Flatwork Matters [Even When You Jump]


Every time I tell people I’m a jumper, especially when I talk to people who mainly focus on the dressage, I can see their expression change to a smirk & it’s almost as if they’re thinking, “yeah she can jump but she probably let her flat work go in order to get there”.

Unfortunately, at one point in time that assumption would have been correct. It took my years to realize just how important your flatwork can be when you’re jumping. If I could sit with you and watch all the grand prix riders go through their courses I would love it! Since I can’t, let’s imagine for a moment that we’re at WEF in Wellington, FL & we’re watching all the top show jumpers from around the world.

Watch their approach to the fences; their positions; their seat & their aids.

It’s even better during the jump-off rounds. You can see the adjustments more clearly since they’re trying to both go clear and jump the fastest time.

Your flat work matters because your flatwork could be the reason you knock the rail, your horse stops, you get a bad distance, or you miss the jump completely. You and your horse are a team when you ride, whether you’re jumping or flatting your horse should be listening to your aids and you should be listening to your horse. If you do your flatwork properly, then you’ll be able to respond to any changes that may occur in your course.

I remember I was riding a 5-year old on his first trip down to Palm Beach, FL for WEF & he spooked at everything! It made it that much more important that I used my seat & did my flat work in the corners not only to set him up for the next fence but to also bring his attention back to me so that he was listening to me and not the spectators, announcers, food stand owners, or other exhibitors.

The horse I have now requires flat work in order to bring her back after every fence. She’s a hot horse & a jumper meaning I don’t have the luxury of wide turns to re-group and focus on flat work so I have to be direct & clear with her in a short period of time without becoming too reliant on one aid or another. Here’s where “flatwork” as a whole comes in. I can’t just pull a horse’s teeth out or spur her to make her listen to me…I have to work with her, as a teammate, and communicate using all my aids. With proper flatwork training at home, it’s a lot easier for me to make corrections quickly AND properly in order to ensure a clean and quick show jumping round.

Need some flatwork exercises?

  1. True-bend & Counter-bend: try changing the bend every 8-10 trot steps and make sure that you’re not only changing the bend of their neck but rather you’re changing their entire bend using all your aids (leg, seat, & then hands last).
  2. Transitions: I know it may sound simple but the more transitions you do, the better. Not only will it build muscle for your horse but it will also improve responsiveness between horse and rider. Try doing transitions between gaits as well as transitions within gaits. To really challenge yourself, you can set two ground-poles 7 (this number is up to you) canter strides apart. Go through the poles in 7 strides, then lengthen the stride the next time through to get 6 strides, then lengthen more to get 5 strides, then go back to 7 strides, then shorten the next time through the poles to get 8 strides, then shorten even more the next time to try and get 9 strides. Remember, the key here is not to ride like a bat out of hell for fewer strides or ride like you’re going to pull your horse’s teeth out to fit the additional strides, rather ride from your seat and leg for both with your hands as an additional aid. Your body can do wonders in terms of communicating with your horse so try and open that line of communication.
  3. Spiral Circles: You can do these at the walk, trot, and canter if you want depending on your level of experience. Start on a 20-meter circle and as you keep going around the circle you continue to make it incrementally smaller. Make sure the inward movement is coming from your leg asking your horse to move its whole body in, like you would if you were asking for a leg-yield. You’ll feel what movement is right for your horse. As the circle becomes smaller and smaller it will be harder and harder for your horse to continue the forward movement and will require immense support from your seat and leg as well as immense work from your horse’s hind end (you’re essentially asking for haunches-in). When you’re ready, use your inside aids to push your horse outwards to incrementally widen the circle (now essentially asking for haunches-out). Then switch directions and do it again after giving your horse the chance to trot on a loose rein and stretch their neck and back out.
  4. Counter Canter: This won’t be easy for many horses but it’s an excellent exercise for both horse and rider. Start with trying to counter-canter (hold the canter intentionally on the wrong lead) all the way around the ring. If you’re already there, here’s an exercise that will be helpful if you’re showing in upper-level equitation or if you’re just looking for a challenge. Pick up your counter-canter up the long-side of the arena. Hold it around the short end through both the corners. Continue you’re counter-counter half-way down the opposite long-side then push your horse onto the quarter-line before turning them in towards the rail to change direction (while holding the same lead) to end up on the proper lead & halt in the corner.
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