Simplicity done well was the name of the game on Friday, Jan. 17, at the USHJA Gold Star Clinic at the Desert International Horse Park in Thermal, California, where 21 of the best riders from the western part of the United States convened for four days of equestrian education and riding instruction.
“Flatwork, quite often, can get complicated, but I think that it doesn’t need to be,” said clinician Kirsten Coe. “I feel that if you can execute the basics of flatwork very well, you get a lot further than a complicated routine. It’s about discipline and making sure you do the exact same thing. It almost sounds maybe a little bit boring, but that’s how I train and how a lot of top riders train. It’s not a complicated program; it’s just done very well.”
Coe led each group of riders through flatwork from walking to galloping, and the first point she emphasized was encouraging relaxation. “Relaxed is the key,” she said. “When you get a relaxed horse then the suppleness comes, the rideability comes, and you’re able to have a much smoother round.”
Several horses came out feeling fresh in the cool desert air, so Coe spent extra time helping the hotter horses relax.
“She’s sensitive and hot,” Coe said of rider Hannah Cowdrey’s gray mare, Estelle. “It’s about soothing her. When she gives a little, you pet her. You can see by her reaction that’s what she needs in this moment. When you have a sensitive horse, take your time, work with them, figure out what they’re getting sensitive about. Don’t just grab the rein and make them even more tense.”
Coe emphasized correct basics including keeping the leg as long as possible and engaged around the horse. Riders made small circles off the rail, working on the shape and bend of their horses before returning to the rail—but not too close! Coe prefers that horses work off the rail, and to make sure no one got stuck on the rail she asked a few helpers to stand a few feet inside the rail, so riders had to stay inside of them.
Transitions are a vital part of flatwork, and Coe asked riders to go through a mental checklist of things that must be set up before asking for a transition: (1) Are they in the correct body position? (2) Are their legs on? (3) Are their reins short enough? Only once those things are in place should riders ask for the transition.
When some horses got a little too quick at the trot, Coe encouraged the riders not to just go with them. Coe insisted that the rider must always regulate the speed. Rider Leah Lively asked for advice to keep her forward gelding, Kolibrie V, under control without just pulling on his mouth, and Coe explained that it’s mostly about position.
“It’s about core strength,” said Coe. “The minute the leg is wobbling around and the body gets forward, forget it.”
She explained that it’s better to do one lap well, then take a break, rather than go several times inconsistently.
In the last exercise of the flatwork session, Coe had two riders at a time pick up “ring pace” and maintain it around the arena both ways. Coe wanted to see the horses get to the proper forward gait immediately and asked riders to focus on keeping a tight, controlled track. Again she emphasized position, especially for horses who had a tendency to get heavy on the forehand. “Don’t just follow them down when they get low in their carriage,” she said. “Get them up, correct them once or twice, and then let him try again.”
At the end of the session, Coe was happy with the riders’ performances. “They were all super,” she said. “They all accomplished something, and the horses left the ring looking better than when they came in.”
DiAnn Langer, a technical advisor to USHJA was also pleased with the flatwork session and looking forward to the remaining sessions. “Each of the clinicians have their own style and their own way of doing things,” she said. “We hope to give riders the idea that you have to take a little bit from this one, a little bit from that one, and put it together to work for yourself.”