The Power of the Placement Pole
by Marissa Brown
Poles are something that are seen as standard equipment in any Hunter/Jumper barn all over the world. With lengths ranging from six foot poles to the standard twelve foot pole, typically made from wood or PVC pipes. We paint them all different colors, matching and mismatching to make our barns look unique and professional, as well as fun. They are an effective tool used by trainers and riders alike.
In my near decade of experience working with many horses, seasoned show horses to green babies, I have yet to meet a horse that hasn’t benefited from the use of a placement pole. When used properly, a placement pole teaches the horse many things.
First off, it makes them think. When faced with a placement pole, the horse can’t just bite the bit and run through the fence. They have to decide where to put their feet. This new obstacle really makes them use their mind, rather than shutting it down.
Second, it teaches them to rock back on their haunches before the jump. With the ground pole, their front feet strike the ground at the proper distance and when their hind feet meet their front feet, it allows them to use their hocks, properly engaging their hind end and rounding smoothly over the fence.
Thirdly, it teaches them patience and to maintain a steady pace all the way to the fence. My mare had a lot of trouble rushing fences and launching them, jumping flat and hollowed out. Once I started taking a small vertical at the trot with a placement pole spaced about six feet away (for her small stride) she couldn’t rush the fence without either crashing into it or tripping. She had to think about the fence rather than just blast past it and get it over with. She learned to take the jumps slowly and think about them and now has a much more enjoyable time jumping.
Lastly, it teaches a horse to see its own distance. This can be a very useful tool in a horse’s training. Weather for a show horse or a lesson horse, a horse that can find its own distance correctly will help you have a safer more balanced ride. Also, once your horse has the ability to see its own distances, it can help you learn to see distances too. It’s hard to learn to see a distance on a horse that is inconsistent in his jumping. Riding a horse that is balanced and will more often than not find the right distance can help you learn proper balance and see distances better as well.
The more you practice with a placement pole, the better the horse will be at finding their own distance. Almost every time I see a horse that either launches at the fence or chips in I ask the rider if they have worked with a placement pole. It’s very obvious that the horse cant find the distance so it panics and launches, or waits too long and chips in or knocks the rail. Repetition is so important in all horse training but especially with placement poles. Never expect your horse to jump a placement pole correctly the first time. Some horses might not have a problem with it, but I have seen many horses stumble or bunny hop the pole the first few times. Don’t let this deter you! Too often I’ve seen riders abandon placement poles because their horse doesn’t do it right the first few times. All horses learn at different paces, just like us, so know your horse and give him the time he needs to get used to the pole before asking him for anything more.
The best way to introduce a placement pole to a horse is to make a small cross rail with a single placement pole in front of the jump, six to nine feet from the base of the fence. Distance may vary with each horse’s stride, but I’ve found that six feet is a decent distance for the smaller jumps at the trot. Make sure you have a confident rider as well because you never know how the horse will react the first time. Enter at a slow trot and try to have a soft rein. Not so loose that you can’t control the pace but not so firm that if the horse does something funny like bunny hop, he gets punished in the mouth. A rider who can give an automatic release can usually handle anything funny the horse tries the first few times. Once the horse seems comfortable at the trot, attempt the jump at the canter. You may need to role the pole out for the larger stride. You may also make the small cross rail a small vertical now, but for the introduction it’s not necessary.
When you feel like your horse is comfortable with the first pole, you can add a pole on the landing side now. Using two poles can be helpful but isn’t always needed. I used two for my mare because not only did she race before a fence but she raced after it too. Having the poles on both sides made her think before and after the jump. For the horse that is only working on distances and rounding, a single pole should be sufficient. If you do decide to use two poles, it is very important that the second pole is the same distance from the base of the fence as the first, and should always be at least six feet out. Any less and the horse could mistake it for part of the jump and try and aim to land on the other side of the pole, or could land on the pole and injure itself on accident. It is also never a good idea to use only a landing placement pole for similar reasons as before.
Once you feel like you and your horse are placement pole pros you can expand even further with ground poles. Setting placement poles and following with canter poles in a line to help a horse maintain pace, or making a pinwheel and cantering the poles to help a horse stay upright in a corner rather than do ‘motorcycle turns’ as I call them, are other great ways to fully utilize those long heavy things that we all need to practice this sport we love and enjoy!