Written by: Belinda Lloyd-McMahon, Lloyd Equestrian, AUS

Only have four poles or jumps? No worries. Try these simple exercises at home – especially practical in small arenas or for breaking up the boring indoor winter routine.

Thumbnail for 8 Great Four-Pole Exercises

Pam MacKenzie Photo

Remember, you don’t need to always jump ‘big’ to train for the questions that course designers ask at shows. (And yes, dressage horses can benefit doing poles and little jumps as well.)

All of these exercises are designed for the canter, are great group exercises, and most can be used for leadliners and walk/trotters as well (not the Bending Bounce Massacre though).

Good luck and have fun with them!

Exercise Goal: Balance and Bending

Pinwheel of Death
A terrible nickname for a great exercise! The poles can be placed on a 20m (65’7”) diameter circle to start with, and decrease the size of the circle once you build collection and balance with your horse. The inside edge of each pole should be about 16.5m (54’) apart on either side of the circle. Start with poles on the ground and then try making them cavaletti height. You should get about four canter strides between each pole, but don’t focus on the strides; focus on the rhythm and bend and jumping from centre to centre. You will soon figure out what is the optimum number of strides for your horse that will enable you to smoothly jump each in the same rhythm and not run past the next one (if this happens, you are going too fast and/or not keeping the bend over the pole/cavaletti).

Switchbacks Line
The poles/cavaletti can be placed end-to-end at right angles to each other (just make sure you have left enough room for the rollback from the arena wall). Plan your rollback before getting to each pole/cavaletti; create the new bend and have your legs in the correct position to ask for the change of lead over the pole. Remember to use your eyes to rollback on a straight line perpendicular to the next pole. Maintain a quiet, steady rhythm; start with larger rollback circles and then decrease the size of the rollbacks as you become more organized. Keep them symmetrical.

Exercise Goal: Planning and Strengthening

Bending Lines
These can be done as poles on the ground, cavalettis, or jumps. You can play around with the distances, but remember it will depend on the size of the fence, as well as the size of the horse/pony. If they are poles on the ground, allow three to four feet for landing and takeoff; then considering a regular horse’s non-jumping stride is 3.6m (12’), a bending five-stride line of poles on the ground or cavaletti will be 20-20.7m (66-68’) on the curve. If they are fences of about 90cm (3’) and above, then you can build it on 21.3-22m (70-72’). Depending on the number of strides you want, you need to adjust the above numbers by 3.6m (12’ – so subtract 12’ for four strides, add 12’ for six).

Remember to ride the turn and get to the fence perpendicular and plan your bending line. Do you expect your horse to do a flying lead change over the fence? If so, you need to give him the correct aids before you take off so he can change in the air. Practice getting your leg aids in place the second-last stride before he takes off. Stay smooth and use your eyes; this exercise is all about planning ahead.

Exercise Goal: Lead Changes and Straightness

Figure 8 Bouncy House
A great exercise to start to teach your horse flying changes, or practice changes without leaning and instead remaining as straight as possible. It gives the horse two chances to change its lead; usually they will change in front over the first pole and behind over the second pole. These need to be about 3.3-3.6m (11-12’) apart, which will make a perfect square if you have 12’ poles; if not, you will have just a small gap between the ends. Remember to start changing the bend as you approach the first pole and “ask” for the change with your legs gently as you pop over the first pole. Keep your legs there while cantering over the second. Don’t speed up; let the poles do the work and the horse think about what is happening. You need to canter straight through the square, and not lean and cut corners, ensuring that you use your leg and rein aids properly.

Exercise Goal: Quick Thinking & Feeling Leads

Lead Finder
A great exercise for those who struggle with knowing which lead they’re on. This exercise works better using cavalettis rather than poles. Distances can be a quiet three or four strides between the first two poles (12.8-13.4m/42-44’ or 16.5-17m/54-56’). When you land from the second fence, go to the left if you land on the left lead and jump the fence on that side of the arena; if you land over the second fence on the right lead, take the fence on the right.

The curving distances to either side can be whatever you like them to be; just base them on a 3.3-3.6m (11-12’) canter stride, and allow three to four feet landing and takeoff for cavaletti-sized jumps. You need 1.8m (6’) take-off and landing for 90cm (3’) and above sized jumps.

Exercise Goal: Balance and Straightness

Across the Centre
No particular distance required here, but it will help improve your eye and make you maintain a smooth rhythm to get nice balanced corners and remain straight after the pole. Lots of inside leg here with this one!

Exercise Goal: Lead Changes and Balance

Serpentine
The serpentine can be placed at whatever distance you find challenging enough, probably 20m between the centre of each pole is a good starting point. These can be poles on the ground, cavaletti, or jumps. Use your eyes to help get your body in the correct position before each pole (look ahead to the next pole) and have your legs in the correct position and the horse focused and bending in the direction you are about to turn. Practice until you can go smoothly each direction.

Exercise Goal: Planning and Communicating

Bending Bounce Massacre
This is for experienced horses and riders only. It requires plenty of preparation and correct aids at the correct time. Make sure you are using your leg and rein aids properly and not leaning to show the horse where to go. Slow canter in, distance between the centre of each pole/cavaletti is 2.7-3m (9-10’).