Many riders spend hours schooling their horses in the same pace and at the same tempo, primarily in trot.
Now, while that’s important for training the horse to work in a rhythm and can also help with strengthening work, it doesn’t do much to create looseness and flexibility in the hind limb joints, which in turn stimulates the postural muscles of the hindquarters.
Strong hindquarters mean that a horse will find it easier to “sit” behind, improving balance and developing engagement.
Using cavaletti can be extremely helpful in developing that elusive joint flexibility that will help you to develop your horse’s weight-carrying ability, ultimately leading to true collection.
In this article, we take a look at the benefits that using cavaletti can have for the dressage horse.
What are cavaletti?
Essentially, cavaletti are raised poles.
The poles are raised to approximately 1 foot off the ground, however, you can have them as high or as low as your horse can comfortably manage, or you can leave the poles on the ground.
What type of cavaletti to choose?
When choosing cavaletti, always go for lightweight poles that will roll if the horse touches them.
If possible, steer clear of using old-style ‘X’ wooden cavaletti. These are heavy, awkward to move, and can cause injury to a horse if he collides with the cross pieces.
If you have adjustable jump wings at home, these will also work perfectly.
What are the benefits of using cavaletti?
Cavaletti encourages the horse to engage his hind leg and lift his forehand, ultimately teaching the horse how to work in self-carriage without relying on his rider’s hand for support.
How to use cavaletti for dressage schooling
Before you begin
Before you begin using cavaletti, be sure to warm-up your horse first.
It takes time for the horse’s joints to become loose, so start by walking on a loose rein for 10-20 minutes.
The importance of correct hands
Good hands are crucial if you are to ride in harmony with your horse.
You should have your hands together, in front of the saddle, by the horse’s withers. Keep your hands about one fist’s width apart with your thumbs on top of your fist like a roof.
When your hands are together, your horse can feel the reins against his neck. That gives the horse the guidance and support he needs and creates a ‘tunnel’ to help you aim him centrally at the poles. If your hands are carried too wide apart, the horse cannot feel the rein and is more likely to wobble going into the poles.
Cavaletti walk exercises
If the horse is stiff, lacks straightness, or is hollow, the best pace in which to train him out of these habits is the walk.
If you use the walk with cavaletti, the horse’s body has more time to adjust to a new way of going without interference from the larger muscles that work during paces with more impulsion.
In the walk, you can teach the horse’s body to respond to new motor and sensory nerves, release areas that are restricted and tight, and increase the range of joint mobility in his joints.
For example, if your horse has a short, shuffling trot stride, you should spend time riding cavaletti exercises in walk.
As your horse develops more flexion in the hock joints and stifle, his flexor and quadriceps muscles will engage more, leading to an improved balance between the bottom and topline muscle chains, a more supple back, and longer, more elastic strides.
Here are some cavaletti exercises that you can ride in walk.
Walk exercise #1
Take up a light contact and walk your horse through two cavaletti spaced about two feet seven inches apart.
Add more cavaletti so that you have three and then four.
As you negotiate the cavaletti, allow your horse to stretch down the rein.
Walk exercise #2
Lay several poles in a line and ride a tight serpentine over the poles.
Walk exercise #3
Place 4 poles into a square.
Keep riding through the center of the square, turning either left or right, to ride a complete four-leaf-clover pattern.
Cavaletti trot exercises
Now, move on to trotting through the cavaletti.
You’ll need to space the poles around four feet three inches apart, depending on your horse’s natural stride length.
Observe how the neck muscles of your horse’s topline bulge as the horse moves with energy through the cavaletti.
Keep the horse working from behind with plenty of energy and working through his back to a correct, open frame. If the horse trips over one of the poles, use more leg to encourage him to be more active.
Don’t try to carry your horse over the cavaletti with your hands; he must learn to find his balance without your help.
Cavaletti work at trot is excellent for improving your horse’s overall condition and cardiovascular fitness. Working at trot develops your horse’s topline tone and dynamic muscle function, encouraging a swinging back and longer strides.
When using cavaletti trot work to improve postural incorrectness, such as over-flexion, hollowness, or crookedness, you should keep the sessions short.
Cavaletti should be spaced no further apart than your horse’s regular trot stride to ensure that the horse doesn’t lose his balance at the expense of his usual correct rhythm.
The following three trot cavaletti exercises are extremely helpful for horses working at all levels of training. The bending patterns encourage the horse to use his oblique muscles, stabilizing his torso and leading to more elastic, expressive movement.
Trot exercise #1
Place several poles next to each other at a distance of approximately 4-4.5 feet, depending on your horse’s natural stride length, and then leave a gap of approximately 12 feet before placing another pole.
Ride through the center of all of the poles and try to maintain the same active rhythm in the blank space.
Repeat this exercise in both directions.
Trot exercise #2
Place two poles to form a right angle.
Now, ride through the center of the poles in a figure of eight.
Trot exercise #3
In two opposite corners of your arena, set up four poles in the shape of the fan.
You can ride through the corners whilst going over the poles, as well as being able to connect the poles in a figure of eight as shown below.
Note: When riding close to the inside of the poles, the spacing will be closer together and better suited to horses with shorter strides. When riding close to the outside of the poles, the spacing will be wider and better suited to horses with longer strides.
Caveletti canter exercises
Many riders tend to concentrate on their horse’s trot if the canter is not good. These riders often mistakenly assume that if the trot work improves, the canter will automatically do so too.
Even if your horse has a less-than-ideal canter, the physical benefits he will gain from working at this pace are huge. Canter work improves the horse’s musculature and symmetry in ways that the trot and walk cannot.
Canter creates greater flexibility of the lumbosacral joint, relieving tension in that area and helping the horse to round his topline. When the lumbosacral joint is looser and more flexible, the horse’s whole body is able to transmit energy from his hind legs. That, in turn, promotes better engagement and improved self-carriage.
Also, in canter, the horse’s forelimbs push his forehand upwards during the gait’s moment of suspension, freeing up areas of tight tissue between the scapulae.
Canter work is an essential tool, particularly for horses that have asymmetrical development or those with problems in lifting their backs because they are stiff or tend to brace themselves against their rider.
When schooling your horse over cavaletti in canter, you should set the poles about 1-1.5 feet high. That height helps makes sure that the horse takes the job seriously and focusses his brain on the approach.
Here are some excellent exercises for you to ride in canter over cavaletti.
Canter exercise #1
Place two poles approximately 10-11 feet apart.
Canter over the first pole and proceed to the next.
Aim to keep your horse straight and working forwards in a regular and correct working canter.
Remember to ride this exercise on both reins and both canter leads.
Canter exercise #2
Place two poles opposite each other on a 20-meter circle.
Canter around the circle crossing over the poles as you do so.
Maintain an equal and correct bend throughout the horse’s body as well as a suitable rhythm and tempo.
You can make the circle smaller by crossing the poles closer to the inside, or larger by crossing the poles close to the outside.
Again, remember to ride this exercise on both reins and both canter leads.
Canter exercise #3
Get several poles and randomly scatter them around the arena.
Pick up working canter and connect the poles by riding various loops, circles, and turns.
You can’t make a wrong turn so just have fun with it!
Introducing work with cavaletti into your regular schooling schedule can help to improve your horse’s suppleness and strength. Also, using polework can help to keep schooling interesting and prevents your horse from becoming stale.
Do you use poles or cavaletti in your regular schooling sessions? Share your exercises with us in the comments box below or in our new training forum.