Learn Three Things: Cavalletti

Cavalletti schooling became popular when the late Dr. Reiner Klimke used them to train his dressage Olympians. His daughter, Ingrid, has continued to use cavalletti to develop her international dressage and eventing horses. In fact, cavalletti are so widely recognized for their value in improving equine athletes that trainers in every discipline seem to tout them. Read on for three tips worth knowing in order to make cavalletti a consistent part of your regular schooling.

  1. Most recognized for building strength, cavalletti routines can also be used for creating looseness, balance, and straightness. Using them in varied set-ups to achieve all these results creates a more well-rounded horse and abates the boredom from predictable patterns. To give cavalletti a consistent place in your weekly workouts, learn exercises for walk, trot, and canter. For ideas, check out one of my books.
  2. Higher is not better. Most horses gain the gymnastic benefits they need from riding over poles placed directly on the ground. It is not necessary to raise poles off the ground in order to gain the basic results that cavalletti offer– abdominal muscle recruitment, clearer rhythm, firing of postural stabilizing muscles. Many riders think that getting the horse to step higher over raised poles is a more desirable form of the exercise. In reality, form trumps extravagantly high steps. It is far more important that the horse performs the exercise with good top line posture, steady rhythm, and balance.
  3. Spacing of poles for an average sized horse is as follows. For walk, set poles 2 to 2.5 feet apart; for trot, space poles 3.5 to 4 feet apart; for canter, space poles 9 to 11 feet apart. You want poles spaced such that the horse takes a single stride in between each set of poles. These measurements are for an average sized horse; adjust spacing based on your individual horse.


Learn Three Things: Carrying a Whip

When I rode in Germany, my instructor was almost militant about the fact that I should be able to carry a whip equally well with each hand. By well, he meant that I should not tighten my wrist, yank on the rein, or get disorganized when changing directions and switching the whip over to my OTHER hand. And, maybe most importantly, he meant that I should USE the whip. We dressage riders can get so busy schooling certain details that we allow the horse to get sluggish responding to our legs. This is when a whip can be an irreplaceable training tool. It allows riders to keep their legs steady and quiet while at the same time insisting the horse respond to them! I also prefer them to spurs for most riders since it allows them to be more effective but not risk being unkind or dependent on a heavy spur. Below are three things worth knowing about carrying a whip.

  1. There is no “correct” side on which to carry the whip in a dressage test. You do not HAVE to switch your whip hand when you change directions, nor do you have to keep it in your inside hand. You are allowed to carry it in whichever hand will help you be most effective. Most judges agree that is is preferable for a rider to keep the whip in one hand throughout the test rather than switching back and forth.
  2. Saluting the judge with your hand that is holding the whip is a big no-no. Be sure to salute with your hand that does NOT have the whip when you halt at X.
  3. In riding lessons and everyday arena riding we generally carry the whip on the inside of the horse. This tradition has descended from the idea that the whip can help influence engagement of the horse’s inside hind leg, which is necessary for balance. In riding school situations, this also prevents the whip from dragging along the outside wall or arena fence. It is widely accepted as just more “proper” to carry the whip in the inside hand, even though during any training scenario, it is acceptable to switch the whip to the outside hand.


Less is Not More

In spite of the daylight I saw between the cinch and her horse’s belly, my student felt adamantly that we should NOT tighten it before beginning our lesson. Before I could explain why we really SHOULD tighten it, the student waved her hand at my forth-coming advice. She was not interested in my suggestions for snugness. No, to her that loose, jangling girth was a point of pride.

Hers was a classic opinion that started from sound information and then bloomed in to illogical heights. She had read or heard somewhere that horses become sore when ridden with too-tight girths. From there, she deduced that if a less snug girth was good, then a very loose one was even better. Never mind that her saddle now chafed around on the horse’s back, or that the loose girth swung forward and bumped his elbows every stride, this rider could not be talked in to buckling things tighter. Granted, she is not alone. I have seen a lot of loose girths in the past few years, not to mention loose bits and loose reins.

I explain them by our human need to take an idea to its excess. If a little of something seems good, more of it must be better. Perhaps we are so virtue-driven that we allow this trajectory even in the absence of evidence, sound reasoning, or research. I am undecided if it rises from out innate desires to be kind, or from some branch of raw naïvete. Either way, we often end up taking actions that, while excessively well intentioned, are decidedly not kind to our horses. Admittedly, I occasionally struggle to deliver this point convincingly to students.

Just recently, I taught a woman whose Quarter horse gelding was jogging around with his mouth gaping open. I stopped them to inspect the problem. Turns out that the rider, not wanting to pinch the corners of the horse’s lips, had the bridle adjusted so loose that the bit was practically falling out of the gelding’s mouth. It was banging against his front teeth. I urged her to fit the bridle more properly, advice to which she shot me a look like I just told her to run barbed wire through his mouth. The woman had just read some magazine article about bit settings and tongue freedom and other recommendations for being a gentler rider.

Now she had infused that information with her own dose of excess and ended up being anything but gentle to her horse’s mouth. The corners of his mouth were indeed unburdened, but everything else was decidedly worse. He flipped his head and lost impulsion, he staggered around on his forehand. Regardless how poorly he performed, his rider beamed. The fact was her actions to be gentle and kind made her feel good, top to bottom. And that equated to a great ride every day. That jangling bit buttressed her belief in her own personal integrity. She may not have felt top tier in her riding skills, but she sure felt like a good person. At the end of the day that might be what life with horses is all about.

And, heck, if a little of that feeling is good, then lots of it must be even better.


Does that Training Really Work?

To be quite frank, I was pretty sure that my mother was not paying attention to our lessons when she told me to keep riding through a series of figures, ignoring the fact that my horse’s topline posture resembled a camel on alert. Right when I needed someone to explain why my get-on-the-bit cues were failing, she instructed me to ride one more disorganized serpentine, another half circle, and so on. My focus, though, definitely resided more on the fact that my horse’s head was up in the air than on the figures she kept yelling out. From my point of view, I needed her to join in the obsession over my horse’s frame rather than give me more tasks to do in our undesired state.

And yet she just kept saying to let the exercises do their work. The more I ignored that wisdom, the more committed she became to it. As though delivering a Zen koan, she listened to me plead and whine and scowl for some help, and then repeated the exact same directive about the exercises needing to do their work. My frustration blossomed. My horse trotted through several tense, stiff circles.

All these years, and numerous serpentines, later I have witnessed and experienced the value of what my mother was trying to teach me. Admittedly, it is possible that it did not require much riddle solving. She actually might have explained it quite clearly back then, but I was too busy blocking out the advice to notice.

Two indisputable facts emerged after sufficient maturity helped me quit obsessing about my horse’s head/neck position and begin focusing on more substantial training issues. First, the human mind resists instruction that is simple. It strikes us as too, well, simple. Instead, we tend to gravitate towards complex/confusing/exciting/elusive. Second, dressage exercises, or general arena training exercises for that matter, exist for a reason. The reason? They work. They work in terms of bringing a horse’s body in to balance, alignment, and athletic movement. They work in terms of eliminating the amount of time riders fiddle with the reins or fidget in the saddle.

When a horse is stiff or crooked, clumsy or phlegmatic, it’s almost magical how a well-ridden exercise can fix the problem. Of course that outcome relies on a rider willing to suspend her fixation on other issues for the moment and focus on the simple task at hand. But when riders experience this enough times, the power of exercises becomes a cornerstone to everything else. Not unlike a koan, the hazy purpose of arena figures suddenly rises to a clear sparkly light. The rider, aghast with clarity, wonders why she struggled for so long trying to make things less simple.

101-dressage-exercisesThis year marks the 10-year anniversary of my book 101 Dressage Exercises for Horse and Rider, which sprung from my conviction about just how effective our arena exercises can be. I am proud of this book, absolutely tickled that it has reached the world in several foreign languages. And yet I can report that over the last 10 years, my appreciation for good exercises has grown even more since writing that book. Every day is a spirited validation of my exercises toolbox and also a nudge to design more creative and fun tools.

The next time you’re grunting with frustration during a ride, grab my book and find an exercise to help you. Then, shoot me a note to tell me which one you chose and why. Ride on!