Tell Me Tuesday: Flatwork

I got to wondering about this the other day when someone posted on facebook about having a flatwork lesson and what it entailed. Over time my general flatwork routine has definitely evolved, from horse to horse and discipline to discipline. Back in the hunter days we might do different size circles, some transitions, a little bending left and right, maaaaaaybe some shoulder-in, mostly in a stretchy trot type of outline. When I moved to the jumpers it got a bit more intense – shoulder in, leg yield, opening and closing the stride, smaller circles, etc. And then of course over to eventing, dipping our toes into actual dressageland (um, -ish…) and adding in such fun things as haunches-in, canter squares, half pass, etc.

As I’ve learned more, my overall flatwork routine has definitely evolved. Of course a lot depends on the horse you’re sat on and their level of training – I can’t just go in the ring and pop out a casual half pass on the 4yo for funsies. But he did get a lot of things introduced to him earlier on than some of my other horses, because I have more of an “established” (lolhelpme) background in flatwork fundamentals. I’m still shit at it, but… ya know. A little less shit?

Anyway, I think a lot of us probably have a “typical” flatwork routine for most of our horses. Like, let’s say, it’s just a regular ol’ work day, not a lesson day or anything, and you’re flatting your horse just to push some buttons and keep them moving and tuned up. I’m curious – what does that look like for you with your own horse, whatever their stage of training or discipline?

Sometimes I feel like I’ve spent our entire eventing career struggling against his conformation

For example, mine: Henry was a Prelim event horse but we don’t really seem to show anymore (at the moment anyway). I can’t tell you the last time I put a dressage saddle on him, but we still do flatwork several times a week. I push all the same buttons I spent so long installing, both to keep him tuned up in case we ever do make it to a show again, and to keep his body stronger and more gymnasticized. So for him, just a regular ol’ not-at-all-special day of flatwork starts at the walk, usually going back and forth from freewalk to contact, opening and closing the stride, and doing figure 8’s on 10-ish meter circles to get him bending around my leg. Then we move to trot, which he usually likes to do a big stretch before we really dig in, so we might make a few 20m circles or laps of the arena just letting him stretch before I start to put him back together a bit. From there we do a lot of lateral work – leg yield and shoulder-in are is his jam, he is always Mr. Tension and it helps him relax into the outside rein – and serpentines. I’ll play a lot with transitions within the gait – lengthening the stride, then making it small, then back to working – and going back and forth and in between. We’ll throw in a few trot/walk/trot on a circle (rapid-fire transitions have always been his “come apart” trigger, and some days they still are). Then canter, with leg yield, maybe a little baby half pass, always some counter canter loops, and most assuredly our favorite and most important exercise for an event horse – opening and closing the stride. I want to be able to go from a 10′ stride to a 14′ stride to a 12′ stride and back again at the drop of a hat while jumping, so transitions within the canter are probably the #1 thing we do and we do it EVERY ride (I think if you sit outside the jumper ring or the cross country warmup that’s probably the thing you’d see most often too). If you can’t quickly and easily adjust the canter, you’re screwed on a jumping horse.

Especially when they’re built like this

Canter squares are big for us too, because Henry is a croup-high, naturally quite downhill horse, and they help get his hind end more underneath him and his front end up a bit. I’ll do a simple change here and there with him sometimes but almost never flying changes, because he loves to throw flying changes into dressage tests where they shouldn’t be. We’ll do some canter/stretchy trot/canter or some canter/walk/canter or some canter/trot/halt/rein-back/canter too, how many or which variations depend on the day and how spicy he is. After that we do some free walk, more stretchy trot, stretchy serpentines, etc, and then we’re done. It could be 20 minutes or it could be 45 minutes, depending on the day.

Presto obviously isn’t here right now and is neon green, but before he left his flatwork sessions were about 15-20 minutes and consisted of transitions between walk and trot and canter (mostly walk and trot since he was still kind of struggling with his canter balance in the dressage arena), beginning leg yield (he was actually pretty good at that), the extreme beginning of shoulder-in (less good at that), small transitions within each gait, serpentines, and figure 8’s. Nothing particularly complicated, but enough to keep him focused and thinking and paying attention to my leg/seat and not just blobbing around on endless 20m circles. At the canter he either did simple laps around or did circles. We had just started playing with opening the stride and then coming back when I sent him off for training.

starting to leg yield off the quarter line

So tell me – what does your average, not-special flatwork day look like? Discipline and level of horse? I love seeing what everyone else does and why!

9 thoughts on “Tell Me Tuesday: Flatwork

  1. oh gosh. Right now our flat rides ping pong between increasing suppleness and increasing power. We typically start with a good stretchy walk, getting her to move off of both legs through her rib cage. Open and close the walk steps through some different sized circles and bending lines, keeping her really over her back and into the contact but on a longer rein.
    Then move into the trot. Lots of figures, true bend, counter bend. Once the bend is well established and she’s giving through her rib cage, we move into some square work. At this point, we alternate between the hind end and the front end moving around in the corners with a deeper, more stretch connection between corners. She isn’t quite strong enough to do canter squares, so at the canter, we work on true bend and counter bend and have started throwing in some shallow counter canter and leg yield exercises.
    If we get things well established in all three gaits with good suppleness and connection (doesn’t always happen), then we open and close the length of the canter. Most of the time, these will need to be done with lots of circles to keep that suppleness without getting into a fight about it.
    Obviously, all of this is mostly being done to make May easier to ride over fences and stronger in different stride lengths.


  2. i havent had a flatwork lesson very often but actually had one on Sunday and my abs still hurt. We rode in the small ring and omg it was hard. But i enjoyed it a lot we did lots of loops and transitions etc. (Thanks Jenna if you are reading this). But overall I dont work that hard on flatwork. I probably need to do more of this but boarding at a barn that is mostly jumping and only riding 1-2 a week if that. I do need to remember my dressage whip again for sure/

    My normal flat schooling before jumping is trotting and cantering on a loose rein then bringing him in. He is 19 years old in April so he doesnt need hard schooling. We aren’t going fancy dressage if ever so as long as he is supple and listening I am happy.

    All the CTs I am looking into in the next couple months, have the intro/starter doing the BN A or B so I had better get back into flatwork. Thanks for the reminder 😉


  3. Coco, 9yo hunter who should have more show experience than she does, has to walk for 5-10 minutes and look around or she’s angry. She’s super happy doing walk/trot stuff, but cantering can be her kryptonite depending on her mood so we are always working to make it easy and happy. She’s the most crazy athletic thing I have ever sat on so making it calm and easy can actually be difficult. We battled for a long time with some kicking out during the canter and after exhaustive vetting and trying different protocols to figure out the problem, it turns out that less is more with her. She doesn’t hurt, but she has opinions. My ring is small and I’ve found just letting her canter forward in the pasture a bit makes her happy, then she will come back and do whatever and be happy.
    Simon is a bit downhill like Henry and we have been doing 5 million transitions during our rides to strengthen his topline and hiney. I may show him someday, but for now his job is foxhunting and trail riding. He likes to take flying leaps over jumps so building his hind end strength is a big goal for us this year. Lots of cavalletti. Transitions. Gymnastics with cavalletti. I really only jump at lessons and in the hunt field.


  4. Well I’m coming from dressageland, do technically all our rides are flat work unless we hack out, but a typical, not specifically working on test stuff usually starts with about 10 min of walk work. We start with a good walk lap really asking for forward and stretch. Then I pick him up and do shoulder in/haunches in on a circle both directions, leg yield rail to rail both ways, and sometimes throw in some turns on the forehand and turns on the haunches—everything to get him thinking forward and giving in his ribs while lifting through his withers. Then usually some quick trot work—20m circles, leg yields, head to wall leg yields, etc before jumping into canter. Canter do a lot of forward and back, counter canter, canter to walks, leg yields, half pass, and other laterals, etc. Then bc he’s always better after cantering, go back and work on the harder trot stuff—half pass, really pushing in the mediums back to collection, etc. Occasionally I’ll throw in a change, but he just learned changes and currently thinks they are the most. Funnest. Things. Ever. So I try to limit those and instead ensure our counter canter stays solid and work on getting the quality of canter that makes changes easy for him (super balanced and on the aids). We also have a good stretchy trot and walk break somewhere in the middle of our ride and again at the end. But generally non lesson rides last 35-40min and while we don’t work on everything I mentioned, our rides are usually a combo of those things.


  5. For my two older horses who are just getting back to real life work after injury, they basically do the same things right now even though one is a jumper and the other a hunter. Though to be honest, they’ll probably always more or less do the same things. Just because a horse shows in the hunters doesn’t mean he can’t be supple and have good basics all around. So for just a regular every day flat ride, we start out with about four to five minutes of loose walk half the time each direction. Eros tends to warm up a bit more slowly than Pammon, but Pammon has been pretty back sore, so I’ve been keeping his warm up a little longer too. It’s mostly just a loose rein trot around both ways for another 5-10 minutes. I let them pick their pace to start and then we start pushing for a little more reach. Next I’ll canter a lap or two each way, still loose reins, maybe a little half seat if they’re not feeling spooky. After we’ve cantered both ways, we get down to some real work. We play around with lengthening and shortening, making different sized circles. We usually do some lateral work, though with Eros, I don’t do a lot. He’s ridiculously broke for all of it: half pass, shoulder in, haunches in, each end out, leg yield, counter canter. The trouble with him is that he’ll use it to evade going forward. Since he’s pretty adept at it, I don’t drill it. Pammon finds it all a little harder, but I think due to two things. 1. his sore back (I am working with the vet about this, not just pushing him through it, promise!) and 2. He came from a dressage back ground and I think I don’t know where all the buttons are. But we’re getting better! And that’s about it. Then we walk another five minutes or so and I get off. Usually about 30-40 minutes total.
    Shiny… well. In a perfect world her ride would be similar to above. But she’s a mare and and possibly more stubborn than I am. So her rides go like this: Loose walk 4-5 minutes. Ask for trot. She throws her shoulder left and starts walking sideways. Finally agrees to trot but it’s the most glacial pace. I think even western pleasure riders would say it’s too slow… We continue in the Shiny Shuffle a lap or two each direction. It’s painful. Slow motion trotting is legit exhausting when you’re trying to post. Once we get through that, I ask for canter. She generally refuses the first time, and I try to decide whether to chase her into the canter or stop her and start over. She usually decides whichever I choose is wrong and trots off on her front end all kinds of fast (oddly enough) refusing to both walk or canter. Sometimes we eventually get canter at this point. Sometimes we go back to some better trot work in which she’s finally forward and has come into the contact. Once that’s achieved (it may be fleeting) we move on to canter (hopefully). If she’s in the mood we have a lovely canter, though circling is still a challenge. Then we go back to trot and usually here is where we can finally play around with lengthen and shortening. If she’s in the mood. Then we’ll do a little more canter and usually after the initial battle this part goes better. We’ve started some baby leg yields at the walk, but honestly until she will move off my leg on the regular, I think it’s pretty pointless to try and work on that. So yeah. Training is going well with her… At least she’s quiet!
    What’s the most frustrating is she just doesn’t care to move off the leg if she’s not in the mood for it. I can spur her, smack her with the stick, she doesn’t care. She’ll just let you do it with almost no reaction. And then other times, you ask for a walk canter transition and she just leans back and give it to me. Perfectly. It’s really confusing to me!


  6. We’re endurance people so our flatwork routine is pretty basic. At the moment it’s all about STRAIGHTENING UP because we have some weird wonky hindlimb issues and – um – “interesting” hind hooves. So walk, walk and more walk, then some biomechanics stuff in trot. Stand up the shoulders, lift through the thoracic sling while keeping the back end straight behind the front end! Then I go and see my biomechanics coach and decide I should just shoot the horse and/or sell him to someone who knows how to ride (just kidding – kinda…).


  7. Dressage queen here!
    I like a fairly long walk warm-up, but not an aimless one. I’ll include at least a couple of laps on a loose rein. Then we’ll test the go-and-whoa buttons – for a baby, it would be walk-halt-reinback-walk, where for a bigger horse I can just adjust the walk a few times and check that the buttons exist. Then we check on the suppleness, either with some 5m serpentine loops up and down the long side, or with half-pass to leg-yield to half-pass to leg-yield on the diagonal (or shoulder-in to renvers to shoulder-in to renvers). Once I know my horse is relaxed, supple, connected, responsive, forward and straight, we basically do the same thing in the trot work, then in the canter work. On a more advanced horse, we will do working and medium trot and canter before sitting down to do the collected work. My rides are mostly just about doing the same basic things to slowly chip away at any flaws in the way of going. If he goes very well from the start, that’s when we introduce new or more difficult movements.


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