Whoever said flatwork is boring most likely didn’t thoroughly understand its process and the benefits. The reality is that even if you don’t dabble in pure dressage, flatwork still has immense benefits for both you as a rider and for your horse as an athlete.
Canadian Olympic dressage rider Jacquie Brooks mixes a variety of sports analogies into her teaching philosophy. For many, the concepts are more easily understood when juxtaposed with other sports. At its core, Jacquie’s training always goes back to the basics and having an intellectual understanding of the function of the 'basics' and why they work. This understanding of functionality can help riders improve their craft with deceptively simple, basic aids.
“The basics are the basics, and if you are really committed to improving your horse’s balance and ability to use themselves without interfering, then you’ll be able to help them in any discipline,” Jacquie explained. These basics are easily broken down into seven simple aids that create the foundation for upper level work.
The 7 Basic Aids
Jacquie breaks foundational training into piecemeal parts. These pieces make up the seven basic commands that lay the groundwork for more advanced work, be it upper level dressage movements, a jump-off round, or a cross country course. These basic aids are:
- Go forward
- Inside leg/outside rein turning to the right
- Inside leg/outside rein turning to the left
- Turning with a true bend
- Turning with a counter bend
“These easy concepts are really the basis for every advanced movement. If you come back to these, the clarity for the horse is much easier,” Jacquie explained.
This seems almost too simple, right? And it should be! Riding isn’t rocket science, Jacquie says, but rather a sport of feel and timing. It’s hard to read an article like this and translate the words into actions during your next ride. “In other sports, it’s easier to learn your balance because when you mess up, you fall down,” Jacquie laughed. “In our sport, you have to place a lot of emphasis on feel and timing to find your center of balance and align it with the horse. It’s not all that different than a gymnast aligning her center of gravity with a balance beam.”
Consider Each Individual Aid and What It Means
Jacquie encourages riders to really think through each aid and understand the biomechanics of the horse’s body underneath them. This leads to the horse also having a more active role in the training process rather than just a reactive part. With this functional understanding in place, Jacquie believes that virtually any horse and rider can be taught proficient skills in any discipline.
“If you look at a dressage test as an obedience test that the horse is trained to do, it’s really something most any horse can achieve,” she said. “Whether you’ll be athletically advanced enough to go win a medal is dependent on other factors, but you can train yourself and your horse to do just about anything. It’s like golf — a lot of people can learn to play golf, even if they won’t be the next Tiger Woods. A lot of people enjoy skiing, even if they won’t win a downhill medal. It’s the same concept when learning proper flatwork.”
How does flatwork come into play in other arenas? Balance is the buzzword here. Think of the last jumping course you completed. If you had any distances that you missed, chances are you felt pretty off-balance as a result. If you lose impulsion in a turn and as a result miss your distance, the cause can be traced to a loss of balance in that turn and a failure to regain it. Going back to the basics and making sure your horse fully understands the seven basic aids is a helpful way to get back into that balanced groove on course.
“If you look at a dressage test as an obedience test that the horse is trained to do, it’s really something almost any horse can achieve.”
“You need to have the ability to change the horse’s step without interfering with their ability to go forward,” Jacquie explained. “The easiest thing to do is to slam on the brakes up front, which does get you a shorter step but you’ve now challenged the horse to keep its forward momentum.”
We Are a Source of Interference
Remember: we place interference on our horse’s natural way of going. We place a saddle on their back that can restrict their shoulder. We put our own weight on their backs, which can interfere with natural balance and way of going. We put a bit into their mouth, which changes how they carry their head. Jacquie says it’s important to remember that we have added the restrictions, so it’s up to us to balance accordingly.
The seven basic commands will help you hone in on improving this balance. Think it sounds way too easy? Try each command. In all likelihood, there is something you can improve about each one. Work to understand not only how to apply each aid, but what it’s actually asking the horse to do with its body.
“When we get back to the idea of how we’re affecting the horse’s body, then we can start to understand what each aid is asking them to do and what effect you’re getting,” Jacquie said.
Even more importantly, Jacquie wants riders to remember to enjoy the learning process, not loathe it. “I see people get stuck in that ‘do another shoulder-in, more bend, more bend’ and not thinking about the horse’s understanding of the aid. I think that’s where we could really improve people’s enjoyment of that learning process with less frustration by letting the horses be more involved in understanding what the riders want.”
Written by Sally Spickard
Sally Spickard caught the horse bug at a young age and can still remember her first trip to the Kentucky Three-Day Event, which subsequently afflicted her with the eventing bug. Sally spends her days in San Diego, California and thoroughly enjoys her career telling the stories of our sport and assisting clients with their digital marketing needs.