a walking over poles exercise or walked over diagonally as a scatter pole exercise which can be useful in neurological cases. It is worth bearing in mind that any horse completing pole work exercises should be assessed before undertaking the exercise and if the horse is recovering from injury it is important to keep the sessions calm and at a walk where possible to prevent further injury.

When starting a horse over poles it is important to begin slowly at walk and start with one pole then progress to three poles and then increase the number from there to increase difficulty of the exercise. Changing direction is important to keep the horse symmetrical. Try to keep the horse as straight as possible over the poles and encourage an active walk to ensure they are capable of getting over the poles.

You can see from these images that the horse is having to increase joint range of motion throughout the entire leg and engage their core muscles to lift up and over the poles. This is vital for ensuring strong core and epaxial musculature to carry a rider during exercise whilst preventing injuries due to weakness as reported by Kilmke and Klimke in 2018. Horses may struggle to ‘figure out their feet’ at first but with practice proprioception and understanding of stride will come and they will find this easier. You can increase the difficulty of these exercises by raising the alternate ends of each pole to increase the height and therefore increase range of motion.

Pole work is a very versatile exercise that can be used in a variety of horses. Clients can put their horses over poles in hand, lunging, long-reining or ridden. This means pole work is accessible for all types of rehabilitation and fitness programmes.

Pole work is a crucial tool for strength, conditioning and cardiovascular fitness programmes in horses. According to Castejon-Riber et al. in 2017 schooling develops neuromuscular coordination and mental discipline, whereas conditioning induces physiological and structural adaptations that maximize performance and maintain soundness, pole work incorporates all of these benefits. In 2014, Brown et al., conducted a study that aimed to investigate the kinematics of horses trotting over poles. This found that the flexor musculature of both the forelimbs and hindlimbs are activated and strengthened when trotting over the poles and these effects do not diminish and so improve visuomotor control.

A new study by Shaw et al. in 2021 found that walking and trotting over 8 consecutive ground poles significantly increased surface electromyography scores of the rectus abdominus muscle and the longissimus dorsi muscle. This means that pole work actively improves muscle activation and therefore will strengthen these muscles which are vital for correct locomotion of the horse.

Overall, pole work is a versatile and simple exercise that can be used to help rehabilitation cases by improving muscle strength and proprioception which also helps to prevent injury. Pole work can also be used to assist fitness programmes and add variety to a schooling session.

For further details you can visit Petplan for ideas on pole work exercises Benefits of Pole Exercises for Horses | Petplan Equine

Or click the button to go back to our homepage and contact Even Stride Veterinary Physiotherapy if you have any more questions.

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