What’s in Your Arena? with Beth Stelzleni, Presented by Attwood

What’s in Your Arena? is an EN series sponsored by Attwood Equestrian Surfaces in which riders share their favorite jumping exercises. It’s easy to get stuck in a training rut, and we hope this will inspire you with fresh ideas that you can take home and incorporate into your own programs.

This week’s edition comes from Beth Stelzleni of S-Squared Eventing based out of Kathy Schultz’s Wishing Tree Farm in Danielsville, Georgia. She has an extensive background training off-track Thoroughbreds, with a niche in starting young horses and working with “problem” horses. 

Beth and her homebred by Mighty Magic.

Straightness and rideability are two key elements to a successful jump round. These skills can be developed no matter what level horse or rider you are working with. I work with horses and riders of all skills sets, and I love this exercise because I can make it as simple or difficult as need be. However, no matter at what level you set the grid, the exercise requires the rider to be accurate and proactive and teaches the horse to stay on the aids and listen to the rider for direction. This exercise is especially helpful for riders who are plagued by their horses drifting while jumping.

For set up, I use 10-foot wooden poles as the “zig zag” trot poles. I set the distance between the center of each pole between 4 1/2 to 5 feet, depending on the horse. For greener horses or those who are not confirmed in connection or rideability yet, I find the longer distance to be a bit more forgiving, especially during the second part of the exercise.

For the seasoned horse I like to set the distance at 4.5 feet to require more shortening of the step. The distance between the last trot pole and the first element of each bounce is variable and will depend on the horse and rider, but I like to set the distance at six strides. Obviously, the less room you leave the more difficult the exercise becomes. However, I would not leave less than four strides between the last trot pole and the bounces.

Each bounce consists of two crossrails. I like to use crossrails here because there is a definite middle the rider must jump. They cannot drift to either side as you can with a simple vertical. Also, larger crossrails are excellent tools to encourage a horse to be sharp in front and jump with a correct shape. However, it is important to note that the goal of this exercise is not to jump as high as the horse and rider can go. In this exercise we concentrate on the trot poles and what happens between the trot poles and the bounces. The bounces are simply a bonus to work on the horse’s form, footwork and the rider’s position.

To start the exercise, I ask the horse to trot in a straight line back and forth over the trot poles. Many horses can be confused at first by the zig zag pattern and need a few passes before they understand. It is up to the rider to choose the correct line and maintain the needed connection and balance to hold this line.

It may be helpful to place cones or some other markers on each side of the trot poles to help the rider see the straight line. Because the horse and rider are stepping over each pole at an angle, this exercise can sometimes create an optical illusion to those who haven’t seen anything like it before. As the rider becomes more comfortable in seeing the line these markers can be removed.

Once the horse and rider are comfortable finding the straight line through the poles, I will have them figure-eight over the poles adding trot-canter and canter-trot transitions. I will ask the horse to trot through the poles, pick up the canter immediately after, then circle around and trot again right before the poles.

Diagram of the exercise

Adding the transitions begins to test the horse’s rideability and starts to create true connection, encouraging the rider to push the horse forward into their hands in the transitions. It also requires the rider to immediately balance the horse and modulate the step after the downward transition.

It is important that the rider use an encouraging leg in the downward transition and through the trot poles, even if they are asking the horse to collect and shorten his step. Side note: I will often use this part of the exercise in my flat work to teach a horse to stay active after a downward transition.

When the rider is able to complete the figure-eight exercise while keeping the horse balanced, in rhythm, and coming forward from the hand to the leg, I will start to incorporate the bounces. I start by allowing the horse to trot through the poles and trot once to each bounce. The rider must keep the horse in the CENTER of each trot pole and then ride to the CENTER of each bounce.

I encourage my riders to keep their eyes up and find their line to each bounce while they are still in the trot poles. This teaches the rider to look ahead in an exercise without losing the straightness of track they are currently on — a vital skill for jumping.

The next part of the exercise I introduce is probably the hardest — the downward transition between bounce and poles. To introduce this, I will take the horse through each bounce (heading toward the trot poles) at the trot. Upon landing from the second element of the bounce, the rider should bring their shoulders up, sink into their seat and their heel, wrap their legs around the horse and bring the horse to a trot.

After the transition, the rider needs to push the horse into their hand and maintain the connection to modulate the length of the trot stride through the poles. It’s important that the rider does not allow the horse to run through the poles.

Once the horse and rider have mastered each individual parts of the exercise, we can put it all together. The rider will take the horse through the trot poles and head to one of the bounces. For the sake of example we’ll head to the left bounce first. Immediately after exiting the poles the rider will ask for a transition to canter and proceed to the left bounce. The goal is to keep the horse connected and round through the transition and canter.

The rider will need to maintain a shorter, more collected canter step with energy flowing from the hindlegs to the bit. If rider has the horse in the correct balance and has the horse in front of their leg, the striding to the bounce will naturally work out.

After completing the left-hand bounce, the rider should continue with the same connected canter around to the right-hand bounce. The rider should keep the horse straight, aiming specifically for the center of both crossrails. On landing, the rider will perform a transition to the trot, making sure to keep the horse pushing forward from the hind legs into the bit. The rider will need to immediately collect the trot, rebalance, and quickly establish the correct rhythm needed to trot back through the poles.

There are many ways to vary the difficulty of this exercise. You can set the exercise so that the turn from bounce to bounce is shorter or a bit tight. This will require the rider to be even more proactive and think on their feet. Alternatively, you can give yourself more room between bounces but incorporate three to four single fences between them. Jumping a few fences at your current competition height before heading to the bounce-downward transition-trot poles line is a true test of your horse’s rideability.

Danielle Bolte and her one-star horse Diamond In The Rough demonstrate the exercise in this video:

Many thanks to Beth for sharing! Do you have an exercise to share or is there an eventer you would like to nominate for the “What’s in Your Ring?” series? Email [email protected]