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The Basics of Cavalleties


Cavalleties are a wonderful tool that can enhance any training program. In this article, I'm going to talk about the uses and benefits of cavalleties.

Cavalleties are simply poles that are raised up slightly off of the ground. Most cavalleties have varying height adjustments for different exercises. Cavalleties are simple to build and can be easily constructed by anyone. The two most common designs are an X on each end of a pole, or a box on each end of a pole. When using the X design, two 2x4s measuring 2 feet long are secured together to form an X. The pole should be laid in the angle that the top or the bottom of the X figure makes and secured in place. Screws are best for this, since they hold better and won't loosen and protrude out like nails can when they become worn and loose. With the pole attached to one end of the X, the X can be rotated so that the pole is on the bottom, low to the ground, or on it's side, raising the pole slightly, or turned upside down, so that the pole is on the top of the X. The second design is a box design. With this design, one constructs a two-foot square frame using 2x4's. Cut a 2 foot square out of sturdy plywood, and cut a hole just big enough to fit the pole through about 4 inches from one edge, eight inches from the opposite edge, and centered between the other two. Cut a second one to match, and attach them to the frame and run the pole through both holes. Again, the box may be rotated to raise or lower the pole.

The benefits to using cavalleties in flat work are numerous to both horse and rider.

Travelling across cavalleties requires the horse to work harder than when traveling on flat ground, they must pick up their hocks and knees more, and depending on the distance between the cavalleties, they will need to step up underneath themselves more. Just negotiating the poles requires a horse to lower it's head to see where it needs to put it's feet, which promotes relaxation and allows the back to swing more freely. Poles with exact spacing will even out a horse's rythm. The engagement of the hocks, the suppleness of the horse's back and the concentration necessary to negotiate cavalleties improves and developes the horse's balance and impulsion. One can more easily teach a horse to shorten and lengthen it's strides by changing the distances, slightly, between the poles. And lastly, cavalleties can teach a horse to approach an obstacle with confidence and ease.

The rider learns to relax and soften their joints to allow the horse's spine to flex, and it can improve the rider's balance and sense of rythm as the rider learns to adapt to the more energetic movement of the horse. As the horse works harder to negotiate the poles, the rider can more easily feel the "drive from behind" and allowing the rider to learn to sense the difference between when the horse is using it's hindquarters and when it's not. By changing the distances, the rider can learn to feel the true difference between a longer and shorter stride and not be fooled by the horse speeding up or slowing down the steps. Because the horse learns to move better, the rider has an easier ride. It's so much easier to ride a horse that travels balanced and rythmically. Working with cavalleties also helps the rider to develop an eye for distances and approaches, something which doesn't come naturally for many people and must be practiced. This will help not only in learning to jump, but also anytime the horse and rider must negotiate uneven ground or natural obstacles encountered when trail riding.

None of these benefits will be evident, however, if the cavalleti work isn't done correctly. Incorrect cavalleti work results in a hurried, tense, upset horse, and has no value.

When introducing a horse to cavalleties for the first time, it's usually best to start with one pole, set as low as it will go. Walk and trot the horse over this pole until the horse is perfectly relaxed and calm and there is no hesitation. When the horse is unconcerned about going across one, then add another. Each time a pole is added, wait until the horse is unconcerned and relaxed before adding another one. Generally, there should not be more than three or four cavalleti poles in a row. Once you are using more than one pole, you will need to be sure the poles are placed the correct distance apart for your horse's natural stride. Changing the distances in order to help change your horse's length of stride should not be attempted until the horse is very experienced with walking and trotting several poles with a rider. Make sure the horse crosses a pole at every stride. Poles placed with one "empty" stride is more advanced, and should also wait until the horse is more experienced. An average distance between poles for a walk stride is around 2'6". An average distance between poles for a trot stride is 4' to 4'6". These are average distances only and are just a place to start. Your particular horse may need them adjusted, depending on his size and conformation and natural way of moving. You must determine if your horse looks comfortable moving through the poles and if he seems to have to shuffle or "dance" through them, you should move them accordingly. Ideally, the horse's hind hoof should land midway between two poles. I personally like to set up a horse's first line of poles in an area that can be approached easily with a large gentle turn from either rein. Approaching and working from both sides is important.

Many people will first introduce the Cavalleties to the horse on the longeline. They feel that this is easier, physically, for the horse to deal with. Without a rider, the horse may find it easier to flex and swing the back and to pick the legs up higher. If you find that your horse is having a hard time getting across the poles while you are riding, this may be an option to try.

When you ride your horse across the poles, a posting or jumping position is best, especially in the beginning when your horse may be easily interfered with. A rider that causes the inexperienced horse to lose balance and/or rythm when introducing the horse to this type of work may cause the horse to bang his legs or hooves painfully on the poles. This may certainly cause a horse to become upset or frightened and it will refuse to cross them, or cross them with tension or rushing, compounding the problem. People will often put leg protection on the horse when working over cavalleties, and while this will help, a sharp rap on the leg or hoof is still startling and can be painful. Plan your approach carefully to avoid having a wobbly, snake-y line. The approach should be several straight strides before crossing the first pole. The rider should concentrate on planning the route to create a balanced, uniform turn and keeping the horse rythmic and energized. It's to be expected that a horse will hesitate, initially, when approaching a line of cavalleti poles, but ideally, the horse should not lose rhythm or lose impulsion on the approach. The horse should feel bouncier and more energetic when crossing the poles, but the rhythm should stay the same as before and after. This is what the rider should be striving for. It's often helpful to circle first to establish a steady rythm, then move into the line of poles, then circle after the last one. When riding across the poles, the rider should stay balanced and relaxed and should keep their eyes up. Looking down at the poles causes tension in the spine and can displace the lower leg. Work the horse no more than 20 minutes over cavalleti patterns every other day. This is very difficult physical work, and a horse can become sore and tired. A sore, tired horse will not be relaxed and willing.

Once the horse has experience walking and trotting several cavalleti poles, and is confident and relaxed, you can start using them in your training. Cavalleties are an excellent tool to help improve your horse's movement. Set the poles up one level higher for this work. As the horse pushes more strongly and with more energy of the hindquarters to cross the higher poles, concentrate on feeling the difference between that and the horse's movement when not crossing the poles. After the horse crosses the last pole, try to keep that same energy and impulsion for as long as possible after clearing the poles. Even after the horse loses that feel, keep a steady rythm circle around the ring for another approach. When you can keep the improved way of going for time after the poles, try asking for it on the approach to the poles. Keep asking on the approach, relax slightly through the poles, then ask more distinctly again after the poles.

Use the same principle for encouraging the horse to lengthen the stride. Keep the poles on the lowest height, but move them apart several inches. Establish a rythm and approach the line. As the horse is crossing the last pole, apply the aids for lengthening and try to maintain the longer stride for as long as possible after clearing the last pole. When the horse falls apart, relax and simply keep a rythm around the ring and make another approach. Eventually, start asking for the lengthening on the approach. Vary the distance between several sets, and ask the horse to lengthen or shorten when approaching the appropriate set, and to maintain that length for as long as possible after.

With both of these exercises, you should keep the horse moving around the ring and across the poles for several circuits in a row. This helps the horse to learn rythm and gives him time to understand what you are asking for. After several circuits, stop and walk around on a loose rein to give the horse a break. There are many patterns that can be used to improve the horse's movement and way of going. Using them in corners helps the horse to work through a corner better. Setting poles so that there is one "empty" stride between poles will help the horse to learn to maintain his rythm and length of stride on his own. The lists are endless.

Cavalleties can also be used in preperation for jumping. To cover a jump course well, a horse needs rythm and balance. Set up three trot cavalleties in front of a pole laid on the ground between two standards. Leave one empty stride between the cavalleties and the pole on the ground. Trot the cavalleties and continue across the pole. Work on maintaining the rider's jumping position and the horse's rythm. Again, continue on around the ring for another approach, concentrating on keeping the horse steady and relaxed. When this is going well, set up some cavalleties for cantering. To canter the cavalleties, they should placed about ten feet apart. Using three is generally best. The rider should stay balanced and light with the weight in the stirrups. Approach at an easy canter and keeping the horse steady and straight, concentrate on feeling the rythm of the approach, the feeling of the takeoff and recovery as the horse bounds over each pole, and the departure after the last one. The rider should keep the upper body as quiet as possible, letting the joints flex and allowing the cavalleties to set the rythm. This is a great exercise to build confidence in both horse and rider.

For more patterns and uses of cavalleties for all levels, check out this website: http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Acropolis/.../8909/grid.html



Laura Martlock - 2006 (c)

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