The Benefits of Cross Training

EN is proud to welcome a new group of guest bloggers, kicking off with David Ziegler, who has made a name for himself competing at the upper levels of both eventing and dressage. He's brought his unique experiences here to EN, and we'd like to thank David for taking the time to write a column for us.

David Ziegler and Critical Decision at NAJYRC. Photo by Samantha Clark for PRO. David Ziegler and Critical Decision at NAJYRC. Photo by Samantha Clark for PRO.

I was very excited when Eventing Nation asked me to guest blog. Having evented (in my humble opinion) one of the greatest event horses, Critical Decision or “BG”, and having trained my own horse, Peninsula Top Man or “Topper”, from 1st level to FEI, I think I have a unique perspective.

In November this year, my search for a new young horse took me across the street to Bruce Davidson’s Chesterland Farm to look at his young stock. After being boosted up onto one of his 3-year-olds, I immediately took contact on the reins, expecting submission from a horse that had spent the greater portion of his life out in pastures.

The horse, obviously, had no idea what I wanted. Bruce set up a small oxer and told me to jump it, my inner DQ started coming out. I was not comfortable with the limited control I could expect from a 3 year old, my reins got shorter and shorter as I approached the fence, praying for a distance.

We got to the fence and the horse jumped over it with ease, with a laugh, Bruce said to me, “You’ve never ridden a green horse have you?” Until then, the youngest I had ridden had been 5 year olds.

Priding myself on taking every learning opportunity I can, I had asked Bruce if I’d be able to pick his brain on developing young horses from the 2-year-old to 5-year-old stage I had been missing. We discussed the “over dressage-ing” of young horses.

Dressage demands constant submission and obedience. The horse must wait for the rider’s aid and not take over, in pure dressage this is necessary, but in eventing we need to analyze how this training translates to Cross Country.

Galloping at speed, over natural terrain jumping through technical questions, nothing can be expected to go perfectly; it is not show hunters, so we must rely on natural instinct. When we take young horses through their development stage, practicing countless circles and transitions on laser leveled footing, how can we count on our horse to make the split second analysis and decisions we need to stay safe on cross country, when such instincts have been ridden out of them?

In the early years we need to canter the horse across a field, pop it over logs, cross streams, and give it the necessary life experiences it needs for long term success — not just for event horses, but dressage horses as well. We would want our children to play in dirt, so should our horses.

I’ve seen it many times in the dressage world: horses without the mental capacity to hack or have turnout, who, with all the natural ability they may possess, ultimately break because their body hasn’t had the necessary bumps and bruises along the way to toughen them up.

I am thankful to be in a training program that recognizes the benefit of cross training. I still jump, gallop, and trot hills with my dressage horse. I think deep down, we can all agree, this view…

Topper out for a gallop, December 2014.

Topper out for a gallop, December 2014.

…beats this view any day.