A few years ago at the Fair Hill International Three-Day Event, I remember walking a combination at the final water complex on the CCI** track that all the top riders were talking about. They walked it over and over again. At the time, I looked at the line and tried not to overanalyze how to ride it with Rachel Jurgens’ 15.2-hand Thoroughbred gelding, Ziggy. I had a plan, but I knew it would ultimately come down to adjustability and the good old fashioned “fifth leg” cross-country instinct.
After walking the course a few times, I shared my thoughts with Rachel. She suggested I keep him between my hand and leg with a good rhythm and thought he’d be able to figure it out. She knew him well enough to know that as long as I could feel the striding and help Ziggy stay straight and balanced, that his training had helped him develop the instincts necessary to work it out.
In this article, I’ll share a simple exercise I like to do with my horses and students to help them develop these kinds of fifth-leg instincts. I learned it from Robert Costello and saw great results after tying in one of William Fox-Pitt’s philosophies I picked up when I rode with him. He focused on feeling the canter and riding it to help each individual horse stay straight and forward, rather than aiming for a specific distance by counting strides. This formula has helped my young horses fine-tune their ability to adjust their canter between fences, especially if things don’t go according to plan.
The best part is this exercise is as simple as setting up cavalletti. Here’s the key: I don’t define a specific distance, that is, a precise number of feet or meters, between the cavalletti. Instead, I walk the strides and keep the distance more or less approximate.
I like to start with two raised cavalletti on a straight line at the highest setting. (It works when set lower, too). As mentioned, I avoid exact striding, but I generally walk four or five horse strides between each (one horse stride is about four of my own three-foot steps), remembering to add three feet (or another step) for both takeoff and landing. Then, after a normal warm up on the flat, I will trot through the exercise until my horse is negotiating it smoothly and feels ready to canter through.
Those first few canters through the cavalletti help reveal the horse’s most natural and comfortable striding at the given distance, as well as what they might need to work on.
For example, if the horse shows a tendency to speed up through the exercise during these initial run-throughs, then we’ll focus primarily on honing the tools necessary to help him collect his canter. On the other hand, if the horse tends to slow down or fall behind the leg during those initial run-throughs, I know we need to sharpen the tools that keep him moving forward as we go through the exercise.
Once I establish a balanced canter in which the horse is softly between the leg and hand, I practice adding and subtracting strides between the cavaletti. Once I’m able to comfortably add and subtract a couple strides, I introduce a third cavaletti at a similar distance, still on a straight line. Challenge yourself to come in collected between the first two and lengthen between the second and third and vice versa. You can make it a fun game for you and your horse. But, a word of advice: Don’t feel like you have to accomplish this all in one day or even in a week. It’s low concussion on the horse so you can practice fairly frequently and focus on gradually challenging yourself more by varying the strides. The goal should be to obtain the appropriate canter for the striding before the first cavaletti instead of making drastic changes once you’re in the combination.
I believe instinct is important for both horses and riders, and the more they practice feeling it, the more effectively they can make adjustments without sacrificing straightness, balance and impulsion on cross country or in the show jumping arena. I want a rider to focus on what the canter feels like when their horse fits seven strides between two cavalletti, versus what it feels like to cover the same line in six or five strides. That’s what I mean when I reference, for example, a seven-stride canter.
Consider this: Suppose I’m walking a coffin question on an Intermediate level cross-country course with a student. If I suggest throttling down to a seven-stride canter, I know that the student should understand what a balanced seven-stride canter feels like on the horse she’s riding. She’s aiming for the right feel, not a number. Afterall, a seven-stride canter doesn’t feel the same for a 17-hand horse as it does for a pony. A seven-stride canter may not even feel the same between two Thoroughbreds who are the same size. She’s aiming for that specific feeling of rhythm and power, not a specific distance.
I learned from William that you need to ride each horse like an individual. To do that, you need to know what balance feels like with the horse you’re riding, no matter what obstacle he jumps. When you practice this way, you develop the instincts necessary to grow that fifth leg your horse needs to do what a good cross-country horse does best: figure out how to answer the question in front of him.
Andrew McConnon owns and operates McConnon Eventing out of Tallwoods Farm in Vass, North Carolina. Having grown up on his family’s farm in New England, Andrew spent his early years working with Marc Donovan, an upper-level eventer and USEF “R” show jumping course designer. Andrew later moved to Southern Pines, where he was based with Olympian Robert Costello and eventually competed successfully up to the CCI*** level. After his experience training with William Fox-Pitt, he re-launched his business, focusing on training and teaching, as well as importing sporthorses. In September, he competed in the 2020 Adequan® USEF Futures Team Challenge – East Coast and was recently named to the USEF International High Performance Programs 2021 Development Training List.
Practical Horseman thanks Josh Walker/Athletux for their assistance in the preparation of this article.