Kate Leggat Is Bringing Dressage to the Training Programs of Top Show Jumpers

Kate Leggat Is Bringing Dressage to the Training Programs of Top Show Jumpers

Kate Leggat might be the show jumper’s secret weapon.

Kate, 27, is contributing to the clear rounds of some of show jumping’s brightest young and established stars. A reiner turned dressage rider that’s now fully immersed in the sport of show jumping, Kate is revolutionizing the rides of the likes of Quentin Judge, Caitlin Creel, and Andrew Bourns, among others, with her flatwork focused training regimen.

It’s dressage for show jumpers, and it’s catching on quickly. In fact, Olympic dressage medalist Laura Graves taught such a clinic in Virginia this past August, where she worked with a jumper-only group of students for the first time. Olympic show jumper Margie Engle has also publicly praised the help of fellow Olympian and dressage trainer Lisa Wilcox for her top mount Royce’s improved rideability this year.

Kate, however, isn’t a dressage trainer dabbling in the show jumping industry. She’s making this the basis of her career.

“Kate is very good at taking a step back and taking a look at the horse as a whole and the system as a whole to make small tweaks in the way someone is flatting a horse, thinking about a horse, and feeling a horse, rather than making big drastic changes,” said Andrew, a well known horse dealer in addition to his competitive prowess as an international show jumper for Ireland. “She takes a bigger picture approach to a horse’s production.”

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That mentality comes from a self-proclaimed “teaching brain” and a diverse multi-disciplined background with a strong emphasis on pure horsemanship. After begging her non-horsey parents at eight years old to start riding lessons, Kate began her equestrian education at the closest barn to her childhood home in Ontario, Canada – Cary and Vanessa Warren’s “The Ranch.” Both Cary, a former National Reining Horse Association (NRHA) judge, and Vanessa were successful reiners, until Vanessa decided to switch her tack to a dressage saddle. Kate followed suit.

“Reining and dressage have many similarities to them,” Kate explained. “There’s a lot of working at the walk, which is very important. It gave me a great foundation in horsemanship and taught me a whole lot of patience.”

Kate then found her way to M2 Dressage in Watertown, Ontario, and she competed in both Canada and the U.S., making her way to horse shows as far south as Wellington, FL. A decision to sell her horse, however, led to another discipline switch. She met Andrew at the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto, Ontario, and he enlisted her to flat some of his horses. He began noticing a difference in how his mounts felt within a couple weeks with a dressage influence.

“When a horse is flatted properly, they’re more responsive and easier to ride, and if they’re riding correctly, they’re much easier to sell,” he said.

“The horses tend to stay sounder longer,” Andrew added. “When they’re working properly on the flat, it keeps them nice and fit, and they tend to hold up to what we do with them a lot longer.”

Kate soon began riding more of Andrew’s horses and traveling internationally with him to scout young prospects.

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“He really educated me about the sport when he would go on those buying trips,” Kate recalled. “We’d watch hundreds of horses in a class, and he educated me on what a show jumper needs in its flatwork and how they have to be worked.”

No Longer the Best Kept Secret

Kate caught on quickly, and it wasn’t long before other riders began to take notice of the tall blonde showing off lateral movements in the schooling rings at horse shows, sometimes in a dressage saddle. Successful U25 rider Ali Boone was the first to approach Kate and ask for her help.

“I saw her working with a horse in a dressage saddle, and I was fascinated by it,” Ali recalled. “Right away, [Kate] told me to try it, and we switched horses. It was amazing! I loved every minute of riding in it, and I felt that it helped me position myself for my flat training in a much more productive and easier way.”

“It just snowballed from there,” Kate said. “I’d help her at shows before a big class, and sometimes I’d help ride the horses before she went into the ring. People started seeing me coach her and riding and being able to go to all these horse shows and ride, and more people kept asking.”

This summer, Ali and her family’s Westphalian gelding Like a Dream didn’t touch a rail in two five-star 1.45m ranking classes at the fiercely competitive Spruce Meadows in Calgary; among their performances was top 12 finish in the CSI5* $25,000 Canadian Utilities U25 at the Pan American Tournament in June. With the results, Kate’s students grew in numbers and stature. In addition to coaching Ali’s sister, Catie Boone, Kate also began to give dressage lessons to Caitlin Creel and has ridden several of Quentin’s horses.

“[Working with Kate] has allowed me to learn just how important and sensitive my aids are to my horses,” Ali said. “My results started to change in the ring, and my horses were able to perform at the top level, because I was allowing them to work with me instead of demanding an uncomfortable aid that wasn’t being interpreted properly.”

"[With proper flatwork], the horses tend to stay sounder longer."

Kate’s list of students also includes amateur riders Mariana Savage and Ashley Friedland. Her program centers greatly on fundamentals, as transitions, lateral work, and pole work are staples in her training regimen, whether she’s riding herself or educating others. Her aim is to fill in the “holes” in riders’ flatwork and improve their horses’ rideability over fences by utilizing dressage principles.

“I’m always telling our [students] to try to make it easier for the horse to jump a clear round better. The flatwork in terms of rideability – going forward and backward and basic training in that way – is really key to anyone’s success, whether you’re jumping 1.00m or 1.60m,” Quentin said. “The flatwork is really the key for everything.”

“A Teaching Brain”

To call dressage work “technical” might be the understatement of the century. While in the saddle, Kate is always thinking about how she can verbalize the subtle cues she’s giving her mounts and how she can get her students to replicate them.

“I don’t just do,” she said. “In my head, I’m constantly trying to analyze it. I have a teaching brain.”

She also tries to approach her work from the mind of a show jumper, and she’s constantly observing riders in the ring to learn their tendencies. While reiterating the importance of practicing true “working walk” and transitions both within and in and out of the gait, she also – to make things more interesting for a rider seeking out the highest and most technical of fences – incorporates cavalettis and pole work into her lessons. Her favorite exercise is the pinwheel, in which she places four poles in a circle and has riders navigate them on a circle at different stride intervals. Show jumpers aren’t tasked to perform exact 10- or 20-meter circles – until now.

“I’ll probably set them where riders can ride them in five, six, and seven [strides] or four, five, and six [strides], and I’ll have them work with connection without using their inside hand to bring the horse in off the outside aids. It forces them to use their inside leg to their outside hand,” Kate explained. “I’ll have them change [the number of strides] each time around, like a bending line to a bending line to a bending line, helping them work on true circle.”

A student going through pole exercises.

Kate will also have her students watch her complete an exercise on their horses – with Kate narrating her every move – before they switch, with the students trying to repeat the exercise.

“With Caitlin Creel…Kate’s done a really good job through ground poles and simple exercises – adding a stride, leaving out a stride, jumping poles on a curve – to help with her horse’s rideability and make it a little bit more interesting for the horse and rider,” Quentin said. “It’s not just working on a circle trying to do some leg yields and things like that. She gets the same results from exercises that are maybe a little bit more tailored to jumping riders.”

Equine fitness is also paramount. While most would assume that would come from more physically demanding work, Kate stresses that much can be improved at the simplest gait, the walk.

“It’s important to engage a horse’s core, so they use themselves correctly and [consequently] last longer in the sport,” she explained. “I find that most people just do all trot work and all canter work, but I always start with a lot of walk work with my students. I encourage getting the horse on the bit and stretching through the walk. I’ll do 10 to 15 minutes of walk work before I start working [at faster gaits]. At the end of a ride, I encourage a long, low stretchy trot, asking the horse to reach down through the top line. It’s important for the horse to always be using themselves correctly through the entire ride.”

Finding A Niche

From reining, to dressage, and now show jumping, Kate has proved that she can draw from a perspective that few around her can. It’s helped her create a unique niche within the industry, and she hopes to increase the number of students she works with in the coming year.

“A lot of time, show jumping trainers don’t have the time to give lengthy flat lessons. Flat work takes time,” Andrew said. “Kate has been such an advantage. She has the time, and she comes in, and she gives riders a better grasp of how they should be flatting their horses. She gives a lot of riders a different perspective on how to view a horse’s production.”

“Kate is incredible at what she does, because she has a way of reading between the lines and listening to both horse and rider,” Ali said. “She helped me develop a skill set that I’d never thought I’d be able to learn – to ride my horses off of feel and develop a relationship that is based on trust and communication. With her guidance, dedication, support, and confidence, I’ve been able to compete in classes that I’ve never even dreamed of competing in.”

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Kate’s repertoire of knowledge is extensive, yet it continues to grow. She has taken up show jumping herself and got in the ring at Old Salem this summer aboard Andrew’s 10-year-old Hanoverian mare, Charming Girl. It’s just another way she hopes she can strengthen her mastery as a trainer, and while she undoubtedly has the riding ability and technical knowledge to match, it’s her insatiable quest for improvement that might be her greatest asset.

“I ride about eight to nine horses a day, but I’d like to teach more. It’s probably my biggest passion,” Kate said. “Learning to showjump will help me to do my job better – to produce horses better, to understand the sport better, and to teach how flatwork and dressage can relate [to coursework] better.”

Kate training a student's horse.

That prospect has those around her just as excited about the future.

“She’s a great rider in her own right, which I think helps speed up the process of students being able to do it themselves,” Quentin said, “but I think her desire just to see riders develop is her strength. That, plus her natural riding ability, is really a great asset.”

“Kate helped harness my fears of self doubt and use that as energy to fuel my drive to improve everyday,” Ali said. “I owe her everything when it comes to not only my special results in the ring, but more importantly, my special bond with my horses.”

Feature photo and teaching photos by Javan Dalman. Other photos courtesy of Kate Leggat.

Written by Catie Staszak

Catie Staszak can typically be found doing one of three things: talking about horses, writing about horses, or riding horses. A broadcast analyst and journalist at FEI competitions, she spends her time traveling to shows and getting behind the microphone to break down courses and get people excited about equestrian sport. Normally spotted with her dog Omaha nearby, she's grateful to be able to combine her greatest passions into a career she loves.