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      The Importance of Flatwork


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Q. " I bought this horse as a show jumper , but now he isn't as good at jumping as when I bought him . What is wrong ? "

A.   " Well , perhaps the obvious reason is that you are not quite the rider as the previous owner , or it could be   something else more important and fundamental. "

Q.   " Like what ? "

A .   Read On ................................


Many problems over fences have their roots in the quality of flatwork that is undertaken. Some of the exercises of basic dressage can actually improve a horse's performance over fences. Any training of the horse needs to include work that keeps the horse obedient , attentive , responsive and flexible.

As an example , a horse may become dull and stiff if the rider does not do any transitions or patterns. Cantering one speed for say 5 minutes will bring only dullness. However , by introducing transitions within the gate and /or between the gaits will make him more attentive to the rider and hence would be easier to control.

Also , if the horse has not undertaken elementary schooling on flat work  which includes some lateral movements, it is difficult for him to understand how to move off the leg correctly and therefore he will be hard to keep straight when approaching a jump.

A good show jumping horse should be trained to undertake the following :-

Light transitions between and within the gaits

A collected canter ( pirouette canter )

Counter canter on a circle

Flying lead changes.

The above are all elements in basic dressage . Many riders start jumping their horses without introducing the horse to the basics of flat work, After all , 90% of a show jumping competition is performed on the flat ! Flat work is basic and so if it is ignored then problems on a jumping course will inevitably occur in one form or another.


Below is a list of some common issues encountered whilst jumping and how these issues may be addressed through flatwork.

1. Horse Pulls on the Reins.

This is the opposite to a horse refusing. The horse is basically pulling the rider around the course pulling on the rider's arms. To help remedy this situation , Down Transitions are appropriate. At first , the sharper the down transition , the better. It has to be remembered that horses can endure constant pain / pulling , but respect instant pressure. To stay in control but still make your point , start by trying a half halt. keep your hands down as low as is possible at first. The higher the hands , the higher the horse's head will be and therefore the easier for the horse to block its jaw and pull the rider around. A head down horse will most likely open its jaw and give in the poll , which is a much softer feeling.

Once the horse has understood a half halt , introduce some sharp transitions such as canter - walk or canter - halt. The idea is to ask for the transition sharply and to achieve it . If the horse ignores the rider or breaks to the trot instead of walk , then the command has not got the required  attention . Do not keep pulling but start again and ask again but harder the second time. Once the horse has listened and obliges , then one can revert to ' asking nicely '.

2. Refusals

Refusing a jump or going around the fence usually shows a lack of obedience or respect from the horse. ( This must be judged in the context of whether the horse is capable of jumping the fence in question , whether the rider has placed the horse in the correct position to jump the obstacle and whether the horse has previously been frightened by a rider ) .

One of the basics of all horse riding is the obedience of the horse to the rider. A well trained horse obeys his rider's command without question. A horse that refuses , jerks its head up , or does not respect the rider's aides will not make a good jumper. To start jumping immediately without gaining lightness and control from the horse is dangerous and not pleasant to ride.

To develop an obedient horse , one must appreciate that horses prefer not to work rather than work. Horses do not instinctively know what a rider requires of them at any one particular moment. If we do not explain to them what is required then the horse just will not understand. One has to ensure therefore that during training sessions , the rider clearly explains to the horse what is required of them.

At Greenacres , we teach the horses between the whip and a carrot. We correct the behaviour that we do not want and praise the behaviour that we do want. If a horse is not praised or corrected , it will not understand what is required of it.

If a rider allows a horse to get away with disobedience then the horse will think its OK to continue behaving badly. Use flat work as a way of training obedience.


3.Lack of Forward Motion

When jumping , it is fundamental to keep the horse in a steady canter. It is important not to let the horse drop down into trot or even worse a walk. Hence the riders legs are of strategic importance. It is better to use the legs constantly but lightly to let the horse know that the riders legs are there. The rider is best not to push all the time , merely nudging. A horse will stop paying attention if the leg pressure is constant. The idea is to teach the horse to respond to the leg without question

Instigate a walk - canter transition with somewhat loose reins. You want the horse to pick up the canter from a little nudge of your legs. If the reins are held too firmly at the start , then the horse will be afraid to move off the legs quickly because the bit will distract him. At this stage one must not worry about the horse's frame as the object is to get the horse to respond to a nudge. If there is no response the whip may be used.

Almost any up transition will help - even transitions with gaits such as working trot to - lengthened trot. Start with a walk - canter transition and once the horse is responding to this transition then try others.

4. Lack of Straightness

A horse needs to approach an obstacle straight in order to make it easier for him to jump and to make it difficult for him to refuse the jump. A horse also needs flexibility and balance to manoeuvre the curved portions of the course easily. Therefore , the horse has to be taught to be straight , flexible and even on both sides. This is taught by Lateral Work.

One mistake novice riders make is to think that if they just turn the head of the horse in the direction they wish it to go , the horse will go there. Not true , it is in fact the opposite shoulder to the rein that is being pulled that gives it direction.

The following exercise whilst mounted will demonstrate this better. First ride a circle at the trot then pull only on the inside rein ( do not use the legs or outside rein ) . You will see that only the neck turns but the body does not circle. So , the lesson is that the horse should be directed by BOTH hands and legs. Both reins are used in the turn i.e. the inside rein shows the direction and the outside rein guides the shoulder in the same direction preventing it from swinging out , whilst the outside leg keeps the butt from swinging out and the inside leg supports the bend around the circle.

These same aides from the rider are used when the horse is crooked. The horse is straightened by using the aides opposite to that which you would apply to make the horse bend around in a circle. Straightness therefore is achieved by teaching flexibility and responsiveness to the aides. Circles are a very basic way to teach flexibility ( and therefore straightness ) . Further lateral work is an even better way to teach this.

Lateral exercises can include 1. Turn on the forehand   2.  Haunches in   3. Shoulder in     4. leg yield.

These exercises will develop flexibility in the horse in addition to balance and eveness on both sides with the added benefit of making the horse sensitive to the rider's aides. Try a turn on the forehand. Ask the horse to move it's butt around it's front leg with a little nudge of your leg. If the horse does not move , use a whip on the spot of that leg to encourage the horse to move. Try this in each direction until the horse has figured out that it needs to move off with a slight nudge of the rider's leg. If this is done properly , the horse should quickly figure out that if he does not move off a slight nudge of the leg , then he gets tapped with the whip. Within a few tries , one should not need the whip at all.

In conclusion.

All the above is basic Dressage. A high percentage of mistakes made on a jumping course can be attributed to the lack of flat work. Spend time teaching a jumping horse basic dressage and schooling on the flat each day and you will see the overall performance over obstacles improve !




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