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Clock Gymnastic Cavalletti for Bending



Gymnastic Cavalletti: Training site section Logo, horses grazing in tall grass.

By Bonnie J. Hilton  ( Horse Training article copyrighted by Saddle & Bridle Magazine.)

Several horses that have come into my training life this year are unilateral and their owners, through lessons, are starting to embrace the concept of lateral awareness and unilateral development of the rider. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Who developed the problem in the other, the rider or the horse?

 At this point, it doesn t matter, it exists and has to be addressed. This is not an easy combination to instruct and without developing more and more frustration  under saddle, if the foundational training is there, I opt to teach the importance of longe work to help the horse without the rider. If at all possible, when this condition is encountered, I urge instructors to put the student on another horse that is more bilateral in usage, so that the student can work on their problem during lessons without always having the added stress of their horse, that is unbalanced and diving through a shoulder in false bend. For the horse that doesn t longe, if the time and expense can be spent on training, then train the horse (and owner/rider) to pursue in-hand work to help the equine.  It never ceases to amaze me how many under saddle horses I encounter that do not longe in a trained manner.

I have stressed cavalletti grid work in the past and even the grid set up in the round that appeared in publications, almost a decade ago, along with the article Aerial Pursuits. The clock gymnastic grid of cavalletti for bending that I like to use with horses that are trained to be longed and are able to negotiate a low rail, without getting excited and putting in a grand prix jump, is simple in design but more complex in application.

What will you need to construct this cavalletti pattern? Since I first started writing about grid work, as depicted by Klimke in the original Cavalletti published in 1969 or by Peter Lichtner-Hoyer in Complete Cavalletti, we have had a lot of innovations. The new, revised Cavalletti published in 2000 still shows the traditional wood cross base cavalletti but the predominant construction construction depicted, even on the cover, is the new modular products

 I like the BlokTM training system. I own the set of eight, which travels with me when needed. You can of course, place a rail into the ends of two large size construction cones, that make stable bases, if that is all you have available to produce your gymnastics.

Using cones and rail will make a basic ground rail cavalletti that you will not be able to adjust in height, but will work to start this pattern. Do not just put rails on the ground with no base support, they could cause injury when they roll. (I don t trench rails anymore either, I used to, but I feel with a little effort and expense you can make a safer obstacle.) As for rails, I send clients to the construction warehouses to buy the best PVC they can afford and get 8 or 10 lengths of either the small 2-21/2 or the larger 4-41/2 diameter. Avoid the really cheap stuff that will shatter if it gets rapped. Why don t I use wood rails? PVC is lighter, already highly visible in white and it doesn t rot.

We will be working with the basic clock pattern, with gymnastics set at 12:00, 3:00, 6: 00 and 9: 00. I ll assume that you know you should select a level area, that the footing should be good, neither too hard or too deep for the level of fitness of your equine and that you want to select a location where you will be safe.  The size of the circle will be determined by the size of the horse You also set the diameter of circle that the horse can maintain in comfort at walk, trot and eventually canter. If all you are comfortable doing is walk and trot, the circle will be smaller than what you will undertake later on at canter. However, you will be turning the equine in, after each gymnastic, to perform an inside circle into what becomes a spiral pattern, so you need to think about that as you set up your pattern. How?

First set up 12:00 at the lowest height, or at ground level. (Each cavalletti should be set up at the exact same height.) Then you have to stride your distance to 6:00. If I put my heel to the end of a block and stride away with a lengthened stride, I am usually striding an average of 40 to my toe, which is just over a meter. I like to work with even numbers, easier to do the math. I will stride 10 strides out to where I put the inside block of the cavalletti for the 6:00 gymnastic. If you can do the math in your head fast, this will make the actual longe circle, which will be at the center of your rails, close to a 12 meter circle if not larger. Just try to make the clock as even as possible. You stride out to 6:00 and set up the second cavalletti of the clock. Half of 10 strides is five, which is the center of the clock, mark that spot with something. Stand at a 45 angle to 12:00 and 6:00 stride five strides from center to where you will put 3:00, then I stride 10 strides from 3:00 across to where I set up 9:00.

This pattern leaves me enough room so that at the walk, and eventually at trot with most equines, I can work them over the cavalletti at 12:00 and turn them into the center of the circle before 3:00 and do what is called an inside circle around me and then put them over the cavalletti at 3:00 and do another inside circle around me before they go over the cavalletti at 6:00 and then the same for 9:00. In order to accomplish these turns and inside spirals the horse has to be compliant on the longe and the handler will have to be proficient at handling the longe (and whip if necessary) to bend the horse to the inner circle of the clock and then direct it back out to go over the next gymnastic in line.

What should the horse be wearing? If you truly want your horse to work in balance, stop falling on the forehand, leaning into the inside shoulder and boring, then stop longeing off the bridle or worse yet, halter and put on the equipment that will help initiate the usage you want under saddle. Use caution, that you don t try to imitate some false type of head set long before the horse has the flexibility and strength to hold it. I like to see a horse in headstall with plain mild snaffle, cavesson which will allow you not to interfere with the bit, either saddle, surcingle or both and donut sides adjusted even and low with loose contact for acceptable neck range of motion.  Don t constrain the horse. If the horse is inexperienced with rails, I would like to see front bells at least, all four if possible and wraps or boots.

You start the bending clock at the walk on the short longe (use a long basic lead if that is all you have) and handle from the inside with the horse working on the outside over the rails. If you can with comfort and safety, I walk along with the horse over the rails working from one cavalletti to the next on the clock. This is back to handling basics and I am not surprised that the new horses I am working with can work the clock going to the left with me on their inside (near side) leading off my right, but when we reversed and I started asking them to move off and forward to the right with me on their inside (off side) leading off my left, I got balks and the nside shoulder dropped into my space. Get your horse to stand up and over out of your space and keep them working forward It is all about consistency.

If I can walk the horse around in hand in both directions without any problem I then change lines, step back and longe them at a walk in both directions on the circle only. If that works out fine then I walk the spiral in both directions. I may work the outside clock several times and the spiral several times in both directions at the walk. For trot work, if you really are confident the equine will not go nuts and start rushing all around you, you can leave the whole clock set up. If you are not sure of what will happen, then remove the rails from three points of the clock and work only one point at trot.

This is the same way you train a straight grid of four at first. If your horse trots calmly over the one rail cavalletti, staying on the outside circle in both directions, you can try trotting into an inside spiral circle in both directions. If you get that far and everything is fine, then add the cavalletti that is directly across from the one you left up. I usually always leave up what I call 12: 00 and put up 6: 00 next. Do the same routine, see if you can get your equine to calmly trot the outside circle first, in both directions several times and then attempt the inside spiral. It may be at this point that you find out you have to enlarge your circle, just move out each cavalletti the same amount of strides to give yourself more room. (I am not going into longe training here, your horse should not be rushing and diving inside on you. If it is, it is time to admit that your horse is not as well trained on the longe as you thought and you need better handling skills. I would suggest forgetting the clock pattern and go back to a straight grid of two and see if you can perfect a circle into that in both directions, at walk and trot, with the horse staying out on the longe.

If you get to 12:00 and 6:00, working calmly and forward with decent bend to the inside spiral, then you can either finish for the lesson, depending on your horse s fitness (and yours) or you can then put up either 3:00 or 9:00 and work the three points and then the full clock of four. Take it slow and easy and return to walk if problems, most notably rushing, develop. With loss of balance, some horses will canter at times and I use the inside circle to calm them back to trot and send them back out on the circle. If they get too carried away, it is back to walk.

Since most horses that I have that are working this clock pattern are also working the basic four rail straight grid, I don t drill the work. It is set up once a week or twice at the most. As the equine gets fitter, I ask for more shift to the hindquarters by slowly shortening the side reins evenly and raising their height.  You don t do this in one session, only as the horse gets fitter. When does that happen? I think with unfit equines, it takes a minimum of two sessions a week, for at least four weeks before you get the start of muscle change. I like to work cavalletti one day, two days off (where the horse is still worked in another activity) in rotation, for a total of three times a week with at least one day totally off. Sometimes, they need more than one day totally off. Why? How long does it take you to notice change in your muscles when you start a program? I usually notice the hurt after the first day!! In a perfect world the horse that works this type of program gets a good rub down and brace and is turned out to walk off the effects, not stuck back in a stall to get stiff from the strenuous muscle workout.

Think about it!  If the clock pattern is perfected on the longe it can be ridden. In its simplest application, by doing this, you will improve bend, but as a rider you have to be sure you are bilateral as well. You need to take it slow because now the horse has to make the added adjustments of having weight on its back. Why do we forget that? Start at walk the same way and slowly build up into the full clock over the space of several training sessions. Please don t rush the process.

 For the sceptics, don t think that this is jump training only because it is not. At low heights, this is just basic gymnastic cavalletti work which improves the range of motion and bilateral development of any equine. If you are working toward over fence work, it will provide more foundational material for you and your horse to learn. Where there is room available to set it up, a large diameter clock pattern with actual jumps is a formidable training exercise for both horse and rider.


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