Question of the Week: Fighting the Flatwork

Why does my mare resent working on the flat?


Cantering over a ground pole

Q: My mare is forward and willing when we’re jumping, but on the flat she’s developed a bad attitude. Much of the time she ignores my leg, so I carry a crop. But if I use it, she bucks. If I still press her forward, she’ll sometimes rear. I’ve tried changing her routine and giving her time off. I even had my vet rule out any soreness or hormonal mare issues. None of this has helped. Could I be doing something that’s irritating my horse?

A: Though your mare may be protesting her flatwork, no horse can learn to jump well without it. Your job is to keep the flatwork interesting, and you can do that by incorporating some jumping elements into your routine. First, however, you have to take a good look at your riding. Although you seem to be diligent about pushing her forward with your leg aids, even to the point of reinforcing your leg with a crop, look to your hands as the problem here. Do you soften your contact with her mouth as a reward when she does go forward? Or are you holding on to her mouth all the time, so she feels constantly restrained? Are you using too strong a bit? When you get frustrated, do you resort to jerking on her mouth? Each of these could be making your mare confused and resentful.

Before you come to your own conclusions, ask a community riding instructor or an experienced, knowledgeable friend to watch you ride and give you an objective evaluation. Then, once you’ve addressed these issues, meld your flatwork with your jumping. Lay ground poles around your arena and trot and canter over them. While you’re cantering circles as part of your flatwork, cruise over a low, simple jump and then continue around the arena. Finally, don’t misinterpret your mare’s “forward” mindset over jumps for enthusiasm. She could be rushing over the jumps due to anxiety and fear. However, if you keep your requests clear, reward her good behavior, and keep your flatwork interesting by infusing it with jumping concepts, you should see a change in your mare’s attitude.

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Cindy Hale’s life with horses has been filled with variety. As a child she rode western and learned to barrel race. Then she worked as a groom for a show barn, and was taught to harness and drive Welsh ponies. But once she’d taken her first lessons aboard American Saddlebreds she was hooked on English riding. Hunters and hunt seat equitation came next, and she spent decades competing in those divisions on the West Coast. Always seeking to improve her horsemanship, she rode in clinics conducted by world-class riders like George Morris, Kathy Kusner and Anne Kursinski. During that time, her family began raising Thoroughbred and warmblood sport horses, and Cindy experienced the thrills and challenges of training and showing the homebred greenies. Now retired from active competition, she’s a popular judge at local and county-rated open and hunter/jumper shows. She rides recreationally both English and western. Her Paint gelding, Wally, lives at home with her and her non-horsey husband, Ron.


  1. As usual, Ms. Hale provides great advice here. One thing to consider is: How does the rider feel about flatwork? If she becomes bored or impatient while riding on the flat, the horse may be reflecting this attitude by “misbehaving.” I would suggest that the rider ask her trainer about doing some cavalletti work to provide some spice to her usual flatwork regimen. While cavalletti are not jumps, they provide a similar physical and mental challenge: The horse needs to be forward in order to negotiate the cavalletti. Meanwhile, the rider must work on her balance, equitation and communication with the horse to help relax and encourage her mare to successfully negotiate these obstacles. If boredom is an issue for either of them during flatwork, cavalletti exercises will reinforce the need to maintain even stride and cadence while approaching each obstacle without jumping any of the poles.


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