Dressaging My Horse

I’m going to talk about a really novel theory here: better flatwork leads to better jumping.


I know, I know. We all know this. But I want to talk about it, so humor me.

More specifically, I want to talk about how hard we “push” on the flat and over fences, and how we can connect (or sometimes disconnect) the two.

I know for me- and I can’t be alone in this- my temptation is to push over fences. Jack ’em up, give us tighter turns, let’s giddyup and go. I don’t do this willy-nilly because I am not a total dumdum, but I love jumping and my drive to improve focuses on jumping.

Doing this is better than cocaine (I mean…I think? I’ve only done the jumping, not the drugs)

But. Without dressage-ing my horse and building capabilities on the flat, I will eventually reach an ceiling of my horse’s abilities over fences. So I need to be pushing just as hard to extend our fitness and abilities on the flat if I expect to be pushing hard over fences.

This is why we’ve raised our expectations on the flat as we’ve raised the fences. Establishing balance around smaller circles = time saved by doing the inside turn in a jumpoff. Firmly installing lateral movements at all gaits = better control and precision on course. Maintaining a steady connection between the aids = the ability to adjust to the right spot, slice a jump without a runout, communicate more clearly. Not to mention the fact that all of this builds fitness and self-carriage.

This is why we do crap tons of lateral work and spend so much time “warming up” in our lessons. Frankie’s abilities over the small fences got 100x better as we improved our flatwork, and suddenly the bigger fences were coming up more smoothly.

Remember when I considered this decent form for Francis?

So what would happen if we pushed to improve over fences without pushing to improve our dressage? What if there was a disconnect between the two?

Let’s assume that Frankie was in good fitness from hill work and regular exercise, but that we didn’t emphasize lateral work, collection/extension, things like that. Let’s assume that I hopped on him every day, WTC around for an hour, then hopped off. No pushing of technical skills on the flat.

I’d better hope I have the magic eye for distances >4 strides out, because we don’t have a ton of adjustability. I’ll need to shorten or lengthen much earlier because my horse won’t be tuned to that.

And I’ll need to hit the perfect take-off spot every time, because he will have a tough time getting a bouncy enough canter to handle a super short or long one.

Once we land, the turns better not be too sharp. We have a tough time connecting to the outside rein and moving off the inside leg, so we’re not super balanced as the turns get tighter.

We have a tough time moving our shoulders/haunches independently, so I’ll need to set my horse up very straight to each jump. Otherwise we risk a drive-by. I don’t have a lot of options with my turns since it’s limited to how quickly we can move his whole body.

And all this is assuming that my horse has developed the self-carriage to get a powerful enough stride to jump the bigger jumps. Which I find unlikely.

A million leg-yields and shoulders-in later, that’s more like it.

So yeah. If we were running into a problem with our lateral work or collection, it wouldn’t make sense to me for us to try to progress with bigger jumps or tighter turns. It would make sense to keep the jumps at a comfortable, manageable level while we improved our knowledge and abilities on the flat and only THEN ask harder questions over fences.

While I haven’t sat in a dressage saddle in at least 10 years, I take dressage-ing my horse extremely seriously. Of the 5-6 hours of work he does each week, 4.5-5.5 of those hours are spent on the flat developing strength and consistency, flexibility and adjustability. When he gets a pro ride, that’s usually heavily flatwork-focused. We know he can jump the jumps- developing his “buttons” on the flat is what gives him more tools to do that. Even when working over fences, we keep them under 3′ most of the time- there are so many skills we can practice without jumping his legs off.

Frankie definitely prefers to jump. No matter how lazy or bored he seems on the flat, he perks up and hunts down the fences as soon as they go up. He would probably be much happier if we jumped more and flatted less. But I strongly believe that this would be doing him a huge disservice and lead to holes in training/health problems down the road.

Mahm. Flatwork stinks. So bored. Mahm. Stahp.

So there’s my soapbox for the day. I’m sure it’s nothing you haven’t heard before, no novel new concepts, but I’m feeling pretty passionate about it these days. And if there’s anyone out there that I can rant to about the importance of developing a stronger shoulder-in, it’s all y’all crazies.

15 thoughts on “Dressaging My Horse

  1. Stacie Seidman 02/06/2018 / 10:54 am

    100% true! My trainer is all about the flatwork. I had a REALLY weak flatwork base growing up because honestly, I don’t think my trainer really knew how to do it well. She knew that they shouldn’t be over jumped at least… but we didn’t do enough flatwork. Fortunately, she did occasionally bring in dressage instructors to try and give us some knowledge, but it was rare. Anyway, once I got to college, that all changed and I learned how to really flat properly and all of the points you touched on here. I think I was able to get away with it more as a junior since I mostly did the hunters and handy courses were rare back then.
    My old trainer always believed that horses only had so many jumps in them, so you didn’t want to waste them. We did two lessons a week when not showing, or just one if we were. If we were showing both weekends we may not jump that week. I think she was right about that stuff.
    Current trainer has a similar jumping stance, and works much like your trainer. Even though her horses show Grand Prix height, she rarely jumps higher than 3’6″ at home. Of course, me being a chicken amateur, if I was jumping big jumps at the show, I would need to see a few at home, or I would definitely need new breeches…


    • hellomylivia 02/06/2018 / 11:24 am

      We definitely jumped more big jumps as we were moving up- we both needed to learn that we could do it!! Now that we’re “over the hump,” we can back off a bit to save his jumps. Hooray for flatwork!


  2. the_everything_pony 02/06/2018 / 10:59 am

    No I completely agree! I think that’s why there is always such an emphasis on cross-training – it helps your horse – brain and body wise I think. Either way tho, it’s a good soap box!


    • hellomylivia 02/06/2018 / 11:26 am

      I think it’s SO good for their brains too! I know it’s hard for Frankie to keep track of his body sometimes, and asking for a little more gets him super engaged and thinking hard


  3. Liz 02/06/2018 / 12:33 pm

    Yep! And when you live in the wet mountains of WV and you’re relegated to a field and no indoor or “good” footing to jump all the time, flatwork becomes the default for a lot of the year. I even practice things on the trail this time of year because the footing out there is more reliable than our field! Grif always come back stronger over fences after a dedicated dressage only week or two.


    • hellomylivia 02/06/2018 / 4:36 pm

      Ooh I have a whole other post in the hopper on the importance of working in varying footing. It’s no wonder Grif has been such a natural at jumping- he’s being set up so well for it with all the cross training!


  4. K 02/06/2018 / 1:59 pm

    I absolutely agree! It is such an advantage to be able to ask your horse to rock back and collect; adding the ability to leg yield (half pass?) at the canter was a game changer for my retired guy. He could turn on a dime, but we got even tighter since I knew we could leg yield out on the approach to a fence.

    Once I found my flatwork groove, I actually prefer flatting to jumping most days; just because they give me the same amount of reward.


    • hellomylivia 02/06/2018 / 4:37 pm

      That lateral work is a whole new gear on course for sure! I’m finding more and more satisfaction out of getting better flatwork out of Francis for sure, but my heart will always be with the big sticks 😉


  5. Kelly s 02/06/2018 / 6:01 pm

    Sounds like you have been watching George Morris teach his horsemastership clinic at Wellington. Makes so much sense! I bet Francis doesn’t love the hard flat work either, but it makes for more funsies during the jumping so….good luck to you both! Look forward to seeing more high flying and fancy renvers from you both this year.


    • hellomylivia 02/07/2018 / 10:54 am

      I think he’s slowly starting to like flatwork, as I learn how to keep him more engaged 😉 He’s getting fancier and fancier!


  6. roamingridersite 02/06/2018 / 6:04 pm

    Makes a lot of sense! Any time we flub jumping (not that we jump much or high) Trainer always makes a point to use it as a way to show where our flatwork is weak. Which is sorta everywhere at the moment but improving all the time


    • hellomylivia 02/07/2018 / 10:55 am

      Yes exactly!!! Any problems over jumps always always have a root in a weakness in flatwork. I like the way your trainer operates 🙂


  7. Tracy - The Printable Pony 02/07/2018 / 9:42 am

    I’ve always thought of it like this: even on course, you jump 8-12 jumps, and the rest of the course is ON THE FLAT. So most of your course is actually flatwork. My trainer also always says to us that most horses don’t have trouble jumping the jumps — that part is easy for them. It’s everything in between that is hard… aka the flatwork


    • hellomylivia 02/07/2018 / 10:57 am

      YASS. Flatwork with speedbumps is what my trainer always says. Their job is to make it over the speedbump, and our job is to make the parts in between flow smoothly enough that they can do that job without hindrance.


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