Building up your skills through cross-training …

[Part 2 of our Equitation Series – First posted in Issue No. 11, Try Something New]

While the allure of big fancy fences and expressive movements have and always will be a draw to riders trying to reach the top of their sport, is the less showy foundational skills that will truly get a rider to the top, or at the very least make them a confident and capable rider who can handle the challenges that training and competition often throws their way.

Many riders are beginning to realize that cross-training is the way to go when trying to build their skills and train their horses effectively. Classic Dressage principles can help Hunter, Jumper, and Event riders build better equitation skills, while low fences and cavelettis can help Dressage riders teach their horses to better engage the hind end.

You don’t need to switch disciplines to learn some new techniques from another discipline, but try a lesson or take some training exercises from another discipline to change up the monotony of your regular routine and infuse new life into your riding.

Predictable training will always yield predictable results, so it’s essential that riders have a strong base knowledge in the essential foundations of riding to progress their skills and train their horse’s right. Regardless of your chosen discipline, the foundational principles of good riding are always the same.

Riders should always think like a trainer, even if they aren’t one, as it will help to make them more adaptable and competent in the saddle, and able to ride their horses more effectively.

You, as a rider, should also be a problem solver — regardless of level, age, or discipline. A rider with good problem solving skills can fix issues fast, which can keep issues in the tack from becoming explosive, lower stress, and generally make for a more confident and self-aware horse and rider team.

As equitation becomes a more popular buzz word in the industry, riders truly need to turn their focus back to building their knowledge base in order to become better equestrians overall. Learning how to “equitate” properly can have impressive results on your riding and competitive results, regardless of whether you are a Dressage, Hunter, or Event rider.


The essential part of any training is for the rider to understand how proper aids get proper results. It’s the rider’s responsibility to take ownership for their actions, and ensure they are asking for what they want correctly, as this sets your horse up for success.

Focus on being accurate and consistent with your aids, and your horse will become more responsive and attentive to what you want, unclear communication leads to problems – if your horse can’t understand you, he can’t do what you want him to. Your position in the saddle will impact the quality of your aids, so be attentive to how your riding as it will impact your horse.

A supple rider, who is loose and moves with the rhythm of the horse, will have an easier time getting their horse to loosen up and become supple. In contrast, if you’re tight your horse is going to be tight too.


Transitions, transitions, transitions … and just when you think you’ve done enough, do more (and more) transitions. Transitions are an essential training tool to help make your horse more rideable and obedient. Good transitions not only give you more control of your horse’s speed of gait while schooling (or in the show ring), but also help you to ensure your horse is balanced and working off and engaging the hind legs when you are executing transitions while jumping a course, or during a dressage test.


A rider should have a clear understanding of their horse’s balance, and overall alignment as it has a profound effect on their movement and rideability. A balanced horse is responsive to subtle aids and is easy to access, where an unbalanced horse will be strong, forward, and can often be seen to “run away” with its rider. This can be especially true for thoroughbreds. Always start by focusing on balance and alignment, then build up from there.

Riders should not attempt “big” trots and canters until proper balance and strength is established in the horse. You should only ever ride as big as you can handle, as without proper balance things will start to fall apart. A rider always needs to be in control, and this isn’t a case of brute force, but of subtle aiding and the ability to control the movement of your horse’s legs through balance and alignment. You should be the one to set the speed, not the horse, and you should always be able to move the gait forward and back (extension and collection) as you see fit.


Good problem solving skills are a rider’s best friend; you should be able to assess and adapt to challenges as they arise and while you are in motion. A common phenomenon when things go awry is to stop, catch a breath, fix the issue, and then move on – but this isn’t always the right approach.

A good rider can fix an issue while still in motion; stopping to fix issues often leads to more problems as horses learn to predict this stop.


If you want to work on your horse’s foundations, incorporate gymnastic exercises in your training regime 2 to 4 times a week. Gymnastic exercises will teach your horse more cadence and strengthen muscles, while also improving the quality of their gaits.

Gymnastics are designed to be challenging, and you’d be surprised how much they will reveal about potential gaps in your training. Even well-schooled horses can suddenly fall flat and on the forehand if they are not used to engaging their bodies in the specific and very controlled manner required for these type of exercises.

Regularly incorporating gymnastics into your training will improve your horse’s self-awareness and how he actively uses and engages his body during riding. This self-awareness will reflect back into all aspects of your riding going forward, from movements in a dressage test to form over fences.

With a few simple polls or cavelettis you can create a range of exercises that will improve your horse’s movement, suppleness, elevation, and pacing. Gymnastic exercises will encourage your horse to activate their hindquarters, move over their back, and become supple while stretching into the hand.

When setting up your gymnastic exercise the correct distances are very important:

  • For the walk – 0.8 – 0.9m apart
  • For trot work – 1.2 – 1.3m apart
  • For canter work – 3m apart

When your cavelettis are placed closer together, your horse will be required to step shorter, forcing him to move with more collection and elevation. In contrast, wider cavelleti placement will increase the forward movement from the shoulder, extending the pace.

You can also try a curved line for working on essential skills at the trot and canter. Place your cavelettis in a fan-shape (on a circle), with a distance of 1.2m for trot work, and 2m (inside line) and 3m (outside line) for canter.

The fan shape allows you to work on both collection and extended paces without having to change the setup of your gymnastic. By simply varying your line between the outside and inside of the fan, you can work on different skills, all at the same time.

Good training, and good riding, is about taking small steps towards the end goal. By taking a “one-step at a time” approach to training riders can ensure they have the appropriate knowledge required to train their horses effectively, and allow the horse the opportunity to understand each lesson before moving on to the next one.

A varied training routine that pulls foundational skills from across the disciplines will develop a more rounded horse and rider combination that is able to trust one another and problem solve on the go, setting both up for long term success in the show ring or while schooling at home.

Stephanie Jensen is an EC Level 2 certified coach and Grand Prix Dressage rider with 3 decades of coaching and training experience. She specializes in teaching classical foundations to riders of all disciplines.

Jordan Thompson is a Canadian eventer who has achieved success internationally at the 1* and 2* level. She has her level 1 coaching certification and has trained under many top riders, including Ian Roberts, Ryan Wood, Ute Busse, & Stephanie Jensen.


Are you ready to start dusting off those cobwebs?

Stephanie and Jordan are thrilled to offer a unique 6 month clinic series to equestrians of Durham region. This intensive learning program has been designed to develop and improve skills on the flat and over fences.

Designed for riders of all disciplines, from grass roots to advanced, clinic dates will be offered twice a month, from March through August 2016.

Don’t miss this chance to see the benefits of cross-training in action!

To book, contact or

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