Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023

Our Riders Are Flatwork Challenged

I had the opportunity to judge the Monarch International Show Circuit North American Flat Equitation Championship last month at the Capital Challenge (Md.), and Horse Show in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. I believe some judges who've been assigned that daunting task have looked upon it with trepidation.


I had the opportunity to judge the Monarch International Show Circuit North American Flat Equitation Championship last month at the Capital Challenge (Md.), and Horse Show in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. I believe some judges who’ve been assigned that daunting task have looked upon it with trepidation.

Seeing that this year’s test was the same test as four years ago, I quickly became reacquainted with it. I saw that an identical flat test was employed for a separate child’s and adult equitation class, though the entries were few. I noted with some dismay that the number was down considerably in the junior championship as well.

Whatever the reason for the diminished turnout, this year’s judging experience compelled me to put pen to paper, as the teacher in me refused to simply sign the judge’s card and remain silent.

I find the concept of the flat championships to be a dichotomy: a good concept that’s been compromised. In principle, I like the class because it appeals to my old-fashioned side that believes in doing one’s homework then seeing if you pass the test at the horse show.

The problem, and my consequent frustration in judging the class, however, lies in the riders’ general lack of knowledge of the movements involved, not to mention the overall decline in their style and showmanship. (This was later demonstrated in the over fences championships on Sunday where only a handful of riders were able to successfully answer the questions on course that required some basic riding fundamentals, such as a solid base, independent hands and leg, establishing a working pace and riding the shape of a track. These were blatantly absent. The good ones were very, very good; sadly, the majority represented a plethora of mediocrity.)

In part, some of the blame–we often defensively dodge the bullet of responsibility –may rest in the test itself, which, though very fluid and capable of beautiful execution (as was demonstrated by one rider–the winner, Miss Megan Edrick) is in need of some modification. A revamping could make it more congruent with the nature of our discipline. I found that I too had fallen into the trap of compliance: I graded on a curve.

Many riders executed the movements, not just poorly, but incorrectly. Had I given true dressage scores, the scores would have been dismal and depressing. And then I would have been the easy scapegoat for any despairing trainer in need of an excuse: “Well, what does she know?”
Well, for one thing, I do know the proper direction in which a horse should be bent for a half-pass. Granted, this is a fairly difficult exercise for many equitation riders. And I do know which diagonal one should be on for the extended trot across the diagonal of the ring, another error that cropped up more often than it should have.

In looking over the test before the class, I lumped the movements together, so as to better judge them and have an idea of what I expected to see for each one. I found it necessary to quickly create my own judge’s card to facilitate noting what each rider did for each movement while trying not to miss a step of their ride. The test divided itself into 15 different segments.

The prize list states that the riders will perform individual dressage tests in a standard size dressage arena, and they are directed to look for guidance to the USEF Dressage Rule Book.

Some riders and trainers confuse “dressage” with the discipline rather than the definition, its actual meaning coming from the French word dresser, “to prepare, make straight, train” and “the systematic training of a horse in obedience and deportment.”


Isn’t that what we do when we properly work a horse on the flat?

As the class is judged on equitation–alas, a word “Americanized” to equate to posing, rather than its true meaning, which is riding–the judge scores the rider on her presentation and execution of the required movements, showing that her horse is responsive and doing what is asked of him.

This class then is but a stepping stone, reflective of the ultimate goal: to obtain a well-schooled horse and rider partnership capable of tackling the questions demanded over a technical course involving lengthening, shortening of the horse’s stride and shaping his body to follow the tracks of bending or broken lines.

Here’s what I wanted to see at each movement and what I actually saw and scored.

Enter at a working canter. Halt. The entrance is everything, be it theatre production or a good book or a flat test. A good, straight canter; a connection between horse and rider putting the horse on the bit; an elegant carriage for the rider; a square halt with the horse flexed. Bang. First impression. I saw plenty of loose contact, particularly with all the pelham reins, uneven halts and rounded riders’ backs.

Working trot rising, track left, a broken line HBK. I looked for a rider using her eyes to find the reference points with a change of diagonal at B. I saw many stiff necks and a poor use of the eyes. Stiffness doesn’t show me proper riding, but a lack of feeling for where the horse is going.

Working trot sitting in the corner and then left shoulder-in down the centerline. I combined the two shoulder-in movements in the same box while scoring. I looked for a horse bent around the rider’s leg through its ribs and not just the head pulled left. Three tracks are created. Most riders understood this exercise, though the second half, the right shoulder-in from X to C, which exposed the rider’s outside leg to me (the leg away from the bend), showed me far too many legs up by the horses’ elbows, rather than in back of the girth. Thus the horse bulged and escaped with his left hind off the centerline.

One circle to the left, one circle to the right–XEX. Looks like a good old figure-eight to me. I wanted to see even circles, horses bent in conjunction with the size of the circle, not over-bent and a good use of eyes. Instead, many riders remained stiff and didn’t look ahead with their eyes, particularly at C after the second circle to the right to set up for the next right shoulder-in.

Change rein in the extended trot rising, MXK. This requires a pace change and a freeing of the horse’s stride while still maintaining a connection with the horse. The diagonal the rider picks up should be the one he would use if he were already on that diagonal in the corner (that is, the left one), and shouldn’t change it during the lengthening phase of the horse’s trot (no one did). Instead, riders picked up the right diagonal–or I should say, the wrong one–and held it to the corner at K. The test should be amended to read a strong trot with a lengthening of stride, as very few equitation horses can truly extend the trot.

KF Working trot sitting. This needs a typographical correction to read KAF.


Half pass left F to X and half pass right X to M. A half pass is a lateral movement where the horse moves sideways and forward bent in the direction of movement. A certain coordination of diagonal aids and use of eyes is crucial. I saw far too many horses bent the opposite way or not at all, making it a leg yield. The leg yield would be more acceptable an exercise for the children’s and adult tests.

Medium walk. Then change rein with an extended walk, back to a medium walk. Again, the wording needs changing. No true extended walk could realistically be expected; rather, I was looking for a lengthening of stride with contact. Some riders let the reins flop at this point. It’s not a long rein exercise.

Halt. Rein back four steps and proceed at the working canter on the left lead without halting. This movement got pretty ugly. The test’s wording was interpreted by some as an invitation to blast their horses forward into the canter as if shot from a cannon. I wanted to see a square halt, followed by a slow, deliberate walk in reverse of four steps and then a step forward into the canter with the horse remaining straight under the rider. I saw uneven halts, high heads as the rider pulled the horse back, two steps back, six steps back, bolting into the canter and horses zigging to the right as their riders stared down at their horses left shoulder to check the lead.

Circle at A in the working canter. Even, round, use the eyes.

Change rein with the flying change at the end before S. Most equitation horses today have been schooled to perform flying changes with their eyes closed.

Extended canter, MF. A change of pace with a connection is what was wanted. Extended canter should read strong canter with a lengthening of stride. Most riders showed the lengthening, although some were hesitant to really demonstrate it.

Another circle at A. Same thing, eyes are the issue as one bends and maintains a working canter shaped by the hands and legs.

Another flying change, changing this time before R. As above, horses did this rather well.

Another extended canter, HK. These tests are mirrors; they show a movement on both leads, so the ideal test should reflect that uniformity and symmetry.
Canter down the centerline. Halt, salute and leave the ring at a walk on the long rein. Some riders had no clue where the letter G was. Another halt and another moment of immobility square and flexed. This is the last moment, when the judge is assessing the final score. The rider should look as tall and as elegant and as cool as when she entered, no matter what gross errors have transpired.

Riding from letter to letter with a grim look on your face and remembering the test is one thing. Entering the ring with a “Hey, watch this!” look about you accompanying a solid set of basics–a secure leg, a depressed heel, a feel of knowing where your horse is under you, a straight and elegant back and carriage–is the winning edge. There were a few good riders who demonstrated a workmanlike manner. I liked that. But I had to reward the rider who added panache and ring presence to a perfectly executed test.




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