A Word On Cross-Training

Dressage Today Intern Nenah Mikuska's reflections on cross-training for dressage horses.

In a rare moment of putting my physical health first (haha, that’s college humor for you),  on Wednesday I found myself curled back in bed, under the covers, after waking up feeling sick to my stomach and woozy. In an attempt to prevent further illness and thus risk missing classes and failing to graduate and becoming a hermit under a bridge somewhere (again, college humor), I found myself where most horse people go on their rare sick days: YouTube. More specifically, I went to the riding-related videos.

And what did I find?

A video of a handsome Australian dressage rider and model by the name of Matt Harnacke, who was taking his equally handsome horse over some cross rails in, what appeared to be, one of the horse’s first experiences jumping.

(The path in which I took to get there is unimportant, but let’s just say YouTube knows my tastes by now and their recommendations are pretty accurate in terms of what they think I’ll enjoy. But I digress.)

Yowza. (Credit: Matt Harnacke’s Instagram)

Bulging biceps and pretty horses aside, I found the video extremely interesting as far as training and riding goes. As I said in my introduction blog, I come from a jumper background. But I am not ignorant to incredible amount of training both jumping and dressage requires. And, I think both disciplines benefit from one another. Though I consider myself to be at the very basic beginning levels of dressage and pretty novice in terms of my riding in general, there something to be said as far as cross-training and horsemanship that I think deserves another shoutout.

A friend of mine in high school owned an absolutely spectacular warmblood, and together they performed some beautiful tests. In the beginning of their relationship, they would occasionally take jumping lessons with another trainer in conjunction with their dressage lessons. The horse and rider both loved the change of activity and, from watching them work together and enjoy this time, it seemed that their happiness flourished when they were given a new task and a new activity to enjoy together.

When they started moving up in their levels, their dressage trainer limited their jumping time and eventually decided to keep them on a strictly-dressage regiment. Granted, these two were working very hard and I could see the logic behind focusing on simply dressage. But from my perspective as an observer, I couldn’t help but notice their rides lost a bit of their energy and magic. The constant focus on dressage was, in my opinion, a stressor that would have lessened from the occasional change of pace.

Again, I’m not a trainer, nor am I qualified to give anyone advice on how to train their horses. Their trainer was doing what they saw to be the best thing for the pair, and I would not hesitate to take her opinion over mine. But as an outside observer and a friend who had watched these two grow over several years, I couldn’t help but notice this subtle change in their riding and, though they still rode beautifully and at a level I can only hope to one day achieve, there seemed to be some spark missing.

Then, whilst doing some digging throughout the DT website and past articles, I stumbled upon an article that I remember reading last year as I was thumbing through the magazine. This article, which appeared in the January 2017 issue of Dressage Today, was “Nicholas Fyffe: Cross-Training for Horse and Rider,”. In the article, Grand Prix trainer Nicholas Fyffe talks about his experiences with cross-training his dressage horses and gave some advice on training techniques for both horse and rider. While I won’t quote the entire article to you, I did want to pull out a few quotes that stood out to me.

“I was tired of doing the same weight routine at the gym and needed something different to motivate me. This has given me the distinct advantage of viewing both sports from various angles and has allowed me to notice and appreciate the similarities between riding and gymnastics,” Fyffe said of working his horses in gymnastics. “Like any athlete, if you are doing the exact same workout every day, you’ll eventually experience some level of fatigue, both physically and emotionally.”

Cross-training is good for all athletes, including horses, and there are numerous options available to add variety and reap rewards of improved flexibility, endurance and strength. Here Grand Prix rider Nicholas Fyffe rides Fiero HGF, a P.R.E. stallion, featured in Dressage Today, January 2017. (Credit:

Jumping off of that idea, the mental aspect of dressage is intense. Both horse and rider are competing in a sport that requires just as much mental capacity as anything else, and it’s completely possible to get burned out. Aside from the physical benefits of working dressage horses over gymnastics and smaller jumps, I think the mental benefit for both the horse and rider is remarkable. Having seen the change in my friend’s riding and her horse’s attitude, and later going on to ride for a trainer who insisted on cross-training both her dressage horses and her jumpers, really solidified that idea for me.

Plus, it invites exciting new challenges for you and your horse and if nothing else, it’ll be fun to talk about later on. “So one time, I took my Prix St. Georges gelding over a cross-rail and let me tell you, was that interesting…”

(Credit: Instagram)

Nenah Mikuska is Dressage Today’s 2018 Intern, who, between balancing college and a full-time job, has a passion for horses and loves developing her knowledge. Currently, she takes lessons with a local trainer and is looking forward to a career involving horses in some capacity, whether it’s riding them or writing about them (but hopefully, a bit of both). 






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