While my riding career began in a Western saddle, I have spent the past eight years in the hunter and jumper rings. My routines were pretty much consistent: flat work on off days and jump schools in the ring on lesson days. I barely ventured out of my comfort zone and was terrified of setting hoof outside of the manicured arena. When I moved to a new training barn, however, I was pushed to try new experiences, ones I would have been hesitant to try before. In those experiences, I found a new confidence and comfort in the saddle and realized just how beneficial cross-training can be.
As much as I LOVED attending the Kentucky Three-Day event every year as a spectator, I was horrified of the idea of cross-country. I cherished the comfort of my arena walls and that my fences gave way if I made a mistake. Jumping in an open field was absolutely terrifying, but I knew it was something I needed to at least give a try.
Even George Morris is a big fan of getting out of the ring and out in the field. Photo courtesy of Meagan DeLisle.
The beautiful thing about the barn where I reside now is that we split our time between the jumper ring and our area’s eventing circuit. At the recommendation of my trainer, I loaded up one day to head out cross-country schooling with the group. While I started out nearly petrified in fear, I quickly found a love for cross-country. Being out in the open with long distances between most fences really allowed my horse and I to find a nice pace without the pressure of a tight roll-back here or there.
Originally I thought that my fear of the solid fences on course would cause me to find horrible distances, but in reality, they seemed to amp up my game. I was thinking better, feeling my horse better and with that, the distances just seemed to come up to me. Now I love going cross-country and feel much braver than before!
Flatwork is an integral part of every training program, but setting some time aside to focus on actual dressage is so good for you and your horse. While I am still a dressage newbie, I can already say I know that it is going to greatly impact our jumping. As I prep for my first ever horse trial (I never believed I would be saying that), I am loving my time spent focusing on dressage.
Flash feeling fancy. Photo by Jen Robertson.
In dressage, you are establishing a connection with your horse on a whole new level. Getting those precise movements and transitions will 100% translate to your jumping work. Need to extend your stride a bit without speeding up between the lines? Dressage can help you with that. Need to work on those beautiful downward transitions to the trot at the end of your hunter round? Hello, try some dressage. Seriously, dressage is such an important part of every discipline! Give it a try!
Like many people, I previously wrote the idea of “natural horsemanship” off as a bit of a gimmick. However, when legendary equestrian Buck Brannaman came to town, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ride with him. I went in a completely blank slate, having never tried any of his practices before. As I walked my green bean into the arena surrounded by men and women in chaps and cowboy hats, I found myself feeling extremely out of place. I began to wonder what I was doing there.
That changed as I watched my horse transform over the course of three days. The seemingly simple ground exercises we performed each day required extreme concentration and connection out of my horse and me. Each evening I would practice for a good hour what we had learned in the clinic that morning and found myself leading a new and improved horse into the ring each time.
With Buck Brannaman! Photo by Jen Robertson.
Through natural horsemanship, I found a better understanding of my horse and what he was trying to tell me. As I began to bring one of my horses back into work after a winter off and realized he was uncomfortable with the rush into work, I started introducing Buck’s methods to him. Day by day, he relaxed and softened, his under saddle work improving immensely. Now if I ever arrive at a new location and my horses feel tense or nervous, I spend 10-15 minutes on the ground with them in a rope halter allowing them to settle in and put their mind to work.
Other Areas to Consider
While those three disciplines are my only experiences in cross-training so far, I encourage you to think about other areas that can benefit you and your horse’s training program. Competitive trail can build trust and confidence, endurance could build stamina. You could try ranch work or driving or side-saddle even! The world is full of endless opportunities for you and your horse to grow and try new things. After introducing cross-training into my training program, I can wholeheartedly say I am a better rider, and my horses are more confident because of it.