May 22, 2024

The Importance of Foot Work for Eventing Horses

By Jennifer Howlett Rousseau - ECP Faculty
USEA/Lindsay Berreth photos

Why do some horses and riders always seem to find their balance and their feet when the unexpected happens? The answer may lie in the time-tested practice of gymnastic exercises. Every rider, every horse, at every level can benefit from the use of ground poles, cavalletti, and gymnastic exercises over small fences. This article is aimed at improving the balance and stability of both horse and rider. Improved balance and stability not only contribute to better show jumping and cross-country jumping, but are the foundations of more secure and safer riding.

The USEA “Handbook by the Levels” refers to the use of gymnastic exercises primarily for teaching the rider at the lower levels. Then, as the rider learns to ride the horse correctly and ultimately becomes the trainer of the horse, the Handbook explains how using these types of exercises can also improve the horse.

Throughout the lower levels, the Handbook emphasizes the progression of the rider in specific increments.

At the Starter level, the rider should be able to:

  • · Maintain the forward seat and the half seat consistently in walk, trot, and canter.
  • · Jump small fences out of trot or canter, execute poles and small, simple gymnastics maintaining their position, balance, and control of their horse’s speed and line of direction.
  • · Begin to recognize what qualities in the canter and trot (rhythm, balance, energy, speed) are needed to execute the jumping exercise at hand.

At the Beginner Novice level, the exercises increase incrementally in complexity and difficulty in order to improve the rider’s balance and skill level. The rider should be able to:

  • Negotiate various jump outlines, turns, and rein changes while maintaining rider position and balance.
  • Focus on recognizing when the rhythm, balance, energy, and speed of the trot or canter is appropriate for the requirements of the exercise.
  • Begin to use rhythm through these exercises as the primary tool to develop their ability to see or feel the distance, as well as in the education of the horse to find a comfortable distance.

At the Novice Level, emphasis is put on correctly executing the various elements that might be found on course. The rider should be able to:

  • · Practice counting strides between fences in a related distance using poles and cavalletti.
  • · Practice varying the number of strides in a related distance between poles/cavalletti by producing the correct length of stride for the exercise, while maintaining rhythm, energy, and balance.

At all levels, having a knowledgeable ground person is critical to getting the distances and lines just right. Gymnastic exercises must be designed according to individual horse stride length, fence height and shape, experience and security of the rider, and the purpose of the exercise. In the section Gymnastic Distances Variations (page 11), the Handbook sums up the principles for setting gymnastic distances very clearly. You will find there a good resource for a reliable range of distances for schooling gymnastics and building courses with the following very important note: These are not "correct distances,” but are examples only! Indeed, that is the point: It is not about memorizing distances, but rather about seeing and evaluating how the horse is going, choosing what one wants to accomplish, and adjusting the distances to enhance the performance or increase the training. The coach and rider need to understand the variables and how to make them work for a positive result.

When using gymnastic exercises for the purpose of developing rider skills, it is important to set exercises which encourage the horse to stay relaxed, confident, rhythmic, and moving forward on the required line. The more the exercise designer makes it easy for the horse, the more the rider can concentrate on their own balance and technique. Correctly measured poles, cavaletti, and gymnastics can provide the rider with the opportunity to work on their own core balance, stability, and perhaps most importantly, independence from the reins, without having to worry about the horse.

The increments of rider competence are important. I would not expect someone who struggles to maintain their jumping position or half-seat over poles on the ground to be able to do better over fences. Poles on the ground allow a rider to learn to control their position while the horse is in motion. Even the slight change in the horse’s movement and balance to raise his trot stride slightly higher over ground poles can help the rider practice the skills they need to stay balanced when the horse leaves the ground with all four feet over a fence.

Make no mistake, poles and gymnastic exercises help develop a key understanding of the more forward balance which requires the rider to stay with the movement of the horse over a jump. Through repetition, gymnastic exercises also develop strength in the rider’s position, so that the rider can hold a balanced position through a variety of fence heights and distances. That repetition through varied gymnastic exercises—which may include turns and accuracy exercises as well as the typical grid work—develops the rider’s eye and their ability to apply the aids while maintaining the forward balance. Ultimately, the rider must be comfortable and confident enough in their forward seat position such that they instinctively find that balance even when things aren’t going as planned.

There are multiple exercises which can be used to further develop the rider’s independent balance and core strength. An easy exercise to evaluate a rider’s balance and ability to stay balanced is to require the rider to maintain their jumping position in the approach zone and in the landing zone for a gymnastic grid. It is easier for the rider to thoughtfully work through the independence of their arm and their ability to soften the rein to allow for the horse’s jump when they establish their forward balance early and are committed to maintaining it on landing.

Trot and canter poles are key to teaching horses foot work.

Another simple skill to teach is eye control, which has a huge impact on rider balance and stability. Having a “horizontal” range of vision is paramount to balance, just ask any high wire balance artist. Just as important, eye control promotes relaxation in the rider, which, in turn, allows for the development of “feel”. Having the rider look at different focus points as they travel through a gymnastic line or adding turns (think: jumping on a circle or a figure of eight), improves rider confidence and their feel for the distance by getting them to release the intensity of their focus on the fence in front of them.

Other more difficult variations to riding through a gymnastic line, like riding without stirrups, or “hands-free” with reins knotted (correctly knotted in the mane or around the neck strap so they do not fall down the neck), should only be introduced once the rider has a reliably solid balance in the air. I rarely ask my adult riders to drop stirrups over fences, unless they are super athletes, but can substitute practicing at rising trot and two-point without stirrups, sometimes over poles, to build strength. Likewise, when letting go of the reins on a hot or less-than-reliable horse is not an option, putting both reins bridged in one hand may provide a similar experience of practicing an independent arm in the air. In all cases the goal must be the same: that the rider learns the mechanics of how to move with their horse and keep their balance and that they practice and develop the strength and coordination to maintain that balance, such that they default to finding their balance instinctively.

Gymnastic exercises help riders improve their skills, and, as the rider progresses, the limitless applications and pattern design for using poles, cavalletti, gymnastics, and every option of fence shape and appearance may be used to further develop the horse’s skill and technique. The two go hand-in-hand. As the rider progresses in their knowledge, skill, and ability, they transition from being a rider to being involved in the education of the horse as the principal trainer. Under the expert eyes of an experienced coach, the rider-trainer can improve the horse exponentially using these low-impact exercises, which can be repeated with the necessary frequency to really change a horse, without the wear and tear of continually jumping at height.

Poles and gymnastic exercises are an excellent way of working on a horse’s show jumping canter balance and strength, skill, and confidence. By creating certain muscle memories, and then using repetition to install that muscle memory as the horse’s default reaction, we can transform and support a horse’s longevity in the sport. Gymnastics, which are low in impact and high in level-appropriate complexity, give horses the tools to jump well, to get themselves out of trouble, and to help them stay sound through the correct use of their bodies. The right exercises can provide green horses with confidence-building exercises to enhance their understanding of how to jump and when to jump. Custom tailored exercises will educate and improve a young horse’s technique in the air and can also be used to correct flawed technique in some horses who struggle over fences.

Perhaps one of the most important ways we can use these low-impact exercises is to improve our horse’s foot work for cross-country: to get the horse thinking about where his feet are; to show him how to speed up or slow down without losing power and balance; and to get him capable and confident jumping from a range of distances.

Having a good coach’s guidance is key. As noted in the Handbook excerpt above, the exercise designer must be able to adjust distances to help the horse, not hinder him. They must recognize when and how a distance should be altered to change the outcome or to produce a specific change in the horse. Above all, they should be clear on what outcome they are looking to achieve through the exercise and be willing to adjust or completely overhaul the exercise as needed to produce that outcome. The visual feedback from a ground person or coach, or even through replaying video taken in the moment, is critical to making informed decisions when altering an exercise, and to supporting what the rider may or may not be feeling.

The Handbook addresses this shift towards the rider becoming trainer under the direction of an experienced coach at the Training level and Modified level. It is at these levels that the rider should be able to:

  • Understand the basic concepts and goals of gymnastic jumping exercises and should regularly implement gymnastics to develop the horse’s balance, agility, rhythm, bascule, understanding, and confidence.
  • Evaluate (with guidance from the coach) the quality of the horse’s jumping ability and technique and understand the reasons for shortening or lengthening the distance between poles and gymnastic jumps.

Also, at these levels, riders and coaches can use these exercises in a show jump setting to prepare for increased complexity on the cross-country course. Under the heading of Preparing for increased technical questions on cross-country using a show jump setting, the Handbook lays out a list of skills and concepts that the rider and their coach must now take responsibility for. Exercises which prepare and improve horses for cross-country should:

  • Create turns, lines, and distances which introduce riders and horses to increased technical skills.
  • Incrementally introduce increased accuracy, initially by jumping a single fence on an angle, and progressing to offset fences, narrow fences, and corners.

As the rider progresses, their training plan and level of understanding should allow them to:

  • · Use gymnastic exercises as an integral part of their jumping training, to improve their horse’s skill and strength, their own skill and strength, and to create habitual reactions in their horse and in themselves for the jumping phases.
  • · Be able to identify good quality versus poor quality of the shape of the horse’s jump.
  • · Understand the concepts and goals of gymnastic jumping exercises, including how gymnastics can improve the horse’s balance, agility, rhythm, bascule, understanding, and confidence.

Therefore, jumping exercises which prepare the horse and rider for more exacting canter work may include producing a range of balanced stride lengths using poles and cavaletti. The use of gymnastic exercises, jump shape and structure, and related distances and their variables should be used in schooling and training to improve or correct specific faults in individual horses, and to strengthen horses and riders.

I use an enormous amount of imagination and curiosity in creating or “tweaking” exercises that will produce a specific result in each horse. It is extremely important that the exercises do not “trick” the horse, but rather provide the horse with an opportunity to find the skill or technique we need him to learn. The fence shape, the appearance and materials used to build the jump, the placement rails, the approach and landing lines all have a unique effect on the specific horse and rider I am working with.

Materials matter. There is every size and shape of plastic cavaletti block available. These may be suitable for the lowest of heights, but they are a bit prone to getting knocked around if the horse hits the rail that is sitting on them. Best to go to regular jump standards and cups when the exercises reach 2’ or higher. For ground rails, I like to use 10’ long 4 x 4 lumber, painted white. The 4 x 4’s don’t roll, and when used as walk or trot poles can help your horse develop a healthy respect for show jumping rails, by providing the horse with the opportunity to have a “rub” on the ground.

At the same time, ground poles will increase your horse’s confidence with poles and with his own ability to adjust. When the rider is intent on maintaining the rhythm to and through single or multiple poles, the horse begins to adjust himself within the rhythm. I prefer to raise one or both ends of ground poles when working in canter, as it helps the horse keep a more uphill balance by asking for a slightly more elevated step. I have some very low (3”) heavy plastic pole supports made exactly for that purpose.

The value of the slow work, walk included, over ground poles and raised poles does not diminish over time in the development of the horse. Often the magic begins to happen the first time a horse reaches down to look at a single pole on the ground, and then proceeds to step carefully over with back fully rounded, head to toe, in the ideal bascule for jumping. Those exercises form the base of support for all the jumping work throughout the levels and should be carried on through the lifetime of the horse.

To keep the horses interested, thoughtful, and exposed to all manner of “stuff”, during the winter I keep handy my portable Jump 4 Joy narrows (I have three varieties) and a small collection of weird and wonderful fillers (I got a dragon a couple of years ago for Christmas) to add into my gymnastic exercises. I make frequent use of the popular blue plastic barrel (with a ground pole on both sides to keep it from rolling), and I have two widths and colors of water trays to introduce horses to a ditch or Liverpool which I can throw into the mix.

Flower boxes also make great cavaletti elements, as filler or on their own. While the well-filled jump can create a great bascule in the air, there is also a place for the airy, no groundline, top heavy jump to get the horse’s focus and effort where it needs to be: the top rail. Every time I visit someone else’s training facility, I take stock of their cavaletti system and their exercises, and I am continuously adding to my collection of gymnastic tools.

In conclusion, from the Preliminary through Advanced levels, the “USEA Eventing Handbook by the Levels” describes the use of gymnastics, including all the variations and elements described above, in terms of:

  • · Strengthening and improving the technical quality of the jumping effort of the horse, and/or which permits the rider to focus on developing and strengthening greater independence from, and connection to, the reins.
  • · Creating individualized, specific horse/rider gymnastic jumping exercises, which address all possible weaknesses, strengthen muscle memory, footwork, develop correct bascule, and improve both horse and rider.
  • · Incorporating into the jumping practice the strengthening, suppling and balancing exercises and movements from the dressage training.

The “Eventing Handbook by the Levels” will help any rider or coach successfully implement this type of “footwork” into regular practice. I personally like to separate the words “foot” and “work” to put the emphasis on “work,” as there is no progression without the correct increments and no lasting value without achieving correct, repeatable results. Only perfect practice makes perfect, and that is the rider’s responsibility. Good foot work must be a staple in every event horse’s toolbox, and with the right exercises and knowledgeable eyes on the ground, the coach and rider can develop, hone, and strengthen those tools over the lifetime of the horse.

About the USEA Eventing Coaches Program (ECP)

Coaches are essential to the training of riders and horses for safe and educated participation in the sport of eventing. The USEA Eventing Coaches Program (ECP), formerly known as the Instructors’ Certification Program (ICP), was initiated in 2002 to educate all levels of eventing coaches with crucial training principles upon which they can continue to build throughout their teaching careers. ECP offers educational workshops and assessments by which both regular coaches, Level I through Level V, Young Event Horse (YEH) coaches, and Young Event Horse professional horse trainers can become ECP certified. Additional information about ECP’s goals, benefits, workshops, and assessments as well as names and contact information for current ECP certified coaches, YEH coaches, and YEH professional horse trainers are available on the USEA website. Click here to learn more about the USEA Eventing Coaches Program.

The USEA would like to thank Parker Equine Insurance, the United States Pony Clubs, and Strider for their support of the Eventing Coaches Program.

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