I use ground poles to help break up a pacey horse’s lateral gait. Pacey means the two legs on one side swing forward together or nearly together. Many gaited horses tend to the pacey or lateral type of gaits. This is often caused by tense horses, but even relaxed horses can be pacey. Once we get a horse to relax, the next thing I do is use poles to change a lateral gait to more of an even 4 beat gait.
So what do I use for a pole? Many things can be used from PVC pipe, to fence posts, to wooden logs. However, for really pacey horses, you need something that they really need to step over, so you want something 10-12 inches high and the heavier and more solid it is, the better.
How many poles do I use? I almost always start with 1 or 2 and rarely do I go more than two. Only a couple times do I use 4 poles. Usually, if I have to use 4 poles, I only use them for a few days and only with a horse that is extremely pacey and low headed. I would recommend that you start with 1 pole and begin the pole work once you have gotten the other prerequisites down (I discuss this in my first dvd). See how your horse does with 1 pole. If there is no change, try 2 poles or a higher pole, such as a log, fence post, or cavaletti.
How far apart do I space them if I use more than 1 pole? It depends on the horse. In many ways, this isn’t a science. The goal is to get the horse to change the pattern of his footfalls. For many horses, this just means getting them to have to move their feet differently to avoid stepping on the poles. For taller horses, use poles that are farther apart. I usually start with the poles 8-10 feet apart.
How long are my sessions of pole work? It depends on the horse’s progress, but most are less than 30 minutes of actual pole work and many are less than 20 minutes. Some end up being only 5 minutes long if the horse makes progress after struggling for a while. You know your horse and you don’t want him to get frustrated. This is very easy to do, even for me. Take time to break up the pole work with relaxation training, backing up, standing still, and whatever other things your horse knows how to do.
You can put them in different parts of your work space. You can try placing them on different inclines, taking your horse uphill over them, then downhill over them, to see what helps your horse the best.
If you find a spot or direction that seems to help your horse gait better, then go over that spot as much as you can early on. Later on, we want to ask in lots of different place, but initially, we want to make it as easy for the horse as we can.
Remember that you need to have the prerequisites done before you work on the poles. Your horse MUST be able to give you vertical flexion (bringing the nose toward the chest) with light pressure and MUST be able to drop his head and relax.
When you first start training your horse with the ground poles, make sure walk over them the first few times, or more if he is afraid of them. As you progress through your training, continue taking time to walk over them rather than gait over them every time. You do not have to gait every time your horse goes over the poles. You would rather wait until he is relaxed and ready, then ask him to go forward.
Using poles is not the magic button that will make your horse gait, but it is my favorite tool to use with pacey horses to break up the pace and get a smooth gait. Some horses will become smoother in a day and some will take 3-4 weeks to really start gaiting. Every horse is different and it is your job to figure out what helps your horse the most.
These instructions are to be used in conjunction with Train a Smooth Gait Naturally DVD’s Volumes I and II