Rails Are The Building Blocks for Equine Exercise

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The most basic (and useful) piece of gymnastic jumping equipment is, simply, rails, either natural-colored or painted. You can use them to do anything. And you can set as few as three and as many as 10 of them at a certain distance to trot or canter through them, or you can place them randomly around your riding arena.

Trot rails, set 4 to 4 ?? feet apart, are the best way to introduce horses to jumping and are excellent exercises for building strength and balance, whether your horse jumps for a living or not. (See last month’s article ”Using Gymnastic Exercises Can Improve Horses In All Disciplines.”)

You can set up a long line of them (up to nine or 10 poles) down one side of the ring, in the center or even across a diagonal. Or you set a group of three or four rails, then have a break of several strides to another group of three or four rails. Or you could set up groups of rails in two to four areas of the ring.

You can do the same thing with single rails and canter over them as if they were jumps. This is a very good exercise to practice keeping your rhythm and balance — the key elements to finding the proper distance — as you approach and leave a jump without subjecting your horse to the stress of a jumping school.

Traditional-type cavaletti are the next step up from rails on the ground. Set them so the rails are raised to about 6 inches off the ground to do all the same exercises just described. The raised rails will literally raise the level of strength and balance required from the horse, thus further developing those important attributes.

The next basic gymnastic exercise is to place three or four rails (set 4 ?? feet apart) in front of a crossrail, placed 9 feet from the last rail. The trot rails put the horse in balance for jumping the crossrail. This is the beginning of an almost endless list of gymnastic exercises.

You’ll notice in the exercises we’ll describe below that sometimes we use trot rails, sometimes we use a single placing rail, and sometimes we use neither. It depends on the purpose of the exercise and whether the exercise is designed to be begun at the trot or the canter. Similarly, the distances between the jumps will be determined by the initial gait, the height of the jumps, the purpose of the exercise, and the number of strides the horse should take between the jumps.

Add Jumps

Exercise No. 2 moves directly on from No. 1. Put a placing rail 9 feet in front of a crossrail set at 2 feet to 2’6”. Set a vertical 18 feet away and then an oxer 18 feet beyond that. Both fences should be about 2’6” high, and the oxer can be slightly ascending (the back rail about 3 inches higher than the front rail).

You can either trot or canter into this exercise — if you want to trot, set the placing rail at 6 feet in front of the crossrail. If you canter, set the placing rail at 9 feet. Trotting will give a green horse more time to see the exercise and will also help horses who rush. Cantering will teach you and your horse to ride forward to deep distances (instead of holding them to the bottom of the fence) and to compress the frame and stride to jump from a deep distance.

To help riders develop their balance, position and their confidence, this is an excellent exercise to jump with no stirrups and/or with no hands. It’s best to either cross the stirrup irons over the horse’s withers or remove them from the saddle. To jump without reins, you can tie them in a knot or unfasten the buckle and pass them through a neck strap, martingale or breastplate. Obviously, you should have a reliable horse.

Exercise No. 3 builds upon Exercise No. 2. After the oxer, place another oxer 30 feet (two strides) away, then place a vertical 19 feet (one stride) from the oxer and another vertical 12 feet (bounce) from that vertical. You now have a gymnastic combination of six efforts, an exercise that requires the horse to use his hindquarters and back correctly and will keep him balanced so that you can work on your position and balance.

To make these exercises more demanding, raise the fences to 3 feet or more, although the crossrail should remain at 2’6” or 2’9” to begin the exercise. If your horse is twisting his body instead of folding his front legs, or if he’s hitting the fences with his front legs because he’s not folding them quickly enough, make the two oxers into X oxers (a high crossrail as the front element, with the point where the two rails cross either slightly lower or slightly higher than the back rail).

If during these exercises your horse drifts to the right or left or runs out repeatedly, you can make good use of rails to assist you. If he’s drifting, place rails on the ground perpendicular to the fences (in the same direction you’re going), about 2 feet off the fences’ midline. In other words, if he drifts right, set them 2 feet to the right of center, and do the opposite if he drifts left.

If he runs out, place poles on the top rails of the jumps, next to the standards to direct him. This will provide a ”wing” to channel him toward the jumps.

And if your horse is having trouble fitting in the right number of strides between fences, you can place a rail on the ground to help him. If he keeps trying to bounce an 18-foot one-stride, put a rail midway between the two jumps (9 feet).

Exercise No. 4 is a trot exercise that’s particularly useful for horses and riders learning to jump or for horses who rush. Set a placing rail 9 feet in front of a crossrail, with another crossrail 9 feet from the first one. (The crossrails should be 2 feet to 2’6” high.) Then set a vertical 16 feet (one short stride) from the second crossrail. (The vertical should be about 2’6”.) Next, set an oxer (at 2’9” to 3 feet) 30 feet (two strides) away and a vertical 20 feet from the oxer.

The final vertical could be as low as 2’6” or as high as 3’6”, depending on your horse’s needs. A young horse needing confidence would benefit from a lower height, while a horse who rushes or who needs to work on compressing his frame and stride will benefit from a more demanding height.

Put These Two Together

Exercises No. 5 and No. 6 are also particularly useful for inexperienced horses and riders, and they can be built side by side so that you can go directly from one to the other, making a sort of a ”mini-course” and encouraging horse and rider to look for and go to the next fence.

Exercise No. 5 is a simple exercise to promote balance and correct position. Set a rail 9 feet from a cavaletti (18 inches to two feet high), then set two more cavaletti 20 feet from each other, with another rail 9 feet from the third cavaletti. Trot into the exercise from both directions.

For Exercise No. 6, place a rail 9 feet in front of a relatively wide square oxer (set between 2 feet to 3’3”, for more experienced horses). The oxer should be roughly as wide as it is high. Set a cavaletti about 18 inches high 18 feet away and another 18-inch cavaletti 10 feet (a bounce) beyond that. Then, 18 feet later, set an oxer the same size as the first oxer, and then place another rail 9 feet beyond that.

Trot into this footwork, straightness- and balance-promoting exercise. And approach it from both directions.

Exercise No. 7 is a more demanding exercise that teaches riders to fluidly shift their balance while remaining in the correct position, and it teaches horses to think and react quickly while using the muscles of their hindquarters and backs to jump correctly.

It’s a series of bounces, from three fences to five or even six in a row. It can be quite a mentally and physically demanding exercise, depending on the size of the fences.

For green horses or riders, set the jumps at about 2 feet high, placed 9 feet apart. Begin with three jumps and add more jumps after jumping through those a couple of times. With the fences at this size and distance, trot to the first jump.

If you want to canter to the first jump, lengthen the distance to 10 feet. It’s not a good idea to make the jumps any higher than about 3 feet for this exercise. This exercise is also an excellent one for riders to practice with no stirrups and no hands.

Circles, Too

Not all gymnastics exercises involve a straight-line series of jumps. In Exercise No. 8, the jumps are on a circle.

Set up two simple, low fences — two cavaletti set at 2 feet, brush boxes, panels or basic rail fences — on opposite sides of a 20-meter circle and jump then at a canter. Sounds easy' It’s more difficult than you might think to keep the same rhythm and balance throughout the circle.

Do it by placing the same number of strides between each fence while you retrace your circle between the fences. You can add or subtract strides, but you place the same number of strides between two consecutive fences.

A warning: This really is a more demanding exercise than you might think, and your horse (and perhaps you too) will probably not be able to comfortably jump more than six or seven fences consecutively.

Exercise No. 9 builds upon No. 8 — riding a serpentine while jumping low fences. Depending on the length of your ring, place three low fences (like those described in No. 8) on the centerline, with 15 to 20 meters from the end of one jump to the end of the next. Then canter a serpentine from one fence to the next. If your horse lands on the wrong lead, trot and change the lead before heading to the next fence.

These two exercises develop balance, work on landing on the correct lead (a function of balance and suppleness), and force riders to look for the next fence while making accurate and balanced turns. They also teach the horse to look for the next fence and to turn in the direction their rider is looking.

Once again, this exercise is more physically demanding than it seems — and developing fitness for jumping (for both horse and rider) is another reason to do both of them.

Exercise No. 10 is also deceptively simple. Set a jump (preferably two verticals and two square oxers) at each end of a rectangular ring. Each jump should be three or four strides from the rail and facing the same direction. Place the two jumps on each side of the ring a set distance apart — the number of strides doesn’t really matter, just as long as the 12-foot distances are the same — let’s say six strides apart. The fences should be 2’6” to 3’6” high, depending on the horses’ and riders’ experience.

Now, jump the four fences at the canter, with the same number of strides between the fences on each side of the ring. If the distance was six strides, do it again in seven strides, on both the right and left reins. Once you’ve done that, do both lines in five strides, both ways. Once you’ve done that, do one line in five strides and the second line in seven strides. Reverse, do the first line in seven strides and the second line in five strides.

Now make it harder — jump the fences in a figure-eight pattern. Jump the two jumps at one end, just as in the circle exercise, then go down one side and do the circle exercise at the other end.

Then set up a jump on the centerline, perpendicular to the other four fences. Jump them all in a figure-eight again, making sure you not only land on the correct lead, but you also approach each jump with at least one straight stride, not jumping any fences on an angle.

To practice jumping angles, you could also adapt the exercise to jump every one of these fences on an angle.

This exercise will promote control, suppleness, concentration and, as a result, confidence.

Article by John Strassburger, our Performance Editor. A graduate A Pony Clubber, John has decades of experience in dressage, steeplechasing and eventing. As editor of The Chronicle of the Horse for 20 years, he covered six Olympics. With his wife, he operates Phoenix Farm, a breeding/training facility in California. John has written two books, ???John Strassburger: The Things I Think Matter Most??? and ???George H. Morris: Because Every Round Counts.???