Updated: Apr 6
Poles can rehabilitate, increase and maintain range of motion, engage abdominal muscles to build core strength and balance and increase proprioception. Poles can be performed on the lunge, in hand, ridden or whilst long reined. A muscular response is expected within 12 weeks when used 2-3 times per week (Brown et al., 2015).
Please note that as a Veterinary Physiotherapist I am unable to advise use of poles without first assessing your horse. Please get in touch for a full assessment if you would like a personalised and targeted home exercise plan for your horse, including a range of beneficial exercises for you to carry out with them at home (Often including poles!).
Physical Benefits of Poles?
Poles improve joint flexion (Clayton et al., 2015) and increase hoof height. The poles target the musculature involved in the swing phase; Therefore, muscular atrophy of the flexor muscles is reduced, and muscle tone is increased.
A study carried out by De Oliveira, (2015) concluded that walking over a pole for 10 minutes, 3 days a week resulted in an increased proximal range of motion, likely responsible for the observed stride length increase and increased tracking distance
Physiology of Poles
Synovial joints, consist of 2 bones articulating in a joint cavity with articular cartilage and synovial fluid assisting in minimizing friction, being present. A major component of synovial fluid is lubricin and this participates in the boundary lubrication of synovial joints; lubricin has been proven to play a pivotal role in maintenance of joint health and function and protects the articular cartilage by preventing cellular adhesion to the surface (Flannery et al., 1999).
Early onset of osteoarthritis in a sheep model showed a correlation between loss of lubricin and articular cartilage degeneration (Young et al., 2006).
Relative motion between articular surfaces has also been proven to stimulate lubricin metabolism, and therefore assists to maintain necessary lubrication within the articulating joint (Nugent-Derfus et al, 2007). Although these conclusions were based on the bovine stifle joint undergoing continuous passive motion, the results were significant and indicate a necessity for further research to investigate equine joint physiology whilst undergoing rehabilitative exercise (for example poles).
Which horses are poles useful for?
Increasing ROM is an achievable target, beneficial to horses of all levels and disciplines. Showjumpers need maximum forelimb and hindlimb ROM to clear jumps and dressage and showing horses also use an optimised range of motion for aesthetic appeal,. Racehorses, require a larger ROM to maximise the forces the horse applies over the ground to create a greater acceleration and velocity. A larger ROM is targeted through a training plan and results in increased performance and reduction of injury potential; A greater ROM facilitates greater shock absorption, therefore improving longevity of horses.
A study showed that 8 weeks of enforced exercise failed to fully restore joint function following 7 weeks of immobilization of the joint; showing that maintenance of ROM is more effective than ROM recovery. This is only possible where enforced rest isn’t necessary, for example as part of performance training, chronic musculoskeletal disease management and preventative care
Following surgery or injury, it is necessary to consider the healing process of tissues. The acute inflammatory and proliferation stage requires enforced rest and protection to reduce chances of reinjury, additional bleeding to the tissue and to avoid early distension and lengthening of injured structures.
In the collagen maturation and remodelling stage only carefully, controlled mobilization is possible.
At 6-8 weeks post-injury, the newly formed collagen fibres are able to withstand tensile stress, therefore controlled muscle stretching, and joint movement to improve orientation of the collagen fibres parallel with normal fibre stress lines should be targeted through a rehabilitation plan (Kannus et al., 2003); Poles can be used to facilitate this.
Poles aren’t recommended to be used until symmetry has been achieved within the gait, as although ground reaction forces aren’t increased (Clayton et al., 2015), any asymmetries in the gait may be exaggerated by their use (Clayton, 2016).
In summary poles can be used as a rehabilitative exercise, alongside being used for preventative and chronic musculoskeletal disease management. They are also useful for performance optimisation for a multitude of disciplines.
One aim of using poles is to maintain and increase ROM in addition to strengthening of swing phase musculature. Recruitment of core stabilising musculature also occurs as well as assistance with proprioception, however this will be discussed in another blog.
Brown, S., Stubbs, N.C., Kaiser, L.J., Lavagnino, M. and Clayton, H.M., 2015. Swing phase kinematics of horses trotting over poles. Equine veterinary journal, 47(1), pp.107-112.
Clayton, H.M., 2016. Core training and rehabilitation in horses. Veterinary Clinics: Equine Practice, 32(1), pp.49-71.
Clayton, H.M., Stubbs, N.C. and Lavagnino, M., 2015. Stance phase kinematics and kinetics of horses trotting over poles. Equine veterinary journal, 47(1), pp.113-118.
de Oliveira, K., Soutello, R.V., da Fonseca, R., Costa, C., Paulo, R.D.L., Fachiolli, D.F. and Clayton, H.M., 2015. Gymnastic training and dynamic mobilization exercises improve stride quality and increase epaxial muscle size in therapy horses. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 35(11-12), pp.888-893.
Flannery, C.R., Hughes, C.E., Schumacher, B.L., Tudor, D., Aydelotte, M.B., Kuettner, K.E. and Caterson, B., 1999. Articular cartilage superficial zone protein (SZP) is homologous to megakaryocyte stimulating factor precursor and is a multifunctional proteoglycan with potential growth-promoting, cytoprotective, and lubricating properties in cartilage metabolism. Biochemical and biophysical research communications, 254(3), pp.535-541.
Kannus, P., Parkkari, J., Järvinen, T.L.N., Järvinen, T.A.H. and Järvinen, M., 2003. Basic science and clinical studies coincide: active treatment approach is needed after a sports injury: A short review. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 13(3), pp.150-154.
Nugent-Derfus, G.E., Takara, T., O'neill, J.K., Cahill, S.B., Görtz, S., Pong, T., Inoue, H., Aneloski, N.M., Wang, W.W., Vega, K.I. and Klein, T.J., 2007. Continuous passive motion applied to whole joints stimulates chondrocyte biosynthesis of PRG4. Osteoarthritis and cartilage
Young, A.A., McLennan, S., Smith, M.M., Smith, S.M., Cake, M.A., Read, R.A., Melrose, J., Sonnabend, D.H., Flannery, C.R. and Little, C.B., 2006. Proteoglycan 4 downregulation in a sheep meniscectomy model of early osteoarthritis. Arthritis research & therapy, 8(2), p.R41.