Taking the Single Pole Challenge

Zelda takes the Single Pole Challenge

The single pole challenge sounds simple: walk your horse over a pole with his or her feet straddling it. Let me tell you, it’s much harder than it looks! When I tried it with Zelda (in hand; riding over a pole is more difficult), she was utterly perplexed. “Why?” She asked, “would I want to do that?”

The single pole challenge has been all over Facebook. Some people show off and ride their horse over the pole; others, like me, try to coax their wiggle worms to place their feet where we ask, without question.

Doing ground work with your horse is a great way to build a better relationship and to introduce some new challenges to your routine. I don’t want Zelda to think that we’re going to do the same things every time I show up, although I do believe she thinks I’m nuts for asking her to straddle a pole.

One reason to try this exercise is to increase your horse’s awareness of where to place her feet in specific situations. For example, when hunting in one of our territories, there was a beaver dam that caused a large hole — definitely something to avoid. To move your horse to safety requires very precise aides. But even if you are not trying to influence the placement of your horse’s feet, you want them to think about where she puts them.

During our first attempt, I finally managed to get Zelda’s front feet to straddle the pole. That was as far as we got.

Keep in mind that horses can’t see where their feet are. They need to intuit where they are. In fact, they do a pretty darned good job of not tripping over things like poles. But for a horse that has only ever been asked to go over poles in a traditional sense, the idea of straddling a pole is confusing at best.

One afternoon when I got to the barn too late to ride (I hate that it’s dark by 4:30), I decided to try the exercise. With much confusion and some resistance, Zelda got her front feet on either side of the pole. I praised her profusely and called it a day.

From what I’ve read, the trick to teaching your horse this exercise is patience. I would add that food helps tremendously. When Zelda and I tried this a second time, I loaded my pockets with alfalfa cubes. We easily got all four legs straddling the pole and she found the hole experience far more enjoyable. We have yet to walk the length of the pole, but I’m sure that with plenty of incentives (i.e., food) we’ll get there.

So, how do you do it? Position your horse at one end of the pole with her front feet on either side but not yet straddling. Carefully encourage your horse to move forward, but release your pressure as soon as the first foot moves. Praise your horse and let them process what they’ve done.

Rinse and repeat until you run out of snacks.

This is from the article “Building stronger horses: Stability before strength” written by Jec A. Ballou. She says that “As the horse coordinates his limbs to abduct and straddle the pole, he releases tension from his bottom muscle chain. He also activates the deep hip stabilizing muscles, which play a cybernetic role communicating to the brain about a limb’s position and tonicity.” Check out the rest of the article for other exercises.

For us, it worked best when I focused on moving slowly and focusing on moving one foot at a time. Zelda is a long horse, so keeping her body straight and her hind legs where they are supposed to be can be frustrating. Do not cave and simply push the pole under your horse’s body simply to take a photo. You have to earn it!

There are some surprising benefits to this type of exercise. Not only does it make you find different ways to communicate with your horse and improve her coordination, it also helps you identify if you horse has a weak side. Check to see if one hind leg always wants to be on the same side of the pole as the other, if one leg falters in the exercise. This can correlate to issues with the canter.

Do you do ground work with your horse? What types of exercises do you find helpful? As we’ve had some snow/ice lately, riding is off limits and I’m always looking for more ways to keep Zelda thinking.

2 thoughts on “Taking the Single Pole Challenge

  1. It intrigued me and it’s much harder than it looks. I’m going to be using a number of pole exercises with Zelda as it keeps us both busy and is something we can do when the footing is not so great.

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