Trainer Tuesday: What is a basic exercise that you think every showing rider and horse should be able to do?

Welcome to Trainer Tuesday! Each week we ask trainers a question and gather their answers for you. These trainers have a range of experience, backgrounds, and focus points of their programs, so the answers have as much variation as you would expect and also probably much more similarity. 

This week’s question posed is: What is a basic exercise that you think every showing rider and horse should be able to do? 

Here are their answers: 

“I’d say riders should be effective at measuring. This can be accomplished by doing pole exercises riding bareback at the canter measuring timing, distance, and pace.”
-Chad Mahaffey
Read about Chad winning here

I think every horse and rider should understand at least a rudimentary half halt before they show, meaning, is the rider able to rebalance their horse when necessary and does the horse understand what’s being asked? That’s an important skill not only for the show ring itself, but probably more important in the warm up where everyone needs to be prepared to adjust their plan on the fly – go forward, come back, shorten the stride so you don’t run into someone or lengthen the stride to get out of someone else’s way.” -Randi Heathman
Listen to Randi’s book Horses for Courses: The Definitive Guidebook for the Prospective College Equestrian, Second Edition.

“Being able to drop and retrieve stirrups at all gaits.” -Mary Ann Thomas 
Read about Mary Ann in The Plaid Horse here

“Every showing rider and horse should be able to ride a line on 3 different canters (short, medium and long) to get three different numbers (i.e. 5, 6, or 7 strides) properly to create good and balanced jumping efforts. You should be able to do this on a straight line and on a bending line to be able to change up your track as well. Start with poles on the ground, then use cavaletti, then use jumps. Repeat until you’re proficient at those exercises, otherwise you’re asking to struggle over longer, more challenging show courses!” -Michael Tokaruk
Listen to Michael on the Plaidcast here

Riders and horses should ride off the rail. Too many horses and riders rely on the rail as an outside aid and can’t control the horse’s body as soon as they come off the rail. Flatwork is #1 but if you just practice leaving 3-4 feet between you and the rail and keep your horse straight, it’s a start!” -Caroline Mercier Stanton

“I love a figure eight. A circle each direction, I was taught that a majority of the training we do can be accomplished on a circle. I go back to the figure eight in riding lessons regularly because weaknesses quickly show up and can be easily addressed. Though simple, it’s a good check in for all levels.“ -Matt Piccolo
Read about Matt winning in Wellington here

Simple gymnastics are fundamental for both riders and horses. Some of my favorites are: multiple bounces (height appropriate for rider level), trotting into a crossrail to an oxer to a vertical, the circle of death, and adding or removing strides using a track over multiple poles in a circle.” -Waddy Oursler

Riders and horses should know common flatwork including turn on the forehand and haunches and leg yields in both directions. Practicing these helps build a stronger sense of communication between horse and rider. The more you are able to both effectively and minimally use your seat and leg, the more safe you are on course.”
-Payton Medford

Riders should be able to add or leave out a stride in a set line. You need to know how to prepare your horse for the length of stride and impulsion to cover any amount of ground, and to know what canter you have and what you need to communicate that change. Set up a basic cavaletti line for you to practice adding and leaving out.”
-Stefanie Mazer
Read Stefanie’s Tips to Successfully Matching Buyers and Sellers here.

“Jumping a small line repeatedly and purposefully asking for different numbers of strides between fences (collect and extend and open and close stride length).” -Traci Brooks
Listen to Traci’s book With Purpose: The Balmoral Standard.

I use a 9 ft trot rail to a vertical then canter to an oxer. The rider trots in and canters out of a line adding one stride from the canter number, so 72 ft becomes trot in and canter out in six strides, etc.” -Diane Carney
Listen to Diane on the Plaidcast here.

“It goes without saying that every rider should learn to communicate with their horse on the flat before jumping. To me, learning about “leg to hand” etc. and how to read your horse (on a daily basis) is most important before jumping.

I use an exercise that is often considered ‘kindergarten’ with some trainers but I believe it can benefit both horse and riders for many reasons. It is basically trot in a line and canter out. I believe all horses and riders can benefit by getting comfortable trotting a jump. First we work on a single trot jump almost always with a rail to set up the jump. This teaches me about my horse and my rider—-connection, timing balance, release, focus—-all the things we need. Once we are comfortable with that piece I add a jump at the end of a straight line.  Now we work on counting and measuring and teach stride control. You are also Learning about your release, your “down stroke” position and reaction and your “get away” stride as well as focusing on each stride to the next jump. Repetition is key to gaining the most benefit.

This exercise has served me well as a rider, trainer and teacher. You can protect your horses when teaching people (even advanced riders) and you can get (young—or all) horses to focus on the exercise while increasing the questions you ask of them with each adjustment of your jumps. This exercise is also a calming way to introduce bigger jumps to your students (or horses) at the end of the line as well.

From cross rails to Grand Prix this exercise has served me well!” -Colleen McQuay
Listen to Colleen on the Plaidcast here

“I think a simple, safe exercise that every rider at every level should be able to do is to set a line of 3 poles. Ideally 5 strides between each (exact length will depend on whether it is a horse or a pony). Riders should be able to do 5 strides to 5 strides, 6 strides to 5 strides, and 5 strides to 6 strides. If you don’t have the room in your arena, or if you want to go more advanced, you can set the poles on a curve or as an ‘S’. As the riders and horses improve, you can increase or decrease the number of strides with the same distances. The ability to lengthen and shorten is the most important basic ability every horse and rider needs, no matter the discipline (I have friends that are dressage trainers that also use this exercise).” -Geoff Case
Listen to Geoff on the Plaidcast here.

“I think every rider and horse should be able to maintain a strong working trot with forward impulsion for 20 minutes with neither horse nor rider being winded.” -Emily Elek
Stalk Emily’s spreadsheet here

“Across the board for all disciplines, I would say something a horse and rider needs to do is maintain rhythm and balance. For keeping a rhythm of stride and for the ability to lengthen and shorten without changing your horse’s rhythm, cantering poles 60’ apart is an easy exercise, beginning with an add stride of 5 strides and then lengthen to 4 strides. And repeat. Also a trot jump for hunters and jumpers is a basic exercise that everyone should be able to master.” -Donna Pace
Read about Donna in The Plaid Horse here

An exercise that I think is great to prepare for the show ring is jumping a bending line and changing the number of strides done in the line. This exercise helps horses understand adjustability but also helps riders understand the track that has to be taken to get the number of strides done. For example if a line walks in six strides the line can be executed in a range from five to eight strides depending on the track taken. To get 5 strides done the rider can gallop the turn and go out to direct the line to take out the bend. To get eight done the rider can collect the horse through the turn and turn early to the in of the line to make more of a bend. I use this exercise frequently and commonly we will lesson without stirrups and jump this exercise over small jumps so it is not hard on the horses. While this exercise is great for an equitation lesson our jumpers and hunters commonly take part as well. For the young hunters with big strides, this exercise helps these horses learn adjustability so adjustments can look seamless on course and for the jumpers it is important to have an adjustable horse to jump clean. When the course becomes challenging, having a horse who is well schooled and can extend and collect easily is very important as well as a rider who understands the track that needs to be taken in the line to make a clean and beautiful jump.” -Abbi Ferrigno 

“For beginner riders, I have them two-point to improve leg position and strength of the leg (heck- not bad for more advanced riders too). Practicing riding straight lines and coming through corners. I always joke with the kids who say I’ll never use geometry! Well, you do in jumping a course.

Horses need to have manners and patience, so groundwork is very important. They should be calm at the gate and able to deal with all the horse show ‘stuff’ (golf carts, bikes, dogs, etc). Need to be adjustable-lengthen/shorten. Either canter 2 poles or jumps- add stride, horse stride, add stride. Etc. 

I love serpentines. Straight-turn (bend) straight. I try to get kids to understand to create the bend before the turn, stay on the straight, then allow the turn to happen. And that bend doesn’t always mean turn. That helps with the lead change. The kids that pull on the inside rein, get the change in front, not behind.” -Jennifer Pigue
Read about Jennifer’s students winning the Horsemanship Quiz Challenge stable challenge here

“I think that every horse and rider should be able to do a 3rd level dressage test. It consists of a medium trot and canter. Collected canter. Flying changes both directions. A half pass, shoulder in and turn on the haunches. If you can do a 3rd level test 1 dressage test smoothly, you have a good grasp on basic flat work and your jumping should be much smoother.” -Georgy Maskrey-Segesman
Read about Georgy’s big move in The Plaid Horse here

“Actually getting to know your horse, his or her likes and dislikes. Get to know your horse’s character, understanding them on a daily basis, as to the amount of work to do each day. Hopefully understanding them without the lunge line, and how much flat work will be necessary on a daily basis. That’s also understanding their fitness level and to achieve the correct amount of fitness for each horse. Your show schedule, your age of your horse are contributing factors to this. I’m not sure this really answers your question, but on a daily basis, coming out and spending time with your horse at a walk, letting them loosen up and relax and settle before you go to work is so important, lengthening and shortening at the trot, teaching them to give from your hand and move and from your leg is a must. I would love to think of all this being done with as few jumps as possible, as each one only has so many jumps in their life.” -Bob Crandall
Read Bob’s Questionnaire in The Plaid Horse here

“Every single rider should be able to length and shorten at the canter while keeping the canter and not breaking to the trot.” -Dorrie Douglas
Read about Dorrie’s recent win at World Equestrian Center here

Do a line of poles set at 64-67 feet and do it in a 4 stride, 5 stride and 6 stride and be able to do it on a bend both ways and a straight line.  If you can answer that you have a good understanding of pace and rhythm. You shouldn’t have to change your pace in the line but come into the line knowing the feeling of the canter it will take to accomplish the correct striding.” -Hope Glynn
Read about Hope’s views on the market here

“When riders and coaches think of the term ‘riding fit’ they are most likely thinking of the rider who works out 6 days a week in the gym or rides eight horses a day. For the majority of us, neither are practical in terms of finding time in our daily lives. In my years as head coach of the Dartmouth College Varsity Equestrian Team, and as a traveling clinician in the years since, I tell all my riders ONE key exercise to get riding fit fast… two-point with no stirrups! I teach kids and adults around the world and the first thing I say after the warm-up is ‘ok riders, drop your stirrups and go up in your two-point!’ EVERY rider can do this at the walk, or even the halt, and then work up to accomplishing it at the trot and the canter! There is nothing better for developing a tight seat and leg than this fundamental exercise.

My essential exercise for the horse and rider is to be able to jump a serpentine with verticals set lengthwise on the centerline. Most riders on the Big Eq circuit are blessed with highly trained horses who know their changes but in my world of catch riding on both the high school and IHSA level, it is essential to know the skills to be able to land on the correct, new lead before riding through the corners. Even for horses on the circuit there is nothing better for teaching straightness and balance than this essential exercise.” -Sally Batton
Read Sally’s book The Athletic Equestrian: Over 40 Exercises for Good Hands, Power Legs, and Superior Seat Awareness.

“Canter a line at 72’ apart whether it be pole, crossrails or the 2’6” depending on level one wishes to show…execute 5,6,7,6,5 and 7,6,5,6,7 strides evenly. That shows me the rider knows where they are and can adjust as needed.” -Courtney Fromm 
Read about Courtney in The Plaid Horse here

“One basic exercise I think that is overlooked is backing up in a straight line. Whether you’re on a hunter, jumper, or equitation horse, it is a fundamental exercise. It’s about knowing your horse and being able to control the use of your aids properly and effectively. It also assists with muscle strength, transitions, and maneuverability.”
-Quinn Partridge
Read about Quinn winning here.

“Rider and horses should be able to canter a pole on a 20m circle. When preparing for jumping competition, they should regularly practice and expect improvement each time this exercise is ridden. The goal is to be able to negotiate a pole placed on the arena center line 10 times exactly out of stride while riding over it on a 20m circle track.

This very basic exercise is crucial to the development of a horse and rider team planning to ride in jumping competition of any level because it simultaneously trains regularity of pace, lateral suppleness of the horse (ability to maintain inside flexion), longitudinal suppleness (ability to lengthen & shorten stride), and calmness of both horse & rider when facing an obstacle.

To be consistently successful in meeting the pole out of stride, the horse should remain lightly flexed to the inside and maintain a regular rhythm in the canter without the rider holding the horse physically in the pace with rein or leg aids. Remaining in a regular, relaxed stride will allow the rider to make adjustments prior to each subsequent attempt at the pole—shortening the stride of the horse if it ends up too close to the pole or lengthening the stride if the horse must reach across the pole.” -McKrell Baier

“I think that one of the best exercises for both horse and rider is setting a line with two low cavaletti. I ask them to jump it in the correct striding, then leave out a stride, then add a stride. I tell the rider what I want just before they jump into the line, so that they have to think quickly and make adjustments on the fly.

This exercise comes in handy when you’re on course and you jump weak into a line, or if you jump in big. You have taught both horse and rider that they can open up their stride and get down there in the right number, or they can both stay steady and wait to the base.” -Laurie Scott

“Trot cavalettis to establish rhythm and strength.” -Carleton Brooks
Listen to Carleton’s book With Purpose: The Balmoral Standard.

“My favorite exercise for both horse and rider is simple, but allows both to work on several things at once: setting two poles 70’ apart then having riders canter them consecutively demonstrating five, six, and seven strides. It’s a fantastic exercise for riders to work on their “eye,” pace, rhythm, as well as working on the horse’s adjustability. This exercise can also be done with three poles set on a bending line allowing riders to also focus on track, while still working on their horse’s adjustability as they consistently lengthen and shorten their stride.” -Kris Cheyne
Listen to Kris on the Plaidcast here.

“I believe that before any rider who plans to ride in the show ring, no matter if it’s cross rails or a GP, they must have solid basics. The basics being:

  • Heels down
  • Eyes up
  • Straight line from bit to elbow
  • Correct stirrup length 
  • Proper placement of the foot in the stirrup. (Outside branch slightly forward of the inside branch)
  • Stirrup on the ball of the foot… not “home” (all the way back at the heel)
  • Proper rein length and that includes no twists in the reins and if you are riding in a Pelham, and holding two reins, the snaffle rein should always be on top, and the curb rein on the  bottom…not the other way around. The curb rein should always be a bit more slack than the snaffle rein
  • Riders should know the rein aids as well. Direct rein, indirect rein, opening or leading rein, the pulley rein, and how to implement them in their riding. 
  • A secure and solid full seat 
  • A proper two point or half seat
  • Uniform grip of thigh, knee, and calf 
  • All tack should be clean and well fitting 

And above all, the ability to apply these basics to their riding, so they have proper control and safety. Unfortunately, in the show ring today, you see many many riders who lack good solid fundamentals and basics, and until they do master the basics of riding, they should not be in the show ring.” -Lyman T. Whitehead
Listen to Lyman on the Plaidcast here.

“I think turning on the forehand and the haunches are a very important basic exercises. It shows the riders and horses ability to feel and influence each part of the body. Both horse and rider should be soft, patient and not pulling with or through the hands. Then of course, riding without stirrups.” -Jayme Nelson

“I think a basic exercise every showing horse should be able to do is canter on the counter lead. The counter canter is a great exercise to work on balance and straightness. This can help a swapping hunter or a strong drift on a jumper. This simple exercise is a great indicator to see which side your horse favors, as riders if we over bend the horse in one direction or if we are weak with the outside leg. It may take time to build up your horse’s training to be able to hold the counter canter. So, like anything with our equine partners, be patient and add in a little each day.”
-Hannah Selleck

“My favorite exercise is to start with two trot poles on a circle incorporating this into your warmup. Start with trotting the poles going in one direction then doing a figure eight pattern over the trot poles. Once we start cantering I move the trot poles to a bounce exercise. We practice cantering the bounce off both leads then do a figure eight pattern over the bounce exercise. Once we start jumping I still incorporate the bounce into what we are jumping. This week we have a four stride line to four stride line. We start with five to five then do four to four and practice lengthening and shortening the stride. I will have the rider canter the line then canter the pole bounce exercise using this to change direction then go back down the line off the other lead. This helps get the horses soft and comfortable as well as landing on both leads. I have found most any level rider can do this exercise.” -Sara Rhodes

“One exercise I find very important in teaching as well as my own riding is to ride a circle correctly at the walk, trot and the canter. It is important to maintain the inside bend while using both reins with soft contact on the horses mouth and both legs with different and correct contact and pressure. Correct circles or parts of a circle are something that we encounter while we are jumping a course of jumps. We find this helps our turns, bending or broken lines, and role back turns. This simple yet difficult exercise helps with balance, track and pace.” -Troy Hendricks

“I believe all riders and horses should be able to canter in and trot out of a line. It develops ride-ability in the horses and makes the riders more in control of their body within the line when they aren’t just counting to a specific set strides to jump out. I like to incorporate it towards the end of a course.”I believe all riders and horses should be able to canter in and trot out of a line. It develops ride-ability in the horses and makes the riders more in control of their body within the line when they aren’t just counting to a specific set strides to jump out. I like to incorporate it towards the end of a course.” -Nicole Motes

“I think all riders at all levels should have their feet in the right place in the stirrups. The proper placement of the foot is critical when building a rider. If this is wrong nothing can be right. I make sure the rider has a clear understanding of what it means to have the stirrup on the “ball of the foot” and frequently adjust the stirrup position throughout the lesson so what is wrong does not begin to feel right. I work a lot in the two point at both the trot and the canter as well as the sitting trot focusing on making sure the ball of the foot is solid and anchored and the feet, stirrup bars and leathers are at the proper angles. I encourage riders to make circles in the two point and maintain proper stirrup placement. As the riders advance they are able to make these adjustments themselves as they are doing transitions and jumping.” -Maria Takacs

“Trying to teach my students to do what is best for them and their horse on any given day. Stick to the basics and not worry about anyone else is doing. The height of the jump doesn’t define your ability.” -Janet Sassmanshausen

“If there is one exercise I do quite often with my students, whether if it’s beginners or the more advanced students, it’s poles on the ground. I think there are so many different options you can do with poles. Everything from a single pole or a line of poles while working on lengthening and shortening your stride. I like having 4 poles at one end of the arena in a circle with equal distance between each one and going both directions working on turning, balancing your horse, and jumping. All while practicing working on seeing distances, and not over jumping your horse.” -John Berkos Flisk