Cavalletti for dressage and jumping

International event rider and show jumper Lizzie Green shares her programme for using cavalletti to help both horses and riders with rhythm and adjustability

I love using cavalletti for training both horses and riders. It’s a good way of teaching riders to develop a rhythm, because they are generally more confident to keep a steady rhythm riding to a cavalletti than they are to a [bigger] jump. With the horses, cavalletti are great for training suppleness and adjustability.

I used cavalletti a lot in the UK. When I came home, I saw Tammy Cowan was making them and I emailed her to see if she could provide me with some of her Cowan Cavalletti, because they are an incredible product. 

Essentially, a jump challenges the balance that you’ve created with your flatwork; when you put a jump in the way you often unbalance the horse and rider. In my lessons, I like to warm a combination up on the flat to see where they are at and have a look at their straightness. Then I use the cavalletti to highlight their issues or any weaknesses. All the riders say ‘these little jumps are so hard!’ But they are not – it’s just the way I set them up. I can teach the riders without having to say too much, because the cavalletti show up where they need to have more straightness or whatever. 

Raised cavalletti help the horse develop more balance and strength. They get the horses to really lift their back and use themselves a bit more, so it’s a nice way of putting some flat training in without being focused on the dressage test. 

For this session, I’m riding Corona Xtreme (‘Ricky’), who at this stage I’d had for about year. He had done some four-year-old show jumping classes before I bought him. He’s got great paces, but even though he looks strong, at the time of this story he’s only a rising five-year-old and he’s a little bit weak across his back. I do a lot of the raised cavalletti to build his topline. 

With the young horses, a lot of the work is about strengthening and conditioning. I always try to choose horses with three good paces, because I’m not a fixer-upper; I’m just a trainer and conditioner.

Getting started

I always like to give the horses a good walk when I start and also when I finish my session. That’s why I don’t have lots and lots of horses; I want to have time to do them well.

You can see that Ricky loses his balance every now and then, because he’s still weak. He looks like a big, mature horse, but he’s actually a real baby and he’ll get distracted and start neighing out.

At the start I just let him jog around, not really asking too much. Then I’ll start to ride a few leg-yields and ride into the corners. I’ll also ride forward and then come back again in the trot. 

Trot poles

I always walk over the raised trot poles a couple of times first, because sometimes Ricky gets confused and tries to jump the whole lot! Then I start to pick him up into a bit more of a competition frame, and I’ll ride some trot-walk-trot transitions on the circle, so he has to keep thinking about the transitions as well as lifting his limbs over the cavalletti. 

Canter cavalletti

I find riding the canter on a curve helps keep the horse around your inside leg and softer – on a straight line they can get a bit quick and fast. With the young horse I’ll have the cavalletti set at 3m-3.5m. With a more experienced horse you could have them a little shorter, to make them more collected and really sit. With Ricky I’m riding in quite a light seat, because he’s a bit weak, but on an older horse you could use a dressage saddle and sit.

The canter poles can challenge the horse’s balance. When I’m teaching, I like to get the rider to create a bit of balance and then aim at the poles. Normally it all ends up a bit AWOL on the other side! When you can do the canter poles smoothly, it means you can balance the horse for a fence and land in the same balance. 

Ricky is a balanced horse, but he’s quite keen, so he tends to over-jump and then fall apart in the canter. This exercise helps maintain his suppleness, roundness and the connection between me and him.

The canter cavalletti help improve the horse’s rhythm and strength in the canter, because they are having to lift their legs. The cavalletti should be in the middle of the horse’s step. Ricky makes it look reasonably easy, but he does find the trot and canter more difficult to the left. It highlights where a horse or rider is not straight, or a little bit weaker. 

Cavalletti on a circle

I like this exercise because it’s a good one to teach the horse and rider rhythm. Here I’m using two cavalletti on a nice soft curve. You can also put four cavalletti on the circle, which is a more advanced exercise. 

This makes the rider land and do something in quick succession and it’s also good to train the rider’s eye. With practice, the horse starts to get better at landing on the correct lead.

I want the horse to do an even number of strides between the cavalletti. At first I ride five strides, then I want to be able to do four and six strides, to ask for a bit more stride control.

Again, I like to do this on the circle, because the rider can use their inside leg to shape the horse, so they don’t jump with a stiff body. 

I want Ricky to be in self-carriage, so he doesn’t tow me through my distance. When I rode the four strides and asked him to take off on a little bit of an away distance, he decided to chip in. That’s fine, it’s just his mistake, so I gave him the same distance again and the second time he realised he had to take off. Then I went back to the five strides, to get him a bit more bouncy, waiting on my seat and not running away.

Improving the jump

I can spend an hour with clients on these exercises and they can set them up at home, which is the nice thing about it. Horses who are disuniting or unbalanced can very quickly change to being quite balanced in the canter. There are so many options with the cavalletti and the horses really enjoy it because it’s something different.

Everyone is trying to create a really good jump on their horse, but if a horse is simply balanced and strong they will leave the ground with power and jump well. If they get to the jump unbalanced, their jump will be weak. There are no tricks to the training – it’s just about making them more supple, adjustable and stronger.

  • This article was first published in the August 2019 issue of NZ Horse & Pony