Athletes know that if they repeat the same exercise every day they may plateau. So by cross training and implementing different exercises into their routine, they challenge their bodies to move past that plateau. For horses the notion is the same, and trainers have seen cross training improve conditioning and work ethic, and prevent the boredom that can set in as a result of doing the same thing repetitively, and in the same place, usually the arena.
On the subject of cross training, Rich Fellers of Fellers Stables says, “I believe one of the most significant benefits of crossover training is the extra variety it brings to the working life of the horse.”
Here we break down a few ways to cross train in each discipline, and the benefits of doing so.
Flatwork and The Benefits of Dressage
Perhaps the most common form of cross training comes from flatwork, including dressage. Many trainers advocate teaching their horses and riders dressage, whatever their chosen horse sport, as it improves the horse’s strength, self-carriage, suppleness and obedience. It also improves the rider’s abilities, especially in balance, timing, and use of the aids.
Dressage is key for ride-ability, as it emphasizes how much a horse is on the aids at any point during a ride. It is excellent prep for jumping as it can highlight weaknesses in the horse and rider that translate to work over fences. All around it is an excellent discipline to incorporate as it emphasizes correct body mechanics and balance with a strong focus on biomechanics.
The USDF definition of dressage says, “The Olympic sport of dressage is derived from the French term meaning ‘training’ and its purpose is to strengthen and supple the horse while maintaining a calm and attentive demeanor.” In this way it is easy to see why strong flatwork translates across disciplines.
One advocate of using dressage as cross training for jumpers is George Morris. Hailed as an equestrian legend for decades, he is considered a “founding father” of hunt seat equitation.
Mr. Morris emphasizes that Olympic riders have a strong basis in dressage, suggesting a suppling lesson on the flat at the start of the week, which is essentially a very basic preparation lesson that incorporates leg yields, Haunches-In, and Shoulder-In. Morris suggests doing reverse turns with haunches out all with the intention of engaging the horse’s hind-end, immensely important to dressage, but critical for safe and correct jumping.
Jumps are 50 percent and the other 50 percent is dressage,” says Mr. Morris in his firm belief in executing strong flat work. “Circling puts the horse together. It gets the horse supple behind and the neck straight. Dressage puts the horse together so it’s easier to jump.”
In some ways the benefits are clear, as is the case with flying changes. “For better flying changes,” Mr. Morris says, “do counter-canter for 6-10 strides, and then a flying change, then walk 3-4 strides, then repeat… and don’t hang on that inside rein!”
Even in just a few exercises, it is clear how effective flatwork translates to jumps.
Cross Country for Fun and Fitness
Hacks and trail rides can be both relaxing and good conditioning for the horse. Riding trails or cross-country helps horses become more sure-footed, encourages endurance, and also helps to desensitize to distractions, erratic environments, and new challenges. Getting out of the arena is a mood lifter for both horse and rider and offers enormous benefits for the ride once you move back to structured work.
For example, riding up and down hills develops strength, balance, and flexibility. Turns and varying terrain make the horse use his brain in ways the arena doesn’t demand, asking both horse and rider to fine tune a new set of skills. Balance, confidence, and creativity are all benefits of cross country riding or riding out, and as long as it is done safely and with the correct precautions there is endless fun to be had. In addition to a good time, enjoying a good gallop or hack on the trail is great for relationship building and instilling work ethic between horse and rider, as horses can easily get sour after endless 20 meter circles or laps around the ring.
Think about interval training—increasing and decreasing the speed of the horse, in a repeated pattern— when you are out hacking by sometimes hand-galloping over even terrain or on the long side of the arena. Riding the hand-gallop at a two-point position, as though for jumping improves position and balance for jumpers, and again: that endurance!
Jumping To Access Athleticism
Jumping is another sport where exposure is beneficial, whether it involves incorporating ground poles and cavallettis into the horse’s training, or actual jumps. This kind of work improves the horse’s rhythm, and forces him to use his hind end with more power to move over obstacles. Cavallettis, for example, improve the horse’s musculature and movement, developing power, stamina, and coordination, beneficial whatever your main discipline or interest.
For those who don’t have experience with jumping, it’s advisable to begin jumping over single obstacles on the long side of the arena. When horse and rider are comfortable with that, they can proceed to more jumps. Be sure to set up the distances between the fences to match the length of the horse’s stride and to raise the height of the jumps only when the horse is ready. Always wear a helmet and always jump under an instructor’s supervision as the dangers increase with this kind of work.
Jumping develops athleticism, balance, and improves strength in the hindquarters but it also improves concentration and dexterity. For riders, it is a great lesson in adjusting a horse’s stride to a distance and improves the eye and feel necessary for success in the jumping ring. Even poles and cavalettis, a small and safe way to enjoy the benefits of jumping, have benefits that crossover into other disciplines. Also, it’s tremendous fun!
Driving—either behind a cart or ground driving—is a test of the horse’s willingness to be obedient, but also helps teach “going forward,” reining, and straightness, encouraging self-carriage and suppleness, and reinforces what has been learned on the lunge line. Further, for the horse that is easily bored, it is a different forum in which to both teach and exercise. The foundations of driving translate to improved performance and success in other disciplines with many benefits, especially for young horses. It allows the horse to move his body without the weight of the rider, but with instruction from the driver offering a great learning tool for horses as they come up.
Horsewoman Lyn Dodd, of Dodd Stables in Ridgefield, WA, developed a Western Dressage program for riders that she describes as “a combination of the western style of riding with the classical training of dressage. The goal is to help riders and horses develop into their fullest potential with lightness, acceptance and correct biomechanical movements to enhance the riding experience, not detract from it.”
Dodd says, “Western Dressage is not designed to make western horses and riders into dressage riders with all the big, bold movements that Classical Dressage demands, but to help them understand the techniques and develop the precision, lightness and grace that comes with the dressage discipline.” In this way, Dodd’s style of Western Dressage has taken elements of classic flatwork and applied them to her own sport for supple and willing horses.
Cross training can improve your horse’s strength and athletism, for whatever kind of horse sport you want to pursue. It challenges your horse, gives him variety and prevents him from becoming arena sour, while also improving the rider’s skill and deepening the sense of connection between the two.
In some ways, cross training is an exercise in keeping work interesting; developing new skills and enhancing a good foundation by choosing dynamic exercises that challenge both horse and rider in fun and helpful ways. Each discipline highlights and emphasizes certain skills, so by incorporating cross training into your routine you are ensuring a well-rounded (and fun!) way of training your horse and improving your riding
by Janice Hussein