Why I Love Riding on the Flat
Written By: Caroline McCoy
Jumping is the end goal for so many riders. Who could resist the feeling of a perfect distance to a single oxer in the hunter derby or a technical two stride in the jumper classic? But what about finally nailing a halt to canter transition? I would be lying if I said that jumping has lost its excitement, because, to be honest, if it was physically and mentally beneficial to jump everyday, I would. However, that is entirely unrealistic when creating a training program for your horse and ensuring their soundness and mental happiness. In the past few fall and winter months, I have greatly increased my appreciation and love for flatting and hacking my horses. As I have grown as a rider, my knowledge has allowed me to become more independent from the typical 30 minute - 1 hour lesson structure. I have always hacked my horses, but the appeal to create flat exercises in conjunction with correct body position has led me to appreciate every step in the saddle even more.
A typical Saturday at the barn is my hack day for the horses. Let’s say I am scheduled to ride my pony, my horse, and my mom’s horse. Each animal is in a different point in their career and has especially refined needs. My pony is currently being full-leased out, so my assistant trainer and I warm her up before her lessons and put in training rides so she can be a well-educated and properly working pony for her leaser. For every horse I ride, I try to encourage relaxation from the get-go by walking around the property and in the arena for around 10 minutes to warm up their muscles and decrease stiffness in the joints. I ask Pony to come into my hand and move correctly from the get go. I do lots of walk to trot, trot to walk, and tempo changes at the trot. For a pony being leased by a younger girl, transitions are so important to keeping her sharp and on the aids. I like to encourage a relaxed and balanced canter by keeping a subtle contact and encouraging straightness in a close, light seat. I ask for lead changes, both flying and simple, on the straight line and the diagonal. I like to use figures such as circles, figure 8s, and changes of direction to keep every horse I ride interested. If I have the arena to myself, I love working her over a ground pole or two and asking for changes over the poles and making tighter turns. I like to make up exercises as I go along depending on the poles and arena availability. My main priority with her is to keep her relaxed and working properly through her entire body while maintaining the quietness she needs as a kids’ horse.
My mom’s horse, Claudius, is also in his mid-teens and is a jumper/dressage horse who I get to show in the equitation. He is a remarkably smart and talented horse, making him an amazing candidate for the technical beauty of an equitation course. I can also hop in the dressage saddle and get a lesson focusing entirely on his classical movement through tempo changes and lateral work. When I am by myself, I either have a loose-rein warm-up, or I ask him to come into my hand and bend around my leg from the start. For my personal position, I practice sitting his expressive trot while keeping him in a frame suitable for an equitation class. Cranking on the bit won’t get us anywhere as he responds to connection from the leg to hand and will frame up beautifully when asked correctly. A personal favorite exercise is as follows: Walk to canter transition in the first corner of the short end of the arena, halt on the beginning of the quarterline, walk to counter canter on the quarterline, flying change at the end of the arena and continue to the second corner, halt, turn on the haunches, repeat the other direction. This basic template can be modified to include keeping the counter canter through the turn, incorporating no-stirrup work, or adding more transitions. I love schooling the counter-canter on a straight line because it forces me to sit perfectly straight in the saddle by being aware of my seat-bones and balance in the saddle in order to keep a forward and correct canter. I always like to end with a stretchy trot on the loose rein so we can both stretch after a good ride.
Iscar, my personal horse, has taught me the most about the importance of flatwork. My personal favorite tool we use is the Equiband® System, an elastic band that reaches around his hind end and under his belly. His long back and the lack of coordination (I’m saying this out of love) doesn’t always allow him to connect his hind end to his front end. I love to use this system while flatting and I always encourage an active and connected trot from the beginning of my ride. I need him to track up and engage his hind end both directions, on circles, and on the diagonal. My goal is to use the least amount of hand possible to keep him round by using a soft hand and giving when I feel him carry himself. This can be achieved by using a soft, but steady outside contact and creating impulsion from the hind end. His canter is still coming together, but using canter poles and the “circle of death”, or four poles on a circle with an equal number of strides between the poles, has been a recent favorite exercise. He has the tendency to rush after the fence, so having a constant circle of poles that requires smart planning, a correct amount of strides, and my own perfect balance and steering to get us there on track leaves, which leaves little room for rushing after the poles. From being stuck in a small indoor arena all winter, we have almost mastered the single pole and have created adjustability (score!) before and after, which has translated into the little jumping work we have been able to do. Leg yields have also been a huge bonus to our flat rides, but I mostly like to work laterally with my trainer so I have another set of eyes to watch over his hind end. However, doing square turns by controlling the shoulders and essentially doing square turns on the haunches at the walk, trot, and canter help straightness so much. If all else fails and the arena has a million horses in it, I head to the trails and do walk and trot sets up a hill if the footing isn’t complete slush.
If you’re like me and can’t head to the desert to escape the torrential California rain, flatwork may be your only option. If you have an empty arena to yourself, a fun way to create a very structured hack would be to memorize a dressage test, such as 1st Level Test 1 (https://files.usef.org/assets/DzneavV6_5A/2015firstleveltest1.pdf) , that incorporates tempo changes in all three gates. It’s a great way to crosstrain for the hunter/jumper riders and creates the perfect structure if you are just beginning flatwork on your own. Having a solid foundation on the flat and experience with creating great exercises will also carry over when riding an unfamiliar horse. With the knowledge of the basics, you can transform your ride to the benefit of both you and the horse you are riding. Making the most of hack rides through figuring out what benefits your horses the most will make the first show of the season so much more gratifying.