Phillip Dutton’s Serpentine Exercise

Put your aids to the test with this cross-country exercise from seven-time Olympian Phillip Dutton.

This article is sponsored by Cosequin.

You and your horse may be having some well-deserved downtime during the late fall/early winter season. As you do, it’s the perfect time to start planning some schooling strategies for the next competition season. One of those is the first cross-country school. This session aims to reintroduce your horse to his job and prepare him for upcoming events. After some time off, horses often need a reminder to get them back into gear. 

serpentine exercise
Phillip Dutton’s serpentine exercise helps to get horses back into the rhythm of jumping after some time off. It also helps riders become reacquainted with their aids. © Amy K. Dragoo.

I have an exercise that gets horses back into the rhythm of jumping and riders reacquainted with their aids. It involves a serpentine pattern over fences. In this exercise, riders must use their aids to accurately and deliberately maneuver their horses through the turns. Additionally, horses must be responsive to those aids. 

Both inside and outside aids need to be applied to execute the exercise correctly. If the inside aids are not applied, the horse will drop his shoulder and fall to the inside through the curves of the serpentine. The same is true for the outside aids—if they are not applied, the horse will bulge through his ribcage, drop his shoulder and fall to the outside.  

Study the diagram below illustrating the exercise. You will need three jumps in total, set side by side, end to end. The tables in the diagram are set in a cross-country field, but you can build the exercise in whatever space you have, even using standard jumps if you don’t have access to cross-country obstacles.  

serpentine exercise
In the serpentine exercise, both of the rider’s inside and outside aids need to be applied. This helps the rider execute the exercise correctly.

Ride the Serpentine Exercise 

Before you ride the serpentine exercise, warm up your horse on the flat. Do this in both directions until he is responsive to your aids. 

  1. Pick up a canter on the right lead. Use your legs to establish a forward pace to ask your horse to move into your hand. 
  1. Look over your right shoulder to the farthest (first) jump to find a straight track to it. Ride through the corner with your eye on the jump. Open your inside rein and push your horse out with your inside leg through the turn. Use a supporting outside leg and hand to keep your horse balanced and to prevent bulging.  
  1. When you are straight to the jump, use even pressure from both legs and hands to maintain straightness. Keep a steady, even pace to the jump.  
  1. Maintain support over the jump and think ahead about the right-turn track to the next obstacle. 
  1. Ride a straight line and keep the pace as you send your horse away from the first jump. Look over your right shoulder to get your eye on the middle (second) jump.  
  1. Turn to the middle jump using the same turning aids as you did in step two. Keep the pace through the turn.  
  1. Use even leg and hand aids as you did in step three to maintain straightness to the middle jump. Support your horse over the jump and think ahead to the left-turn track to the third fence.  
  1. Ride a straight line away from the jump, this time looking over your left shoulder to the third jump.  
  1. Again, apply the same turning aids as you did in step two as you turn left toward the jump. 
  1. Repeat step three when you are straight to the jump. Support him over the fence and ride straight away from the jump.  

Once you’ve executed the exercise, reverse direction and repeat the exercise starting on the left lead.  


Your horse makes a bid for the jump. In other words, grabs hold of the bit and rushes to the fence. Rather than fighting with him, try softening your hands and body to allow your horse to relax into the bit. When you tighten your upper body and pull, he is more likely to clamp down on the bit and raise his head. When you soften, the tension is released, and the horse can relax into the hand.  

You get a deep distance to the jump. When you feel that you’re going to be deep, soften and allow your horse to figure it out on his own. Maintain your supporting leg and hand, but allow your horse to work out the distance. This teaches him to back off the jump of his own accord, rather than you pulling to a short distance.  

About Phillip Dutton

Phillip Dutton is a seven-time Olympian and three-time Olympic medalist. Originally from Australia, he represented his home country in three Olympics and four World Championships. He became an American citizen in 2006. Since then he has represented the U.S. in four Olympic Games and three World Championships. His most recent Olympic appearance came aboard Z at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. There the U.S. team finished in sixth place. Phillip and his wife, Evie, own, manage and train out of two farms. These include True Prospect Farm in West Grove, Pennsylvania, and Buck Ridge Farm in Loxahatchee, Florida.

This article is brought to you by Cosequin. Check out articles in this series with eventers Colleen Rutledge and Phillip Dutton at There are additional articles with dressage rider Matt McLaughlin at

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