Dressage Fitness and Balance with Cavalletti

Germany’s Ingrid Klimke and Dr. Ina Goesmeier offer tips at the New England Dressage Association Symposium.

Credit: Carole MacDonald Germany’s Ingrid Klime works with Annabel Sattler and her 5-year-old Hannoverian mare, Franconia, during her two-day clinic hosted by the New England Dressage Association at Apple Knoll Farm in Millis, Massachusetts.

On a blustery, cold day last November, the New England Dressage

Association (NEDA), the largest USDF Group Member Organization in the country, invited Germany’s eventing team gold medalist Ingrid Klimke and German team veterinarian Dr. Ina Goesmeier to speak to a wonderfully diverse crowd of equestrians. Attendees, half of which were eventing enthusiasts, arrived at Apple Knoll Farm in Millis, Massachusetts, for the two-day clinic that offered sound advice on how to incorporate cavalletti into a horse’s training regime to help him find balance and improve strength. 

Here are some pointers that riders and auditors took away from the clinic.

Principles from Ingrid Klimke

At the beginning of each ride, Ingrid stressed the importance of a proper warm-up. She had all the riders begin by walking forward on the buckle for the first 10 to 20 minutes, allowing each horse the ability to relax and see his environment. She explained that it takes time to develop looseness in the horse’s ligaments and allow fluid in the joints to flow, and that there is no substitute for this walk work in the beginning of the warm-up.

Next, Ingrid invited riders to follow the horse’s movement at the walk with light contact. She had the participants ride their horses at a walk through two cavalletti (spaced appropriately for walk at about .8 meter or 2 feet, 7 inches apart). Then she added more cavalletti so there were three and then four, each one allowing the horses to stretch forward and downward. 

From there, she invited the riders to move their horses into an energetic stretching trot over the cavalletti that were spaced carefully at about 1.3 meters or 4 feet 3 inches apart. Ingrid explained how the spacing depends on the stride of the horse, and it is up to the rider to space them appropriately. 

Credit: Carole MacDonald Pam Goodrich and Zikomo rode through the cavalletti that were set on a circle. Every step you turn a little and ride rhythmically, said Ingrid.

As each rider trotted through the poles, Ingrid pointed out the neck muscles of the horse’s topline and asked everyone to observe how they become larger when the horse is moving with enough energy through his topline. She further pointed out that these are the muscles the horses will need later for self-carriage.

Every horse was required to have a true working trot and working canter. To achieve this, each horse was encouraged to come from behind with engaged hind legs, working over the back in improved rhythm. Ingrid explained how riders could achieve this with a “breathing” leg and a softening hand. She coached them to “Come with the leg and give with the hand. Come–give. Come–give. Come from behind and over the back with energy.”

Denise Goyea and Je T’aime, a 6-year-old Oldenburg mare owned by Madeline Hartsock, presented a beautiful picture, but Ingrid wanted just a little more reach. 

“Even a few centimeters makes a difference,” she said as she encouraged Denise to ask her horse to reach in front of the vertical. She was successful and Ingrid commented, “He really uses his topline muscle now. We need to be very precise because then the horse uses the right muscles.”

Another rider guided her horse in a modest trot. “This kind of warm up will do nothing,” said Ingrid. “If you do this kind of warm up, it’s no better than turning your horse out to pasture.” Ingrid encouraged the rider to do more: “You must warm up from behind, over the back, riding forward and downward with bend. Inside leg and outside rein.”

When a horse tripped and stumbled through the cavalletti, Ingrid was quick with encouragement. 

“Don’t worry. It can happen,” she said. “Guide him so he can find a solution.” 

Correct Hand Position

Credit: Carole MacDonald Ingrid emphasized that our job, as riders, is to be perfect with our hands. She instructed riders to have their hands together in front of the saddle by the withers.

Ingrid emphasized that our job, as riders, is to be perfect with our hands. She was strict about hand position, instructing riders to have their hands together in front of the saddle by the withers. The distance between them should be about the size of one fist, she said. She also wants to see a rider’s thumb on top of the fist “like a roof.” 

One rider was very unsteady with her hands. “You must change,” said Ingrid in a most pleasant, cheerful way. But she really meant it. She explained why the hand position is important: “When the hands are together, the horse feels the reins on his neck. The horse gets guidance and support particularly from the outside. When the hands are wide, the horse doesn’t feel the rein and doesn’t know where to go.”

Ingrid imitated the horse searching for the rein. “Guide your horse with reins that touch the neck on both sides,” she said with encouragement. “Also the elbows must be by the hips, and the rider must follow with the hands and the hips. No flopping reins. Pat him with your inside hand. Praise him so he knows what you want.”

When one rider continued to have problems with her hands, Ingrid introduced the dressage bridge in which both reins are carried in both hands so that the rider is required to keep her hands together. The rider soon felt, with her enforced hand position, her horse become round and she was able to move his shoulders. 

The event bridge is used for young horses, jumping and event horses. In this bridge, the right hand holds two reins and the left hand holds one (or vice versa). This provides a safety bridge to prevent the rider from falling. [Follow this link to see an explanation of correct hand position directly from Ingrid:]

Rhythm and Speed

“The rider is in charge of the rhythm,” Ingrid said. “Analyze the rhythm. It must be like a clock.” As the rhythm improved so did the quality of gaits. 

“The rider is also responsible for the speed,” she added. “If I post a little quicker, I get more energy and if I post slower, it has the effect of relaxing my horse. When you ask for greater energy, you want hind legs that step under the center of gravity.

“Mistakes might happen,” she continued, “but you are responsible for the rhythm, the speed and also the line of travel.” When one horse started to lean on his rider’s hands, Ingrid said, “But it is not the rider’s job to carry the horse’s head. That is his job.”

The Line of Travel

Credit: Carole MacDonald Annie Morris made sure her line of travel was straight as she rode through the cavalletti with Julia’s Magic (aka Cado), a 7-year-old Danish gelding owned by Denise Sarnoff.

The rider is responsible for the line of travel, and the figures must be precise. One rider was having trouble with her line of travel on a 20-meter circle to the left. “She is guiding you quite well,” Ingrid quipped and then she placed cones on the circle to help the rider onto an accurate figure. 

“You must ride every step of the way. Turn–give, turn–give. Your circle must be round. Every step you turn a little. Be sure you can see the inside eye, and ride rhythmically in a round circle. You, as the rider, must be thinking five or six strides ahead. Think of the four points of a circle and ride inside leg to outside rein.” 

Another horse was inclined to fall in on the circle, and Ingrid commented, “Keep your horse out with the inside leg and the outside rein.”

Another rider trotted through the poles on a straight line, but the horse was inclined to fall left after the cavalletti. “Your horse must be straight before and after the cavalletti,” said Ingrid, and she asked that the horse and rider halt on a straight line after riding through the cavalletti. Then Ingrid asked the rider to stretch her horse. 

“Make the reins longer so your horse goes more forward and downward, chewing the rein in a stretch. Turn–give–turn–give through the cavalletti on a circle.”

Every step of the way, Ingrid was encouraging and gave valuable advice. And yet it was her goal to point out that the cavalletti themselves achieve much of the results. 

Riders and spectators came away with a new appreciation for the use of cavalletti as a tool for physical development and also a means of making the work fun for the horses.

Ingrid Klimke won German eventing team gold medals in both the 2012 Olympic Games in London (with FRH Butts Abraxxas) and the 2014 World Equestrian Games in Caen (with FRH Escada JS). She is one of very few riders to have achieved major successes at the highest level in both dressage and three-day eventing.

Credit: Carole MacDonald

Time to Grow Up

Ingrid is a proponent of giving the horse time to mature before deciding his career path. By the time a horse is 6, she typically knows whether he will be a dressage horse, a jumper or an event prospect. When a horse is in a growing phase, she advises against trying to teach him lessons. “It’s better to turn the horse out to pasture for a few months,” she said. Each horse has a specific attention span. “The horse has to know why he is doing something. Determine how long your horse can focus so you know when to give him breaks.”

Understanding Your Horse Through Chinese Medicine

Credit: Carole MacDonald German equestrian team veterinarian Dr. Ina Goesmeier at the 2014 NEDA Symposium.

German team veterinarian Dr. Ina Goesmeier was originally a traditional veterinarian who became interested in Chinese medicine and the natural therapies of acupuncture/acupressure, chiropractic and the use of Chinese herbs and Bach flowers. Throughout the clinic, she discussed how Chinese medicine never separates the body from the spirit and how finding your horse’s type can help you better understand him. 

Ina explained that a horse’s type never changes, and from knowing his type, you can learn a great deal about his character and temperament: You can assess whether or not he is friendly, prone to have high or low self-esteem, prone to muscle problems, sensitive to cold or whether he is keen to learn or good in competition. For example: A liver type (Gan) is an alpha and often a good performance horse; a spleen type (Pi) is friendly and kind; a kidney type (Shen) may have low self-confidence and needs someone who is kind to him and leads him because he is a follower. The rideability of the Shen type improves with praise. The heart type (Xin) has only one friend in the herd and gets upset without him, while the lung type (Fei) has no behavior problems. He does his best and is intelligent, but the rider must look after his health. Understanding these types, and therefore the character of a horse, helps Ina decide how to treat him.

With regard to how horses move, Ina said they stretch their necks often in nature. Lack of stretching in a horse’s training leads to back problems and the accompanying bridle/jaw and tongue issues. She discussed the importance of regular breathing for the equine athlete and commented that chronic lung problems often accompany back problems. Likewise, self-carriage suffers in horses with stomach ulcers (known in Chinese medicine as “fire in the stomach”) because horses need to relax the stomach in order to carry themselves well.

When it comes to the human athlete, Ina commented that a good rider improves the mobility of his horse and a poor one makes a horse’s natural movement worse. In relation to the cavalletti that Ingrid used constantly in her teaching, Ina spoke about the horse’s three layers of muscle: The outer two layers help mobility and the inner muscles stabilize the horse’s balance. These are the muscles that are improved with the use of cavalletti. The NEDA Fall Symposium focused on many ways to use these cavalletti to improve fitness, balance and general athleticism in both eventing and dressage horses. To learn more, visit 

Ingrid’s Cavalletti

Credit: Carole MacDonald

Ingrid can’t imagine training horses without the use of cavalletti. “They invite the horse to do what we want [engage the hind leg and lift the forehand] by himself. In earlier days, people used poles that could roll. Then to prevent that, cavalletti poles were built with crosses on the ends. They were heavy and it was possible for the horse to injure himself on the cross pieces.”

Ingrid’s current poles are lightweight and the square ends are made of foam, so there is little chance of getting hurt. To learn more, visit or






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