Trot poles (or ground rails) are one of the most versatile tools for a riding instructor. They can be used for all types of horses and riding, and by changing their configuration they can be used at all three gaits. Their use is only limited by the instructor’s imagination.

Trot Poles vs Cavalletti 

colorful jump poles made of wood or PVC
Colorful Jump Poles

Trot poles are sometimes mistakenly called cavalletti and while there are times when use of trot poles and cavalletti are interchangeable they are not the same thing.

Trot poles are usually wooden or PVC jump rails. They are not attached to anything on the ends allowing them to roll if they are bumped or stepped on. If you are schooling a horse alone, you’ll want the help of a ground person who can re-adjust rails when they’re moved.

Suitable trot poles can be as long as 12 feet or as short as 8 feet.

Traditionally you would see trot poles used in grids for jumping.

3 white cavalletti with blocks fixed on the ends can be used in place of trot poles

Cavalletti are poles or rails, made of wood or PVC, that can be fixed to a block or an X at both ends allowing for 3 different heights. The ends also make the cavalletti more stable as it usually takes considerably more force than a hoof bump to move them. Cavalletti are frequently built in 8-10 foot sections and can be stacked for jumping. Because of their stability cavalletti are especially nice to have when riding alone or when working a dressage horse.

Benefits of Trot Poles for Riders

Trot poles add variety and challenge, making lessons more interesting for students. Using the correct activities with trot poles, students will develop balance, feel and timing for strides, and strength in their legs and knees. Achieving success with trot poles is a mile marker in a rider’s education and will give them a sense of confidence.

Basic Configuration for Trot Poles and Cavalletti

5 blue and white wood trot poles lined up as a grid
A Grid of 5 Trot Poles

A search on Youtube will produce videos of riders using elaborate arrangements of many trot poles, but you only need 5 poles to introduce them in your lessons. Traditionally trot poles are used in a grid. 5 poles makes the grid just long enough to be challenging to both horse and rider but not so long as to seriously endanger balance.


Careful attention should be paid to spacing the poles according to the stride of the horse and according to the grid’s purpose. Inaccurate spacing will cause difficulty for horses and students.

Depending on the stride of the student’s horse or pony, an average/approximate distance to place between poles would be as follows:

3 feet between poles for small ponies

4 feet between poles for large ponies

4’6” for average horses

4’10” for large striding horses.

These lengths according to horse size are a guide. Adjust them according to your horse’s stride. An instructor or trainer has to develop an eye for the horse’s stride and will adjust the poles accordingly.

Our goal is to find the distance at which the lesson horse is most comfortable. If you have large and small animals in your class you’ll need to provide 2 sets of poles.

Comments on Spacing

Poles can be set a little bit closer together for the shorter stride of sitting trot or jog. Setting the poles farther apart than the normal stride will provide the opportunity for horses and riders to lengthen stride. If you want to require the horse to shorten its stride try setting the poles closer than his normal stride. Setting the grid with uneven spacing between poles is not fair to the horse. Our goal is not to trick the lesson horse but to help him help us teach the lesson.

Setting the Poles Correctly

When the distance between the poles is the correct length for a horse or pony’s stride, the animal will easily place 1 front foot and the opposing hind foot directly in the middle, half-way between the poles. Diagram #1 shows an even stride pattern over poles appropriately spaced.

diagram showing trot poles spaced correctly for the horse, poles are represented by red dots. The horse's stride presented by even arcs over each pole

If the horse’s hoof does not consistently make it to the middle, the distance is too long and he will struggle to make the last 1 or 2 poles, often adding an extra stride, while knocking poles with his hooves. Uneven striding is miserable for the horse and the rider.

The picture below shows what can happen if spacing is not adapted to a shorter stride.

diagram of what happens when trot poles are set to far apart for the horse

A horse who consistently passes the middle with his front hoof is indicating the distance is too short for his stride. This horse may try to trot 2 poles in one stride.

A diagram of trot poles spaced to close together for a long strides horse showing how the horse might step over two poles at one time.

Placing Trot Poles in the Arena

To protect your horses, be sure to place your trot pole grid in an area that is free of rocks and holes. When using an enclosed arena, I’ll place the poles on the rail for the first few lessons. This is the simplest way for beginning students to manage the horses because they only go on one rein at a time. I use cones, as placed in the diagram, to guide students with turns.

Diagram for setting trot poles on the rail in the arena

After one or two lessons, when the students show that they have control over themselves and the horses, I put the trot poles on the center line so that horses and riders can change direction. Cones  give students markers so they don’t cut their turns.

diagram for arena set up with trot poles on the center line

The guidelines and set up for basic trot pole use is simple and is interchangeable with cavalletti.

I hope you found this explanation useful to your teaching.  I use trot poles in lessons because they increase a rider’s progress and develop stronger skills. In another lesson post I’ll talk about how to use the basic set up in a variety of ways for riding lessons.

Thanks for reading The Riding Instructor.


Barbara Ellin Fox
The Riding Instructor
U.S. Horsemanship

Barbara Ellin Fox TheRidingInstructor
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