Jessica Phoenix: Get Your Horse Fit with Cavalletti

Canadian Olympic eventer Jessica Phoenix shares a cavalletti program that helps her condition her horses when the footing outside the ring isn't good.
Jessica Phoenix: Get Your Horse Fit
I really like Bentley’s Best’s straightness as we canter over this series of five raised cavalletti. He looks relaxed and comfortable with the work. ©Michelle Dunn

My home is in Ontario, where we often are stuck with riding in indoor arenas from December until the end of April. The early-season events begin in May so we need a way to begin getting our horses fit before we’re able to take them outside for the gallops, hill work and other exercises that are part of a standard fitness program.

A simple strategy that works well for me and my students uses canter work over raised cavalletti to build fitness by increasing our horses’ respiration and heart rates. This program is helpful for conditioning hunters and jumpers as well as eventers, and you also can use it in an outdoor ring with good footing when mud or other problems keep you away from your usual warm-weather conditioning venues.

Here’s how it works: I begin with poles on the ground, spaced as bounces so that the horse goes over a pole with each canter stride. For most horses, this means 9-foot spacing between the poles. I start with three poles in a line and as the horse becomes comfortable with the exercise we work our way up to seven or sometimes as many as nine poles. When the horse is relaxed with the poles in a straight line, I configure them on a curve so that when cantering across the centers of the poles, the horse is on a 20-meter circle. As I’ll explain later when I demonstrate the exercise, the work on a circle creates additional demands on both horse and rider.

The next phase of the exercise is to raise the cavalletti so that the horse is actually jumping a series of small bounces. I use the standard cavalletti blocks (the same type of blocks I’m using in these photos) to raise the poles a few inches for lower-level horses. For more advanced horses, I may eventually raise the poles on standards to create small verticals no higher than 2 feet.

I make the transition from poles on the ground to raised cavalletti in stages: If it’s a line of three cavalletti, I first raise the middle one. After the horse has cantered through this comfortably a couple of times, I raise the third one. Finally I raise the first one. If I’m raising a line of five poles we begin by raising the third (middle) one. After a couple of repetitions I raise the first and fifth poles so that every other pole in the sequence is raised. Finally, I raise the second and fourth poles.

After about three repetitions through the grid or the circle, I’ll give a horse just starting the program a few minutes’ walk break before repeating the exercise. It’s up to you to notice when your horse begins to breathe more deeply and breaks a sweat, both signs that his respiration and heart rate are increasing. At this point one more repetition is enough for the day. Later in the program, when the horse is getting fit and handles the regular raised cavalletti pretty easily, we can increase the intensity of the exercise and encourage a horse to collect more and step farther underneath himself with his hind legs by shortening the distance between the cavalletti to 7or 8 feet.

I’ll show you how the program looks in action by riding Bentley’s Best, an 8-year-old Trakehner owned by Don Good, through grids of three and five raised cavalletti and then through three raised cavalletti on a curve that is part of a 20-meter circle. When setting this exercise up for yourself and your horse, remember to introduce the concept by starting with poles on the ground.

Three Cavalletti in a Line

Jessica Phoenix: Get Him Fit
1. I approach the three raised poles in a nice collected right-lead canter, sitting down in the saddle so I can use my seat to encourage Bentley forward. I keep a consistent light contact with his mouth so I can feel the energy from his hind legs flowing forward over his back and into the bridle. Bentley’s ears are pricked ahead and his eyes are alert—telling me he’s focusing on the exercise. ©Michelle Dunn
Jessica Phoenix: Get Him Fit
2. Upper-level horses like Bentley will often start out by giving a lot of push over each cavalletti. As they settle into the exercise and realize what it is, they just take normal canter strides. It’s Bentley’s first canter through this line and he makes quite a healthy jump over the first cavalletti. Here I’m thinking about keeping the connection with the reins with a very consistent angle through my elbows, following my horse and adjusting to his motion with my upper body. ©Michelle Dunn
Jessica Phoenix: Get Him Fit
3. Bentley lands a little long over the second cavalletti, and you can see in Photo 5 how he is stepping under himself and collecting in preparation for the jump over the third cavalletti that is quite close. ©Michelle Dunn
Jessica Phoenix: Get Him Fit
4. I still make it easier for him to use his back this early in the exercise by riding in half-seat over the jump, then sitting closer to the saddle between cavalletti. I know that a couple more repetitions will mellow him. ©Michelle Dunn
Jessica Phoenix: Get Him Fit
5. Bentley’s ears indicate he’s still listening to me as he takes a longish stride over what he sees is the last jump in the line. My goal is for him to stay soft, round and through from the beginning to the end of the exercise, really engaging his hind legs, softening over his back and holding himself. As we continue, you’ll see how this progression of exercises helps him do just that. ©Michelle Dunn
Jessica Phoenix: Get Him Fit
6. Bentley’s ears indicate he’s still listening to me as he takes a longish stride over what he sees is the last jump in the line. My goals is for him to stay soft, round and through from the beginning to the end of the exercise, really engaging his hind legs, softening over his back and holding himself. As we continue, you’ll see how this progression of exercises helps him do just that. ©Michelle Dunn

Five Cavalletti in a Line

Once Bentley is warmed up and relaxed by cantering over raised cavalletti with 9-foot spacing, he’s ready for somewhat more challenging work. The five cavalletti in this sequence are the same height as the three cavalletti we worked over in the first series of photos, but they are spaced at 8 feet—1 foot closer together. This increases the degree of collection Bentley needs to maintain—he really has to “sit” to successfully negotiate the entire line.

Jessica Phoenix: Get Him Fit
1. I’ve used a placing pole 8 feet in front of the first cavalletti to help Bentley set himself up with the stride he needs for this line. He’s focused on the cavalletti, his frame is shorter, his topline is round and I have a nice steady connection with his mouth. At this point, his back is warmed up and I’ll be sitting close to the saddle for the entire sequence. ©Michelle Dunn
Jessica Phoenix: Get Him Fit
2. The exuberance Bentley was showing during the first line of cavalletti has calmed and he is more relaxed and more over his back, allowing him to be more collected in these moments. He’s also maintaining his correct lead all the way through the line. I’m keeping my contact with his mouth consistent through my elbows and staying with his motion as he lands from the first cavalletti then collects for the next one. ©Michelle Dunn
Jessica Phoenix: Get Him Fit
3. This is a good illustration of how far Bentley is stepping under himself with his hocks and how his back has come up during this exercise. At this moment he has to really “sit” and wait for the next jump. ©Michelle Dunn
Jessica Phoenix: Get Him Fit
4. You can see how compressed his frame is in this photo. This kind of work is a great aid in strengthening any horse. ©Michelle Dunn
Jessica Phoenix: Get Him Fit
5. The final placing pole reminds Bentley to jump the last cavalletti on the same compressed stride he’s used for the previous four so that he finishes the line in a collected frame. ©Michelle Dunn

Three Cavalletti on a Curve

This exercise looks simple, but it’s more challenging than the previous two because you need good communication with you horse to keep him on a definite circle. One of two things often happens when a horse and rider first attempt this exercise: (1) The horse will fall over his shoulder to the inside of the curve and the exercise immediately becomes more difficult because the circle is smaller and requires more collection. (2) The horse drifts to the outside of the curve and the rider can’t control the line to create a consistent, round circle.

Just as with the straight-line exercises, I start this with all five poles on the ground. First I want the rider and horse to be able to comfortably and confidently stay on a line that takes them across the center of each pole on the curve, which gives them a 9-foot distance from pole to pole. Then I ask them to pick up a more collected canter and take a line closer to the inside ends of the ground poles where the distance between the poles will be less. Finally, I want them to pick up a more open canter and ride their circle more to the outside ends of the poles where the distance between is greater. Only when the rider can really control her line, and the balance of the canter she has on the way in, do I raise the poles.

Jessica Phoenix: Get Him Fit
1. As Bentley canters over the placing pole to the first raised cavalletti, you can see how round his topline is and how collected he is. I’m sitting down in the saddle, keeping a consistent contact through the reins with his mouth. My goal is that Bentley’s body—from the base of his tail to the top of his forelock—will follow the arc of the curve that we’re riding. ©Michelle Dunn
Jessica Phoenix: Get Him Fit
2. Whenever you take a horse from a straight line to a curve, his balance changes. Often he’ll try to lean into the curve like a bicycle or motorcycle. It helps my students correct this problem if they visualize that they are trying to keep their horse turning as a four-wheeler or a minivan would turn, with all four wheels on the ground. This is the classic exercise of riding your horse straight on a circle. It’s not easy to see in these photos, but I help Bentley stay straight on his circle by keeping my inside leg firmly on him to prevent him from falling in while controlling the size of the circle and supporting him with my outside rein. ©Michelle Dunn
Jessica Phoenix: Get Him Fit
3. I really like this photo because you can see how Bentley is becoming very relaxed in his body and is starting to get a longer neck. In this moment the increased engagement of his hind end and the lifting of his back are very apparent. As we jump around the curve, I am mindful of keeping my shoulders and hips squared to my horse’s shoulders and hips. Bentley is not trying to lean in on this curve, but if he were, my sitting square and straight would help to correct that tendency. ©Michelle Dunn
Jessica Phoenix: Get Him Fit
4. I like this photo, too, because we’re nearing the end of the final exercise and Bentley’s whole attitude says that he is still really with me. His ears are very attentive. ©Michelle Dunn
Jessica Phoenix: Get Him Fit
5. As we canter out over the final placing pole, he has definitely broken into a sweat during this work. It’s remarkable how, with repetition, this exercise series can raise the heart and respiration rates of even quite fit horses. ©Michelle Dunn

About Jessica Phoenix

Ontario native Jessica Phoenix has competed in two Olympic Games for the Canadian eventing team. In the 2012 London Games, she rode Exponential, and at the 2016 Rio de Janiero Games, she rode A Little Romance. She and Exponential helped the team win a silver medal at the 2010 FEI World Equestrian Games in 2010. With Pavarotti, she and the team placed sixth in the 2014 FEI WEG. That pair won an individual gold medal at the 2011 Pan America Games in Guadalajara, where the Canadian eventing squad of which she was a member also won team silver. The also earned team bronze and individual silver at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto and team bronze at the 2019 Games in Lima Peru.

She partnered again with Pavarotti for the 2014 World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France, in late summer 2014, where she finished as the highest-placed member of the Canadian squad, which completed the competition in seventh place. Of the cross-country footing that caused problems for some WEG eventers, she said, “I was lucky in that Pavarotti just galloped across the top of the mud and it didn’t seem to tire him.” They finished the course with no jumping penalties. “It was his first four-star and I couldn’t have asked anything more from him.”

Jessica and her husband, Joel Phoenix, have two children, Jacob and Jordan.

This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.

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