Pole work, as the name suggests, is incorporating the use of poles during a lesson. It is an exercise in its own right, completely separate from either jumping or dressage, but having an impact on both.
For a dressage horse, poles provide a change of routine, a distraction from usual work and a tool for increasing impulsion, elevation and length of stride. Horses can get dull and stuffy if they are going around the school doing the same thing day after day. (Imagine doing the same thing every day of your life?!) A change of scene, ride out around quiet roads or through country side, work on a canter track will all add interest. And pole work is a part of this.
For the jumping horse, pole work is great for improving the horse’s eye, making them calm and rideable coming into a fence, increasing the gymnastic and mental agility and strengthening muscles required for actual jumping. For young horses, it is a simple way of getting them used to going up and over something, as opposed to going around it. (Stepping over a pole can be a scary matter). Poles can be ridden straight in the centre, on circles or across angles depending on the knowledge of horse and rider.
The rider benefits as much as the horse – getting clear feedback about straightness, line, judging stride length, feeling the back lift and the hind legs engage (when poles are done correctly). For new or nervous jumping riders, poles introduce the idea of going over something, in the same way it introduces the idea to the young horse.
There are hundreds of different pole exercises and the types of exercises used will depend on the horse and rider, and what training they need at that stage. It may be as simple as walking over a pole, aiming to halt either before or after, or aiming at a certain point along the pole (red stripe / blue stripe / yellow stripe). It may involve lines of poles which may or may not be raised. It may involve single poles to help a canter strike off, flying change or transitions in and out of half pass. The use of poles is as diverse as the horses and riders using them.