Flatwork With Anne Kursinski: Be The Best Partner To Your Horse

Jan 9, 2023 - 2:58 PM

Five-time Olympian Anne Kursinski set the tone for the 2023 USEF Horsemastership Training Series by focusing on the importance of proper flatwork. She showed 12 promising young riders how proper work and proper position affect every aspect of every ride, during the first day of the three-day clinic, held Jan. 6-8 in Wellington, Florida.

“Flatwork is the basis of all of your riding,” Kursinski said Friday, while kicking off the clinic’s opening flatwork session with a demonstration ride. “Feeling, understanding, and being the best partner to your horse are all a part of it. Every ride, you should be asking yourself: How can I be the best rider to get the most out of my horse?”

Kursinski made a point of demonstrating correct position to the riders, explaining how one weakness can lead to a miscommunication between the horse and rider.

Anne Kursinski_2023 horsemastership_T Pence
Anne Kursinski kicked off the 2023 USEF Horsemastership Training Series with a flatwork demonstration Jan. 6 in Wellington, Florida. Taylor Pence Photo

“Your hands should be out in front of the withers, and you should have the feeling of leg to hand,” she explained as she trotted along on her demonstration mount, showing the riders what she meant. “Equitation is body awareness; you should be able to send your horse forward from your leg and receive connection. When he gets a nice shape, I can give a little bit. Now he’s in self-carriage.”

Within her flatwork, Kursinski incorporated many different exercises, including haunches-in, shoulder-in, counter-canter, leg yields, lengthening and shortening the horse’s stride and half-pass. She was very specific in her explanation of leg yields, noting that she sees so many people who don’t understand how to do the lateral movement correctly.

“Your horse should be on the outside rein and off your inside leg,” she said. “He should be parallel to the rail, and you should be able to give on the inside rein. Your horse shouldn’t be bent to the inside.”

With both Kursinki’s own demonstration ride—which she did on “Goblet,” a horse loaned by North Run for the occasion—and with the students’ subsequent rides, challenging moments created learning opportunities.

When Kursinski began to introduce shoulder-in with Goblet, he kicked out for a moment in protest, and Kursinski laughed. “That’s OK, he’s not bothering me,” she told the audience as she sent him forward with a squeeze of her leg. “It’s not about pulling his head in for the shoulder-in; it’s the inside leg to outside rein. When he gets it, I give and reward him.”

She worked him for a few more minutes before she allowed Goblet to walk, lengthening the reins so he could have his head. “If they work properly, when you give them the reins, they will stretch down,” she said. “That is how you know you’ve worked the horse up through his back.”

At one point in the ride, Goblet resisted going forward, and Kursinski tapped him once with her stick. He became a little unraveled, dancing in place for a moment. “I don’t get upset about this,” she said. “He’s just confused, so now I ride with more understanding. I ask again, and when he does what I want, I give.”

Kursinski talked about the importance of riders knowing their horses’ daily behavior so they can tell when something isn’t right.

“If your horse is struggling physically, you may need to address his problem with a chiropractor, a vet, or an acupuncturist,” she said. “It could be a physical issue that doesn’t have anything to do with the rider. Don’t forget that part.”

She described the appearance of a marathon runner and a weightlifter and how their physiques vary. “It’s the same with horses in different disciplines—dressage, hunters, and jumpers—they have to be ridden and trained differently,” she said.

After her demonstration, the 12 participating riders (with Luke Jensen replacing originally named Audrey Schulze) were split into two groups for flatwork sessions. Within the first five minutes of each session, Kursinski asked the riders drop their stirrups so they could feel how to wrap their legs around their horses.

“Have a little connection with the mouth, and send them forward into your hand,” she said. “They can accept the leg-to-hand feeling, but you have to ask for it.”

When both Maya Aryal and Tessa Downey’s mares resisted connection at first, Kursinski continued to encourage them. “Keep asking, and don’t release the outside rein,” she said. “Just be patient, she will give it up. Invite her to relax through both reins.”

In both sessions, Kursinski called six riders into the middle of the ring and put a big knot into each rider’s reins to work on her demo-ride pointer about keeping the hands in front of the withers. She sent them back out onto the rail, tracking left with no stirrups. Their next exercise was to execute a right leg-yield out to the rail at a sitting trot.

“The knot puts your hands in the correct position,” Kursinski said. “You’re like a postage stamp; your hands are stuck there to feel it.”

“Can you keep your hands together, out in front of you, and use your leg and seat more?” Kursinski asked as the riders trotted around without stirrups. “It’s also about giving; it’s not just about pulling. You can learn to be light. I want you to have a feeling of centeredness, not being heavier one way or the other.”

At the end of the sessions, the riders all agreed that the knot in the reins had helped them feel a more consistent connection with their horses.

When riders were asked to perform a left turn on the forehand, several of the pairs walked or backed up during the movement. Kursinski was unfazed, guiding each rider step-by-step. “The outside leg controls the shoulder,” she said. “The only thing that should move is the horse’s hind end around the front end.”

She had several of the riders move to the rail so they could use the fence to help guide the horses. Even though Aryal’s mare was not keen to do the exercise, Kursinski insisted on being patient, praising each bit of improvement. “Good, even though she didn’t fully execute the movement there, pat her.”

After the ride, Aryal said her favorite part was Kursinski’s emphasis on connection.

“My mare is not the most conventional horse,” she said. “But I really liked Anne’s emphasis on sticking with getting the connection until she gives in and not just leaving her alone without a connection. I was expecting today to be the hardest for my horse and I—for her, jumping is always easier. I think our flatwork today will carry over into [Saturday’s gymnastic session] and help us prepare for the new questions being asked of us.”

Kursinski encouraged the young riders to glance down occasionally and see what their horses were doing. “It’s OK to look at your horse’s head or neck a little bit,” she explained. “Some of you look straight up in front of you like zombies. When I drive a car, I look in the mirrors and all around me at times.”

When Downey’s mare, who she had borrowed for the clinic, continued to refuse connection, Kursinski asked if she could ride her. Kursinski began by asking for a right shoulder-in to see if the mare would give and accept connection. The mare objected, half-rearing and balking a bit before she finally accepted Kursinski’s hand and leg connection.

“There we go, she took a breath finally,” Kursinski said. “She’s more relaxed now. When she stays here with her head, I give a bit. If she raises up, I touch the outside rein. The outside rein is the most important rein.”

Once Downey was back on, she was able to ask the mare to connect, and almost immediately the mare listened. “Remember that horses naturally want to put their riders in a less-effective position,” Kursinski said. “If you watch McLain [Ward] and Beezie [Madden] ride, they don’t move—they control their positions; their horses do not. That’s why going to the gym, doing physical therapy exercises, or doing Pilates is so important for you as a rider.”

Downey found watching Kursinski ride her borrowed horse to be one of the most valuable parts of the session.

“Isabelle, my horse who helped our Zone 7 team clinch the gold medal victory in the Prix de States at Harrisburg this year, also goes like this mare does, with her head up in the air,” Downey said. “When they go with their head up, I always find myself getting rooted out of the saddle. But I really like what Anne told me: Use your seat as an anchor, it weighs you down. It reminds me to stay connected in the tack.”

After their trot work, each group continued to leg yields, shoulder-in and haunches-in at the canter and counter-canter, and then moved to flying changes across each diagonal.

Although some riders believe that perfection is the ultimate goal of riding, Kursinski acknowledged that is a tad unrealistic.

“Being an effective rider and speaking the language of the horse, it’s about being aware of what you want and asking the right questions,” Kursinski said. “It’s not about being perfect; you’re here to make mistakes and learn. That’s OK. When something went off plan, what did you do to fix it? That’s the lesson you take away at the end of the day.

“The sign of a great rider is a happy horse,” she said. “Those horses want to do it. They want to do the work. When you have those great rounds, it’s like your horse read your mind. That all starts on the flat.”

The USEF Horsemastership Training Series continued with gymnastics sessions Saturday taught by McLain Ward and jumping sessions from Kent Farrington on Sunday. Check back tomorrow for continued clinic coverage, or USEF members can watch every session on demand at USEF Network.

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