I love doing ground pole exercises with my jumping pony that keep him thinking as he can get easily distracted with just normal trot/canter poles and starts rushing. In a flatwork session, which I usually do around twice a week, I add in at least one pole exercise to make him more focused and responsive as well as improve his balance.

As jumping is our thing, it's really important to have a good rhythmical balanced canter that is also responsive, making it easy to lengthen and shorten if necessary. This exercise I find really helps to get my pony listening and to engage…


Use a minimum of 8 poles (if  possible) and lay them out so you have 1 stride and 2 canter strides between them as in the diagram above. For one canter stride, I take 4 big steps (This may alter for the size of the horse obviously and you need to get used to how big to make your stride depending on your height too.) You can also add vertical poles to the horizontal ones to almost 'box' the exercise - I use this to help with keeping straight, and not drifting down the grid.

Aim to take a straight line down the middle of the poles, staying relaxed. Make sure you are breathing regularly and not holding your breath! Once your horse is engaging well down the grid in canter you can also circle afterwards passing back through the one stride poles. This particularly helps to stop rushing and improves balance.  Also alternating which direction you turn in will keep your horse thinking and help prevent him guessing your next move. My horse in particular is very good at this so continually mixing it up ensures he listens!

Have you got any favourite pole exercises to help with jumping? If you try this one then I'd love to know how you get on.


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Matt Banks believes the best training for horse and rider starts from the ground. Issy Clarke goes to meet him and is introduced to the art of Classical Groundwork.

“It’s like yoga for horses, think of it like that,” says Matt Banks as his 18hh five-year-old goes through a flawless series of flexion exercises. Standing next to the tall bay, Matt has one hand on the ring of the snaffle, the other hand on the rein, to make contact with the bit on the opposite side of the horse’s mouth. Lord Leo bends his long neck, relaxing and suppling.

“I started doing these groundwork exercises essentially because I wanted a nice riding horse. I didn’t want to use force or pressure. I never wanted to bully a horse.

“You see people using their muscles and sweating and that just wasn’t for me! I wanted a relationship of subtlety and tact. And this seems to me the best way to get there.”

The journey started when Matt’s wife bought him a Philippe Karl DVD. But instead of signing up for Karl’s School of Legerete, Matt dived into the equestrian history books.

“It took me right back to de La Guérinière,” he says.

François Robichon de La Guérinière (1688-1751) was a French riding master credited with the invention of the shoulder-in, the flying change and the counter canter. His book, Ecole de Cavallerie (Paris, 1733), was the set text, as it were, for the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.

“After reading him, I came right back up to the present day, reading everything, and I could see who had influenced whom and the techniques that lasted the course.” He smiles, “I guess it was a typical bloke’s approach – logical and analytical.”

Matt developed his groundwork expertise, which he describes as traditional French and Portuguese Classical, from that rigorous intellectual analysis combined with the responses and reactions of the many horses he has trained. It took him some trial and error, however, to find a trainer to help him develop.

“I just felt there was too much physicality involved, or domination. Or else the techniques didn’t sit well with my understanding of equitation. Finally, though, I saw Filipa Valenca and Frederico Cardoso (daughter and son-in-law of Luis Valenca) and I knew their horsemanship was right for me. Now I train with them at their riding centre in Portugal and sometimes, when his schedule allows, with Luis himself.”

Luis Valenca is famous worldwide as a Master of Classical Horsemanship and was involved in the re-establishment of the Portuguese School of Equestrian Art as Mestre Picador.

“It changed my view of the horse – and of the relationship the trainer has with the horse – to see Luis, Filipa and Frederico work. It’s so subtle, so tactful. I feel that the relationship isn’t just strengthened emotionally – it’s as if there truly is a different level of communication. When you know that you can get canter with just that,” Matt makes a small gesture with his hands, “why on earth would you want to go back to a method that uses force?”

Matt helps Issy get a sense of 'feel'.

Now his aim is to share this approach. It’s his view that correct groundwork builds the relationship between horse and handler and sets the foundation for a better ridden partnership. The horse will learn to move in a way that is as supple and free as possible; the rider will develop that hard to define but essential quality, ‘feel’.

“I don’t teach riding,” he says. “There’s a plethora of riding instructors out there. My focus is on long reining, in-hand and ground work. It’s a precise skill, which takes dedication, but if someone already wants to train a horse to be light, without using force, then I know I can help them. If their view is that they want to ‘make’ the horse do something, then maybe this approach won’t sit so well with them.

“Through groundwork, riders develop a better understanding of the horse, and what to look for. I believe that this blend of French and Portuguese Classical techniques will help any rider – whatever their background or ambitions.”

The proof is in the performance – and in the physical condition of the horse. Matt leads Lord Leo through the flexion exercises and pirouettes, before shoulder-in at walk and then trot. As the session progresses, it is clear to see the horse become both more fluid in his movement and more uphill. The walk-trot transitions, which follow a halt and rein back, are particularly impressive – especially when you consider the age and size of the horse. The shoulder-in at trot is beautifully smooth and consistent. All the work appears light and there is certainly no sign of domination. It is more dance than exercise.

As for the horse’s physical condition, Leo’s back looks exemplary. It is rare to see a riding horse, even a youngster, that does not have atrophy; that is supple in the back end and not incorrectly muscled under the saddle. Most horses, sadly, due to poor saddle fit, uncorrected asymmetries in movement and unbalanced riders develop muscle to compensate for these issues. Of course, this muscle development then limits their freedom to move forwards; hence they end up being described as ‘lazy’, ‘stubborn’, ‘bridle lame’ and so on.

Poor training has a lot to answer for.

Yes, this is a skill which it would take time and commitment to master; but then, doesn’t anything that is worthwhile?

Issy Clarke


Issy Clarke : thespokenhorse.com

Matt Banks: email  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.    www.frenchequitation.co.uk

Tel:     01865 600534 / 07783 592466






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