There is a best distance between cavaletti for every horse, at every gait. Those distances may get uniformly longer or shorter depending on the horse’s level of training, but this should be intentional, not random. If you vary the distances between cavaletti or if you choose the wrong distance to begin with, you undermine the best use of these training aids.
If someone tells you that cavaletti are normally spaced “between four and five feet” or “around four and a half feet,” remember that’s not a distance, it’s an estimate.
When you’re ready to set out your cavaletti, get out a tape measure, the way course designers do when they’re building a course of jumps, and use it to measure a true distance. If you’ve got a measuring wheel, that’s nice and easy and it’s handy for building courses later. If not, a 30′ tape measure will do, and will see you through building gymnastics (when you’ll be varying the spacing quite a bit, but that’s down the road).
If you think you can measure a distance by striding yourself, just remember that when you see Anne Kursinski taking big long steps with her long legs to measure the distance between fences, all she’s doing is confirming whether it’s a short two strides…or a long three. She doesn’t need to know the precise distance, but whoever built the course did.
When you set up your caveletti, you’re the course designer, so it pays for you to be as meticulous as any professional course designer. Often, cavaletti are the first introduction your horse has to the idea of striding, and will affect how quickly and well he learns the rules of the game.
Before you can figure out how to train your horse over cavaletti, you have to figure out your horse’s natural stride. Which means you need to be able to create and recognize your horse’s best walk, working trot, and canter.
How do you know when you’ve got it? If you can’t tell by feeling it, have someone watch you ride who understands what forward is, or have someone videotape you riding. Then find someone with a good eye and lots of experience to tell you what he or she thinks. You don’t want your horse tripping over himself, but you do want him using himself.
Once you know how to get your horse’s natural stride, you’re ready to measure it. Find a freshly groomed ring…or an untraveled stretch of field with soft ground. Ride over the patch of ground you’ll be measuring, and pick a different patch for all three gaits (you don’t have to do this all at once, of course, you can start with the walk…or the trot…or both). You’ll be able to see your horse’s stride in the imprint of his hooves on the ground.
Dismount to measure the distance (if you’re using a metal tape measure, you might want to de-spook your horse to the sound first, because a lot of horses think it’s a monster, especially when it retracts). Or ask a friend to measure the distance for you, toe to toe. Write down the distances, because the last thing you want to do is repeat this exercise. (Later on, when you want to measure your horse’s natural jumping stride, you can follow a similar procedure, but you’ll be measuring from the point of takeoff to the point of landing.)
Set up your cavaletti so they’re spaced the same distance apart as your horse’s natural stride. That way, your horse can concentrate on learning where to put his feet without having to figure out how to rebalance himself at the same time. As you take your horse over the cavaletti, you’ll be asking for relaxation and expression. Your goal should be to try not to interfere. You’re not training your own eye here, you’re training your horse’s eye.
If you don’t have access to true cavaletti (either notched poles or X’s) and you use ground poles, use caution as well, because you don’t want your horse to stumble over the very things you’re using to build confidence. Use ground poles in a place where you can mound some footing over both sides at either end, to stabilize them. Just because you’ve never seen a horse stumble is not a reason to skip this step, any more than feeding a 2″ x 2″ piece of carrot is a good idea just because you’ve never seen a horse choke.
If you want to train over cavaletti at the walk as well as the trot, you’ll need to set up two sets of cavaletti, or you’ll be messing with one gait. Or you’ll need a ground person to alter the distances for you, or dismount and do it yourself. Same goes for canter.
Be sure to set up at least three cavaletti in a row so your horse doesn’t decide you’re training him to jump over a ditch or an oxer. Once that’s flowing smoothly, you can add one or more but don’t go crazy. The point isn’t the length of ground you’ll cover, but how well your horse learns to use himself.
Always give yourself a nice distance in front of the cavaletti to establish your pace and keep your horse between your hands and legs to ensure that you go over the center of the poles. Allow your horse to figure out the exercise, and encourage him to relax. If he wants to look down at first, that’s okay. Ideally, he’ll telescope his neck, raise his back and start swinging. Be prepared for a bigger movement and concentrate on keeping your seat light (two-point at the canter) and your center of gravity stable.
Once you can go comfortably through cavaletti at your horse’s natural stride, you can vary the distances, to teach your horse to lengthen and shorten his stride. If you’ve got a hunter or a jumper, you’ll want to teach your horse a 12′ stride at the canter as soon as he’s figured out where to put his feet, and only when that’s established will you work at shortening (first) and lengthening (second). You’ll work with your horse’s natural stride at the trot, shortening and lengthening. After that, you can move on to grid work and gymnastics, and use cavaletti to substitute for jumps, as Bert deNemethy did for the 1972 Olympic team. Rumor has it that Bill Steinkraus, Frank Chapot, Kathy Kusner and Neal Shapiro all thought he was an idiot at the time, before they secured team Silver.
If you’ve got a dressage horse, you’ll want to use cavaletti at the walk and trot to increase the articulation of the hocks, the freedom of the shoulders and the amplitude of the stride, first by extending the distance between cavaletti and then by shortening it. (I should mention that if you’re a dressage rider, you may want to bear in mind that Ingrid and Reiner Klimke feel that cantering over cavaletti is counterproductive for the dressage horse, since the horse’s hindquarters elevate rather than lower over the cavaletti, as they state in their book “Cavaletti.” But they do recommend jumping from time to time…and not just because jumps were once included in dressage tests.)
There are lots of different arrangements of cavaletti you can use to keep the work interesting for your horse. With the proper foundation (which includes the proper spacing), you’ll know you’re helping your horse be his best at every stage of the game.