Compared to riding cross country, show jumping is difficult for a lot of eventers. On cross country, you can relax and get into the flow of the gallop, which helps establish a forward pace. You are riding at speed, collecting for technical obstacles and then galloping again so your horse engages his hind legs often. A forward and engaged pace makes it easier for him to jump well.
In show jumping, the fences tend to come up more quickly and you need to support your horse by creating a quality canter in which he is going forward but is also engaged and collected. To establish that quality canter quickly in the show arena, I’ll share a favorite cavalletti exercise that I often use to begin jump schools. I can easily adapt the exercise for specific horses and my students depending on their experience level.
The exercise is a straight line of four raised trot poles and three single canter cavalletti spaced on a circle. You’ll approach the poles on a straight line at the posting trot, trot over them, immediately start turning toward the first cavalletti and pick up the canter. Then, you’ll canter over the first cavalletti and continue turning to canter over the next two cavalletti. After the third cavalletti, you’ll bring your horse back to the trot and trot over the raised poles again.
This exercise gives you all the skills you need to execute a great show-jumping round or a great cross-country round without implementing height. If you or your horse make mistakes (and you both will because the first few times through the cavalletti come up very quickly), you can sort through them without losing confidence.
The exercise allows you and your horse to work on and improve many skills. It:
• Fine-tunes your horse’s longitudinal (back-to-front) flexibility during the upward transition from trot to canter and the downward transition from canter to trot. You also practice longitudinal suppleness when you increase the difficulty of the exercise by asking your horse to shorten his canter stride to add strides among the canter cavalletti or lengthen to leave out strides.
• Encourages lateral suppleness (bending): You can tell if your horse is a little weaker in one direction if he comes around a turn with his haunches shifted out or in. The haunches are the horse’s engine and if the engine is not lined up with the steering-wheel (his shoulders), the power will be compromised, which impacts jumping clear rounds. Also, by practicing the exercise in both directions, you can increase your horse’s overall physical suppleness.
• Helps you keep your horse in front of your leg: There is not a lot of time for the upward and downward transitions so your horse must be in front of your leg and on the aids.
• Requires you to keep your eye looking ahead and planning your route: Being able to ride by feel and looking where you’re going is so important. Many people, myself included, like to fix a problem and then look to the next thing. In show jumping, you have to be able to feel the problem and address it while still looking where you’re going. If you’re late fixing a problem and already to the next fence, you’re dragging the problem with you. In this exercise, if you’re looking down at a canter cavalletti while riding over it, you’re going to be late getting to the next one. You might overreact to a distance that is a little longer or shorter whereas if you can keep your eye flowing and looking ahead, then the rhythm starts to smooth out.
• Helps to identify your horse’s strengths: There are a lot of bending six- and seven-stride lines in show-jumping courses these days. You have to be able to decide which is better for your horse: staying on the inside track and riding six strides so he remains focused and straight or staying on the outside track and riding seven strides so you have one more second to get coordinated and help him jump a good fence. This is an opportunity to get to know your horse and see which track is easier for him. Then if you come across this while walking a course at your next event, you’ll know which line is better suited for your horse.
Set four raised trot poles on a straight line, 3 to 4 feet apart. For younger horses, I put the poles on the lowest setting, which is basically the height of a pole on the ground. As the horse advances, I raise the poles, going no higher than 18 inches. Then walk or measure four strides on a curve and set a second cavalletti (so from the center of the last trot pole to the center of the first cavalletti the distance is about 60 feet). Start with a height of 18 inches. Continue walking four strides on a turn to set the second and third cavalletti. The actual number of strides that you ride isn’t critical when you first ride the exercise.
How to Ride It
Review the diagram above to set up the exercise. Then determine your goal for the exercise. If your horse is young and you and/or he are green, your goal for the exercise might be to be able to pick up the trot smoothly, pick up the canter, return to trot quietly to the trot poles when you ask him to and stay on the track. If he’s a little awkward here or there, it’s no big deal. For a more advanced horse, you might decide to adjust the number of strides between each cavalletti to work on his range of flexibility. Much of this is being thoughtful about the progress and having the right mindset.
Next, warm up your horse so he is mentally and physically ready to accept your aids. Once you start to ride the exercise, the elements come up quickly and he needs to be listening to you. If he’s a hot Thoroughbred, you might have to work on his mental suppleness in the warm-up—spend 10 or 15 minutes letting him trot and canter around the field a little bit loose in a light seat so that you can then sit down and collect. If he’s a big, quiet warmblood, you might have to work on physical suppleness—take some time making sure he’s in front of your leg.
Once your horse is warmed up on the flat, trot the whole exercise once or twice to get the feel of the circle. Practice the following:
• As you approach the four trot poles at the posting trot, post extra high so you spend more time in the air during your post. This will help your horse cover the ground higher over the trot poles. Count “one—two, one—two” so you don’t hurry—he doesn’t need to cover ground faster, just higher.
• When you are straight to the poles, look beyond them to the first canter cavalletti with just your eyes. As soon as you are on track to your first cavalletti, look to the second cavalletti and repeat to the third cavalletti. This helps you rely on feel, rhythm and timing. This also helps you smoothly get your line to the next cavalletti, and then onto the next one, etc. As you look to the next element of the exercise, be careful not to turn your whole body. If you turn your body, it will influence your horse’s balance in a negative way. Also, do not look down as you go over the trot poles—this can lead you to anticipate when your horse is going to leave the ground. This will cause you to lose your balance and often leads to getting left behind or jumping ahead.
• Stay centered in your position over the trot poles, and as you come through the turns to each canter cavalletti, almost lead with your inside hip because you want your horse’s inside hip to be leading as well and him to be turning on his inside leg. This helps keep his engine underneath him so he has power, and you can steer better. If you drop your inside hip, your horse is most likely doing the same, which will push his haunches to the outside of the track.
When you are comfortable trotting over the entire exercise, try trotting the four poles and cantering the three cavalletti and remember that your eyes have to keep flowing around the circle to what’s next while executing the transitions in the exercise:
• As you straighten your horse to the trot poles, post extra high and with just your eyes, pick the outside track to the first canter cavalletti. This will give yourself an extra stride to get organized.
• When your horse goes over the last trot pole, immediately ask him to pick up the canter (within two strides) and stay on the outside track. If you are going to the right, ask for the right lead canter with a leading right hip, slightly opening right rein for the turn and bend your outside knee to keep the haunches from drifting out of the line. Bending your knee will place your calf slightly back to help keep the haunches in. Keep this position over the canter cavalletti.
• As soon as you feel your track is set to the first canter cavalletti, pick the outside track to the second canter cavalletti.
• Let your horse step over the first canter cavalletti. Stay tall with your position—think of the cavalletti as an elevated canter step, not necessarily a jump.
• Repeat the process to the second and third cavalletti.
• Try to get to the third canter cavalletti to allow him to jump it quietly so the downward transition on the landing side is easier.
• Once over the third canter cavalletti, ask for the downward transition to trot: Take your leg off and stop the swing in your hip while staying tall to stay balanced.
• Trot to the center of the trot-pole line and repeat the exercise. Then reverse and ride through the exercise in the opposite direction. With my upper-level horses, I tend to ride through exercises until I am consistently riding it correctly. On the greener horses, I stop once I feel they are comfortable and thoughtful in the exercise, not rushing or anxious about the poles.
How To Ride The Exercise
Work Through Mistakes
You’ll ride through this exercise at least three times without feeling like you and your horse are in a blender—and that’s OK. As a rider, being OK with making some mistakes is good. The first time through, your horse may trip over the trot poles or cavalletti. Most horses aren’t impressed by a cavalletti, so they can get awkward. Support your horse by focusing on the next element in the exercise.
Also, think about practicing your cross-country skills. When you get in a jam on cross country, your instinct should be to slip your reins and get a little back in the tack instead of jumping ahead. In this exercise, if your horse makes a little mistake, slip the rein a bit and come to the back part of the saddle. I think that a horse is always going to forgive you a little more if you’re slightly behind the motion rather than slightly ahead of it.
Making mistakes gives you a good chance to just lean into the struggle. Nothing irritates me more than when the horse trips or something goes wrong and the rider pulls out of the exercise to collect herself to go back in again. Stay in the exercise and figure it out. That’s why the cavalletti are small and insignificant—your horse will have time to recover from a mistake and can continue to build his confidence.
Returning to the trot poles gives you and your horse time to reset yourselves and regroup if you’ve made a mistake. A common exercise is to have four canter cavalletti on a circle, which everyone jokes about but is like a circle of death. When you’re doing it, you feel like when something goes wrong, it goes really wrong.
For this exercise with the four trot poles, when you make a mistake, realize that there are two things you can change—your track and your speed. Then it’s just figuring out which one is going to help you the most. Do you need to stay a little on the outside track to recover or do you need to get your horse back in front of your leg and get into the inside track? Make sure you commit to staying in the exercise and thinking on your feet.
Increase the Difficulty
Once you are comfortable riding the exercise on the outside track in both directions, start to play with the number of strides that you do from the first to the second canter cavalletti and the second to the third. Stay on the outside track and ride the lines in five strides to five strides. Then ride the center line among the three canter cavalletti in a quieter five strides to five strides. Next, ride the inside track in four strides to four strides. As your horse moves up the levels, alternate the tracks each time through. Ride it in five to five strides, then immediately go back through in four to four and ride it a third time in five to five.
Once you start schooling your Intermediate and Advanced horses, practice mixing up those distances within the same pass. Ride a five to a four or a four to a five and back to the trot poles and then do the same thing in the other direction.
Often I scatter some jumps—skinnies, oxers or a little one-stride combination—around this exercise so that I can turn out and come back in. So I’ll trot over the trot poles, ride over the three canter cavalletti and then instead of turning right to do the trot poles again, I stay straight and jump a skinny, then turn left to a second skinny and keep cantering around the corner and return to trot and come back through the exercise again. I don’t add a lot of jumps that have height to them. As I ride through the exercise, I maintain an engaged, collected quality canter.
About Sinead Halpin
Sinead Halpin is an international event rider and trainer and has been competing at the top levels of the sport since 1999. She was on the U.S. eventing team for the 2014 World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France, aboard Manoir de Carneville, the U.S. Equestrian Federation 2012 Horse of the Year. Aboard “Tate,” Sinead had several top-10 results at the five-star level, most notably finishing second at the 2012 Burghley Horse Trials CCI*****. An U.S. Eventing Association ICP III Certified Trainer, Sinead and her husband, Tik Maynard, operate their training business out of Copperline Farm in Citra, Florida. They welcomed their son, Brooks, in 2018.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Practical Horseman.