Western Dressage Exercise: Walk Your Way to Better Gaits

As a kid, I sat for hours in my mom’s office watching videos of six-time dressage Olympian Dr. Reiner Klimke, marveling at his powerful and majestic equine athletes. Even though each video had a different theme or training focus, they were all exactly the same at the beginning. No matter what each video’s focus was, the initial five or ten minutes showed Dr. Klimke and his students riding their horses over ground poles on a loose rein. In turn, they each marched back and forth over the poles until they determined their horses were sufficiently loosened up, at which point they rode to the dressage arena for a workout. Somehow, this insanely simple practice was an ingredient in Klimke’s unrivaled success.

Years later during my exercise physiology studies I learned why Klimke made such consistent use of poles. Nowadays, I urge riders like you to walk over poles every single day because of the positive effect on the horse’s muscular-skeletal system. In a nutshell, the motion of walking over poles with the horse in a neutral or un-collected frame creates movement through his spine—the same kind of looseness and swinging that a chiropractor will ask for if he/she manipulates your horse. This wave-like motion maintains spacing between joints, which in turn allows the spine better flexion. It also causes the sacrum to rock gently side to side, which is incredibly valuable for relieving tension that builds in this area from the strains of performance. When this tension is relieved, the horse’s psoas muscles (a deep abdominal structure that round the horse’s back and stabilize his pelvis during maneuvers) are able to flex and stretch. This is arguably one of the most important determinants in how well a horse can perform.

On top of all this, walking ground poles helps maintain the purity of a horse’s walk, especially for those that work a lot in collected gaits. These horses can build up rigidity in their backs, which will deteriorate the walk, causing it to become short-strided, tense, or pace-like. Ground poles prevent this; they maintain the purity of rhythm and stride length.

While walking over a line of 6-8 poles lying on the ground might seem too simple to be valuable, I urge you to think again. Find a place on your property where you can leave these poles set up undisturbed and commit to walking over them daily 15 times before your training session. Notice any changes. Does the horse’s back start to loosen up? Does his walk stride get longer afterwards? Does he start to lower his neck?

** Optimal spacing of poles varies depending on your horse’s height and natural stride length. For most horses, a distance between poles somewhere between 2’8” and 3’3” suffices. Most Western Dressage horses walk at a stride length just shy of 3,’ so start there and see how your horse does. If he is knocking the poles with his front feet, they are too close. If he is taking two steps rather than one between poles, they are too far apart.

Western Dressage Exercise – Circle Square

Last weekend, I had the good fortune to absorb Dr. Kerry Ridgway’s sage advice at the “Optimizing Straightness, Balance, and Performance Symposium” here in California. Dr. Ridgway presented over two decades’ worth of biomechanical insights from studying performance horses. Hands-down, the most common problem he encounters is how horses’ natural crookedness affects their performance. Especially when carrying a rider, this natural crookedness creates gait deficiencies, weakness, and hindrances to performance.

Well ridden circles are the best way to help fix a horse’s asymmetry, but they also bring the risk of leading to compromises. When asked to ride a circle, the crooked horse develops sore muscles, bracing patterns, shorter strides, and stiffness. So, how then should we proceed? This is where I like to recommend my Circle-Square Exercise. Not only does this improve your horse’s symmetry without riding around in endless circles, but it also requires constant adjustment and skillfulness from the rider.

This is a simple exercise, but let me recommend that you set up cones to be SURE that your square is actually… well, square. We tend to fool ourselves otherwise. Set up a cone at each corner of a 20-meter square. Let’s get started. This exercise can be ridden in all three gaits.


  1. Begin in working jog, traveling left.
  2. Ride one 20-meter circle.
  3. Then immediately ride a 20-meter square.
  4. Ride your initial circle again.

Continue repeating.

Variations: First, confirm this pattern in jog (both posting and sitting) and lope in each direction. Then, try altering the size of each circle/square. Then, try riding your circle at a jog, followed by a square at a lope.

Accurate geometry is the first priority of this exercise, followed closely by your horse bending properly. Assess this as you go, being sure not to forget that each corner of your square should be ridden like a quarter of an 8-meter circle — your horse should show clear lateral spinal flexion with his inside hind leg stepping under his mass.


Western Dressage Weekly Exercise – authored by Jec Ballou | Copyright © 2012


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