I use these exercise a lot, they are an absolute staple, both when producing horses and coaching riders of virtually all levels.
4 poles positioned at '12', '3', '6', and '9' on a 20m circle or slightly larger if your arena allows. It's very simple, you ride around the circle over the middle of the poles, generally in trot or canter. It's great for testing how regular and consistent your horse's paces are and working to improve the regularity of paces, it tests how accurate you are as a rider and makes you really think about control, it encourages horses to settle because it's very predictable, and the poles help to create more hind-end engagement whilst inside bend is maitained on the circle. More advanced horses and riders can raise the poles slightly, and advanced combinations can replace the poles with fences (but don't go too mad with the height, steering is required for this exercise!).
2. Lengthening and shortening between two poles
Again, this exercise can be done in walk, trot, or canter and it's also very straightforward. That having been said, I've taught riders who competes at 1.30m show jumping and even they took something away from the slightly more advanced version of this exercise. Typically, I try to set the poles out a good distance from each other, it has to be a long enough distance to allow for flexible striding, 7-10 canter strides or 12-16 trot strides generally work quite well. If you've got a 20m x 40m or larger arena, putting one pole at K and one at H, or M and F, is usually a good ballpark. You don't have to stride the poles out perfectly either, you can pretty much plop them down wherever - in a competition, you may not have a perfect distance, it could be slightly long or a little short so working out how to manage that siutation, at home, isn't a bad idea. You first come over the poles in a normal working pace, and count the strides between the poles (excluding the landing stride of the first pole, and takeoff of the second). You then collect the gait with the intention of fitting more strides in between the poles. Immediately after this, you lengthen the gait, so you fit fewer strides in between the poles. You do have to count each time, so you know if you really are shortening/lengthening. If you keep getting the same number, you are either counting wrong, or not actually changing the stride length. You can continue with this a few times on both reins, seeing just how many strides you can add or take out. Not only does this exercise help to make your horse adjustable, and encourages you to focus on how to adjust a gait; it is also a good strengthening exercise; creates more hindend engagement; can help to supple a horse over the back; and if you jump, helps you to find the best canter for jumping out of. Once you've gotten to grips with this, you can swap the poles on the ground for jumps if you'd prefer.
3. The square
For this exercise, 4 poles can be used, but it's ideal if you have 8.
If you have 4 poles, you can place one on each side of the square. If you have 8 poles, you can create 4 corners for your square. Again, this is an exercise that can be done in walk, trot, and canter. Generally, the bigger the square, the better to start with. Instead of using your inside aids and bending around the turns/corners, you should try to use your outside aids, and seatbones, keeping the horse's head central as much as possible. It is important to really slow down the hind end and turn the front around the hindquarters, a loose 1/4 pirouette. Collecting the pace before the turn is key, and if you really want to work your horse hard, you can extend the gait slightly on the straight sides between the corners and then collect just before the turn. This exercise is great for horses that are on the forehand, like typical cobs, and also ideal for horses who tend to fall out or bulge out through their outside shoulder. It is a really good strengthening exercise, creates hindend engagement, and is perfect for riders who tend to rely too much on their inside rein for steering and find their horse falls out around turns as a result! You really don't need to be an Olympic dressage rider to do this! My advice would be to start in walk, as it gives you enough time to work out what you're feeling and gives your horse time to work out where their feet are - this is especially important for young cobs with feet the size of dinner plates!
I hope you have found this interesting and helpful.
If you are based in any of the areas I coach in and would like a lesson to get you started with these exercises, just give me shout! Tag me on Instagram or leave a comment below if you try any of these - I really want to see before and afters if they help!
I am a dressage trainer and general equestrian coach in Surrey, Sussex, and Berkshire. I teach dressage lessons, and hold a range of riding and equestrian clinics around the UK, and use my blog to share horse training tips, advice, and resources.