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The Key Is Cross-Training: Vaulting Horses Find Success Through Upper Level Dressage

If you attend any dressage shows in the Virginia area, you’re likely to have noticed Grand Prix trainer Bruno Greber, and you’re also likely to have noticed two of the amazing dressage horses he rides, Quno and Wescott. Many would be surprised to learn the secret behind these two talented equines - they aren’t “just” dressage horses, in fact dressage is simply a way to help them improve in their “real” jobs - as vaulting horses!

(Barbara Greber on Quno)

The story goes back several years to when Bruno was approached by Shawn Ricci who had become interested in vaulting and wanted to improve his vaulting horses' performance through some dressage work. Ricci, who owns Bent Tree Farm with his wife Karen Waldron, came to work with Bruno every few weeks while getting his vaulting career started. As Sean’s vaulting skills progressed to the point where he was winning medals, he purchased two very nice vaulting horses and competed internationally. Since Bruno's training had been so helpful the initially, Shawn decided to fully immerse his new equine partners in a dressage program, sending them to Bruno and his wife Barbara at Greber Dressage in Crozet, VA for cross-training several months a year.

Today, Ricci and Waldron's vaulting horses Quno, an Oldenburg competed up to Prix St George, and Wescott, a 4th level Dutch Warmblood both boast an impressive resume in their "second calling" dressage career. The horses' trainer, Bruno, believes upper level dressage work is extremely beneficial for vaulting horses. After gaining experience with vaulting in his native Switzerland, Bruno became an avid believer in the benefits of cross-training explaining, “Dressage helps keep the horses gymnastically fit without too much lunging. It focuses on different muscle groups, and the horses go in straight lines. We came up with a program to improve balance, tempo, and steadiness. Dressage can definitely help that, and help develop strength, while using a variety of muscles to compensate for the vaulting activities. The horses get to do different things and it helps keep them sound and healthy. It’s good for their mind as well.”

(Quno in a vaulting session with Shawn Ricci)

A Balancing Act

While vaulting may be an exercise in finding equilibrium, Bruno uses a balancing act of his own, in the form of variety, to achieve the goal of an elastic, rhythmic horse who comes through and uses his back - essential qualities for both dressage and vaulting horses. “In a typical week, the horse is lunged once with someone on his back - either a rider with saddle and side reins, or a vaulter. Another day we work on cadence so the horse is steady like a metronome. We do it by the clock - one minute in trot, two minutes in canter, etc. to work on rhythm and tempo. Going by the clock helps keep track of the horse’s fitness level as well - so that’s another piece. This work can be done in the outdoor, on the grass, or in the indoor.”

Bruno continues, “Two days a week we do standard dressage work - lateral work, changes, pirouettes, mediums, etc. Since the horses are also showing in dressage, they have that school two days a week. Weather permitting after 20 - 30 minutes, they go out for a hack to cool down. Then once a week, just a trail ride - not using the ring at all. Even walking up and down the hills is great for their balance and strength. Stepping over the logs on the trails makes them aware that where their feet are.”

Bruno is a big believer in riding horses on “other-than-perfect” footing. He and his vet discussed the current trend of dressage horses only being ridden on premium footing. The vet told him that having no variety in the footing is actually detrimental to the development of strong tendons and ligaments. Horses in training with Bruno get plenty of variety because they’re hacked on the road and on trails. He feels that the different footing of trail rides is very good for them both in terms of strength and of spatial awareness.

The horses also get turned out four or five hours a day. In bad weather, such as icy conditions, the horses go on the hot walker twice a day. Bruno notes that, “Power walking is good for their fitness.”

In the winter the horses do ground poles in the ring, and once a week they get long lined. Bruno’s focus here is, “Stretching forward and down in the trot. Long lines are great for stretching and shifting weight. We do this with all the horses. We also do in hand work for piaffe and passage.”

According to Bruno, Switzerland has produced top vaulting teams for years, and he credits the coach, who is a dressage rider. “They ride the horses at dressage for the reasons we mentioned earlier. It’s very important that they’re working through. Round up, stretch, collect, come through. Vaulting is a set frame, if the horse was just used for that they might get stiffer and unsound. Horses have to be ridden through their backs. They need to be stretched using their whole body and swinging through their back. Riding is mandatory for a vaulting horse. Cross training is essential to keep them flexible, sound, and elastic in their body. Riding them ‘through’ a couple times a week is important for their muscles and skeleton.”

Whether a vaulting horse, a driving horse, or a show jumper, Bruno says that “The best gymnastic exercise for the horse is the one where he is asked to use the whole body properly. It’s the most appropriate thing to help horses stay sound and use themselves properly. Dressage is that gymnastic exercise.”


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