“Riding is multitasking. If you can’t multitask, you’re going to have a problem,” says flat riding specialist Sally Amsterdamer. “You can’t just think rhythm, then forget to turn. Or you can’t think turn, and forget your rhythm.”
Amsterdamer specializes in flat training jumper riders. She uses the Mercedes exercise to hone rhythm, balance, impulsion and reaction time between the fences.
“In jumping, if you keep the perfect rhythm and other things are not perfect, you can still ride a good course if you have a horse that is athletic and willing. There are many show jumping riders who are not making their horses supple enough at home but are still doing well because they know how to keep the rhythm on course,” she explains.
“What’s great about this exercise is that it’s everything you need between the jumps but you can do it in a small area.”
To begin, set three poles in the center of the ring with the ends meeting, like a Mercedes symbol, and warm your horse up normally on the flat.
Step 1: Start with big loops
In the Mercedes exercise, the three poles are cantered in a random, looping pattern. Start by making big looping turns, alternating the lead and direction of the turn at will, as you roll back on the rails.
“You can change lead over the pole or you can go straight and change lead after. Obviously, between the fences you are not always changing lead over the fence,” advises Amsterdamer.
“I want the rider to think I’m going to go right. Now, I’m going to change and go left. They’ve got to think and respond and always be ready to change to plan B because you will never 100% of the time get a flying lead change over the pole.”
Step 2: Maintain the rhythm
“Rhythm must stay the same whether you’re turning on a circle or a corner,” emphasizes Amsterdamer.
“What often happens when riders start this exercise is they’ve already worked on the rhythm in their warm up, then find they start slowing down because they are thinking of the cavaletti or the pole. It’s got to be instinctive, so they’re looking at the cavaletti but they’re not losing the rhythm.
“One of the biggest problems riders have is keeping balance and control in a strong show jumping canter. Riding slow and keeping the balance is easy.”
Step 3: Stay organized
If the exercise becomes messy, stop and regroup.
“One of the main things in training is to keep the confidence of the horse. If the rider isn’t confident enough, if the horse becomes unbalanced, go out of the exercise, reorganize and come back to it again. It’s so important to help the horse feel confident,” she continues.
“If turns are ever bad, go back to the riding a square for a little bit—even in trot. You tune the turn better, then pick up the canter and try the exercise again.”
Step 4: Aim for fluency
“The goal is fluency,” says Amsterdamer. “The horse is rhythmical, turning smoothly, in front of your leg. Watch the top riders—Marcus Ehning, Meredith Michaels Beerbaum. They keep this amazing fluency. They keep the same rhythm. That’s number one whether it’s dressage or jumping.”
Step 5: Make it more challenging
As you progress, practice making the turns increasingly sharper. “Get really nippy. You start with poles on the ground, but later it can be cavalettis,” advises Amsterdamer.
“In the training scale, you should always be thinking of the five main parts—rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, straightness. It’s not like you ride and think, I’m just going to work 10 minutes on straightness and have no rhythm or impulsion. You have to keep all those five parts going together. It’s like the pieces of the puzzle coming together. At the start of the exercise, you may not necessarily have all the parts together. The final end product it all has to be there.”
Liked this exercise? Check out Amsterdamer’s Riding a Square for Better Turns, Stretching the Top Line to Develop Balance and Suppleness and Improving Turns and Obedience with the Cartwheel.