When your trainer has you doing endless circles while you practice your up and down transitions, it might seem like mind-numbing, monotonous work. Maybe you’re an aspiring eventer or jumper and all you really want to be doing is sending your horse flying over some jumps. Or you’re a dressage rider desperate to learn how to do half passes and lead changes. Is going in circles really going to help you that much? Spoiler: the answer is yes.
No matter what discipline, flatwork is important for you and your horse. By flatwork, I mean riding done on flat ground, as opposed to going over jumps. This isn’t your average walk around the arena, however; when you’re doing flatwork, you’re moving in a collected walk, trot, or canter and focusing on up and down transitions in circles, serpentines, and even over poles.
Flatwork is what makes up dressage — it’s what you build off of in order for you and your horse to be able to do those more complicated lateral movements you’re dying to try. But what about if you’re a jumper or eventer? Not every second of your ride is going over jumps. There are flat(ish, if you’re an eventer) spaces in between those jumps you’ll be riding on. Not to mention, flatwork helps build muscles in you and your horse correctly, so you both have the balance and calmness needed to compete.
Having a boring lesson, though, is hard on you and your horse. Riding is about being as mentally engaged as you are physically. To make sure your horse (and you!) is staying awake and interested, change the difficulty of your flatwork. For your steady schoolmaster to the young hot horse you’re working on training, staving off boredom is equally important. So what can you do? Change your course. Always make sure your horse has to wait for your cue to make a move. You can do this by adding more transitions to your circles or adding poles to ride over. To make it even more difficult, transition as you ride between poles. If you’re working on 10 or 20-meter circles, add in figure eight’s or three-loop serpentines even, or especially if, your arena is small. This will help you make full use of your space while still being able to vary the difficulty of your flatwork.
Having strong foundations of flatwork is the key to mastering any riding discipline. We can’t start running marathons just because we wake up one morning and decide. We need to train, to build up our stamina, our core muscles, and our leg muscles. We need to stay focused and calm. The same is true for riding. So do the work; put in the flatwork time. Your horse and your body will thank you.