Chance has never taken his flat work very seriously. Flat work is very important for jumping disciplines, but he just doesn’t buy it. He simply likes to plop around like a plow horse, until I point him toward a jump. Then he takes life seriously and goes to work. After only flatting for over a month at the beginning of the year when he was injured, we really got better at the whole flat work thing. Chance moves off of my leg better, is better through the bridle, we are much more in sync while we are jumping, and he almost takes his flat work seriously! Almost. But at least I can usually convince him to not just plop along until we start jumping.
We typically start our ride with walking to allow him to loosen up. Then we pick up a nice, easy trot on a loose reign (as in nearly on the buckle). We trot a few times around each way, then pick up an easy canter. Cantering really gets him loosened up, so we go a couple times around in each direction then back to the trot. Then the real work begins. I like to warm him up before I start “working” him. I will sometimes work him into a light into a light frame, while rolling forward. We will work on bending, circles, pace, and so on. Sometimes I even drop my stirrups. We work on whatever we need to work on that day, and if he is being really good I don’t ride him for very long. Horses love to be done. When they are doing everything I ask of them, there is no need to ride them for very long. They then learn that when they cooperate, they get finished faster and can go back to eating and frolicking in their pastures.
Oftentimes, on days that we are just flatting, I keep a loop in the reigns and work on letting him get really hunter-y. By “hunter-y,” I mean going around with his head and neck relaxed, on a nice flowing pace. He usually does not object. He loves going around with very little contact, and he naturally has a very nice flow. Practicing riding incredibly soft can help a horse to learn how to carry itself without much contact which is necessary for hunters. More contact is necessary over fences, but in flat classes less is best. Hunter judges love to see a loop in the reign, and do not want to see a horse framed up. They like to see a horse light in the bridle, with its nose poking out a bit, flowing forward through its gaits. Over fences, a soft bend at the poll is acceptable, for more contact and control is necessary, but on the flat they like to see the horse long and low. However, the horse still must be moving nicely; this can be the tricky part. If we never practice riding on a loose reign, we can get into a flat class and he or she will turn into a plow horse with such light contact. In flat classes, we don’t want our reigns at the buckle – just a little bit of a loop. I find that practicing with an even looser reign is helpful though. Chance always loves this exercise. My challenge is in getting him to roll forward and use himself. He has become much better about that lately, and it shows in his jumping too. Although he still gets too fast in places, he is developing a nice rhythm when we jump around. That hunter flow, as I like to call it. We want our hunters to rhythmically flow around the courses in order to captivate the judges and spectators. Also, riding with very light contact on the flat keeps him much more willing to accept the contact I need when we start jumping. He knows that I am not going to stay in his face constantly, so he is okay with it when I need to take a feel or back him off.
I am not saying to go out and ride on the buckle today; for it is not always a good idea, especially if the horse isn’t accustomed to it. I would not recommend riding with a really loose reign on an unfamiliar horse, or a hotter horse that is prone to spooking or general unpredictability. In these situations, when I have wanted to stay really soft, I have ridden with my hands a little more forward to give them the feel of very light contact; I have also loosened my reigns a bit while still keeping enough that I could get control of the horse if it suddenly bolted. Chance has always preferred a very soft feel, so he has been pretty good about me riding with a loose reign from the beginning. He would probably go around flawlessly if I rode with nothing, actually.
Like I said, I do work him in a frame and with more contact on the flat too. I just find that riding very soft at times has helped us over fences; and I have had good experiences riding with a loose reign on other horses as well – especially hunters. Most horses enjoy it. I think that riding different ways, and doing different types of flat work, helps a horse to perform better. Variety also keeps a horse from becoming too complacent. Horses can get bored with work the same way we can, so we have to mix it up sometimes! Jumping horses especially can find flat work to be dull. Chance may still not take his flat work very seriously, but he is pretending to be a plow horse less frequently at least. Perhaps someday he will appreciate the value of it!