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What Is Flatwork In Riding?

Equestrian-related lingo is often an incomprehensible dialog of half-understood terms. While recognized equestrian federations (e.g., USDEF and FEI) have defined the relevant equestrian terms relating to modern riding, they have not clearly defined historical terms like “flatwork” riding.

Flatwork riding has 2 meanings depending upon the context it’s used in.

1 – Flatwork riding is any discipline that doesn’t require the horse to jump

2 – Only riders competing in jumping-related disciplines can do flatwork; when they school their horse on the flat and not over jumps.

Ask two experienced riders to define flatwork, and you will get two definitions. Many discussion forums have witnessed hotly contested debates about what “flatwork” refers to.

What Is Flatwork In Riding?

Flatwork refers to any horse activity which does not require the horse to jump. However, many jump riders use it informally to describe any form of dressage-based riding.

Many riders will debate the definition of flatwork based on their interpretation of how the term is used.

Some riders claim flatwork is any riding performed on a relatively flat surface that does not require the horse to jump or otherwise navigate vertical obstacles. This definition is the one upon which this article is structured.

However, others claim that flatwork is ONLY performed by hunters, cross-country riders, and show jumpers when they school their horses on the flat. Flatwork utilizes the same training principles and riding goals as low to intermediate dressage when used in this context.

Examples of jump work are:

  1. Steeplechasing, also known as National Hunt Racing
  2. Show-jumping
  3. Cross-country
  4. Cross-field hunting

Whereas examples of flatwork are:

  1. Flat racing
  2. Endurance riding
  3. Barrel-racing
  4. Cattle roping and cutting
  5. Reining
  6. Dressage

Flat Racing

In National Hunt Races, horses race each other over a set distance while jumping obstacles. However, in flat racing, the group of horses races over a fixed distance without being required to navigate barriers or obstacles to determine who will reach the finish line first.

Race times in flat racing are typically faster than those obtained in National Hunt Races. The lack of jump obstacles makes flat racing safer than National Hunt Racing.

Flat racing can be any length, but the most common race lengths are 440 yards (400m) to 2.5 miles (4 km). In addition to this, races are divided into Grades dependent on their prestige and prize money.

The classics and Grade 1 races are only open to the crème de la crème of the racing thoroughbreds, i.e., elite thoroughbreds with proven track records.

The ultimate triumph of any thoroughbred is to win the Triple Crown. Both the UK and the USA Triple Crown are comprised of 3 classic races.

The UK Triple Crown

  1. The Two Thousand Guineas: This race is run over 1 mile (1.6 km) at the Rowley Mile at Newmarket
  2. The Epsom Derby: This race is run over 1.5 miles (2.4 km) at Epsom Downs in Surrey
  3. The St. Leger: This race is run over 1 mile and 6 furlongs (2.9 km) at Doncaster

The USA Triple Crown

  1. The Kentucky Derby: This iconic race is run over 1.25 miles (2.0 km) at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky
  2. Preakness Stakes: This race is run over 1.19 miles (1.9 km) at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland
  3. Belmont Stakes: This race is run over 1.5 miles (2.4 km) at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York

Thoroughbreds are the most well-known breed of horse used in flat racing, but Standardbreds, Arabians, and Quarter Horses have all been used in various capacities at flat racers.

Endurance Riding

If dressage is the gymnastics of flatwork and racing is the sprinting sports of flatwork, then endurance riding is definitely the marathon version of flatwork.

In an endurance race, horse and rider pairs compete against others during a long-distance ride.

Unlike most disciplines, where riders are eliminated for intentionally or unintentionally dismounting from their horses, endurance riders are encouraged to get off when necessary for the sake of their horses’ welfare.

It is not uncommon for a rider to run next to their horse during an endurance race. Riders will often dismount and lead their horses to conserve their energy and ensure they are fit to pass the vet checks that occur at set points in the race.

Both horse and rider show incredible stamina, resilience, and fitness when competing in endurance races.

The shortest endurance rides are a mere 25 miles (40 km) to be completed in a maximum of 6 hours, while the longest is multi-day races that may cover 100’s of miles.

The longest endurance race is the Shahzada marathon, in which horses and riders are expected to cover 248.5 miles (400 km) in 5 days. Each horse and rider must ride 49.7 miles (80 km) per day to complete the race in 5 days.

While the modern-day Shahzada marathon is the ultimate test of a horse and rider’s endurance, it is still shorter than the pre-1920’s Shahzada marathon, which was a whopping 310 miles (500 km)!

The preferred horses for endurance riding are Arabians or Arabian crosses. The large nostrils, energy-efficient gaits, and increased heart and lung capacity make them the ideal endurance athlete.


Barrel-racing is a high-intensity thrilling spectator sport in which competitors race to complete a clover-leaf pattern around three barrels. The winners are often only separated by the smallest of margins, i.e., thousandths of a second.

Barrel racing is a high-intensity, short-duration event that requires high-speed cooperation between horse and rider.

Training obedience and flexibility are essential to riding successful barrel-racing runs; however, the difference between adequate versus winning barrel-racing runs is often due to how well riders manage their horses’ condition and fitness.

Ensuring a horse is fit enough to compete in barrel racing successfully is an intricate balance of science, feel, and art. The three broad phases of conditioning a prospective or established barrel-racer are:

  1. Phase I – long slow work to develop cardiovascular fitness and increase bone deposition in preparation for the stressors placed on the horse’s skeleton during a run.
  2. Phase II – Strength work focuses on building stamina and muscle control. Horses that can’t maintain dynamic balance through the turns about the barrel will either swing wide, clip the barrel, or fall, injuring themselves, the rider, and costing the rider the race.
  3. Phase III – Fast work focuses on developing the explosive speeds needed to compete in barrel racing successfully. It allows the horse to practice remaining calm and attentive even during high-speed high-excitement activities.

The preferred horses for most western disciplines are the American Paint Horse, Quarter horse, and Appendix Quarter horse. Many barrel racers prefer to ride appendix Quarter Horses due to the high percentage of thoroughbred found in these horses.

Cattle Roping And Cutting

Cutting is a competitive event in which a horse and rider pair separates a specific cow from the herd and then proceeds to anticipate and block its attempts to return to the herd.

Many people believe a “cow” horse is born, not made. While it is essential to start with the right horse who shows a strong interest in controlling the cow’s movement, a lot of training is still required to turn the raw horse into a proficient cutting horse.

During a cutting event, the rider indicates to the horse which cow must be separated from the rest. The horse then works independently to anticipate and control the cow’s movements.

Cutting horses are incredible athletes, and it takes a rider with a solid seat to stay on a cutting horse in full competition mode! Most riders don’t have the “stickability” to sit quietly on a cutting horse intent on doing its job.

Typically, Quarter Horses, Arabians, and Appaloosas are the preferred breeds for cutting horses. However, any horse which shows good “cow sense” can be trained to be proficient cutting horses.

The 2005 red roan stallion, Metallic Cat, was the top cutting sire for 2020, with his offspring earning more than 5 million.

Roping is another cow-related western riding event. In roping events, the horse tracks the running cow allowing the rider to rope it. These are timed events with the fastest roping time taking first place.

Roping events may be team events in which two riders work together to rope a single cow or individual events.


Reining is the western equivalent of dressage. While the competition maneuvers are different from those seen in dressage competitions, the emphasis on the horse’s flexibility, strength, balance, and attentiveness remain the same.

During a reining competition, competitors ride a set pattern that includes spins, lead changes in canter, sliding stops, collection, and extension within a gait.

Quarter horses and American Paint horses are the elite athletes of the reining world.


The purpose of dressage is to use a progressive system to supple and strengthen the horse while teaching them to maintain a calm, confident, obedient attitude towards work and the rider.

Rider’s competing in dressage perform dressage tests made up of the various movements which the horse is trained to perform. Riders and horses progress through the competition levels, with each level being more difficult than the previous one.

The movements ridden in dressage include:

  1. Circles
  2. Straight lines
  3. Transitions, i.e., within the gait and between different gaits and movements
  4. Rein back
  5. Lateral movements, i.e., shoulder-in, traverse, half-pass, leg yield, renvers, and counter shoulder-in
  6. Collected movements, i.e., piroutte, piaffe, passage
  7. Flying changes, i.e., simple changes, single changes, one-time changes, and two-time changes

Various warmblood breeds have dominated the sport of competitive dressage for decades. However, other “dressage” horses breeds such as the Pure Raza Espanola, Lusitano, Lipizzaner, Knabstrupper, and Friesian are gaining popularity amongst competitive amateurs and practitioners of classical dressage.

Is Dressage The Same As Flatwork?

Many people believe that flatwork and dressage are synonymous with each other. However, this is not entirely true; dressage within the context of flatwork refers more to the gymnatizing of horses in flatwork than to the entirety of flatwork sports.

Dressage as a competitive sport is defined as the performance of the horse and rider in flatwork riding, but flatwork also includes non-dressage sports.

It is best visualized by the idiom:

“All Greeks are men, but not all men are Greeks.”


“All dressage is flatwork, but not all flatwork is dressage.”

The Training Scales Of Dressage

The German training scales have long been accepted as the gold standard behind structured dressage training. However, this scale also provides a good framework for goal development in riders schooling their horses in flatwork.

Each exercise must be schooled with a specific focus on each element of the German Training Scale:

  1. Rhythm: regularity and tempo
  2. Suppleness: elasticity and relaxation
  3. Contact: acceptance of rein contact and the seat, leg, and hand aids
  4. Impulsion: the connection of the hindquarter over the horse’s back, through the rider’s hand, and to the horse’s mouth via the bit. Impulsion also refers to the horse’s desire to go forward while utilizing a biomechanically correct hindleg action.
  5. Straightness: equal performance on both the left and right reins, with the horse moving straight between the rider’s “corridor of aids.” This level also refers to the horse’s ability to perform lateral movements.
  6. Collection: Increased weighting of the hindlegs resulting in balance, lightness of the forehand, and increased engagement of the horse’s abdominal muscles.

Case Study: Using The Training Scale To Improve Shoulder-In

For example, when working on shoulder-in, a rider will start by focusing on the horse’s rhythm into and out of the shoulder-in transition. The rider will then focus on developing the suppleness and flexion of the horse’s thoracic spine and inside hind leg.

As the horse moves with more suppleness and relaxation, the rider can work on creating a positive contact between the inside leg and the outside hand.

The rider can start adding energy to the movement at this point, as the already established contact will contain the energy. The containment of energy allows the horse to work over the back and develop impulsion.

By focusing on the details of the movement and working the horse on both reins, the horse’s natural asymmetry will be addressed and their straightness improved, even though shoulder-in is a lateral movement!

Lastly, the rider will focus on shifting the horse’s center of gravity backward to carry more weight by the hind legs. The shoulders are thus “freed,” and the horse can move with a greater degree of expression.


Some people maintain that flatwork only refers to jump riders schooling their horses on the flat. In contrast, others understand flatwork as any riding discipline that does not require the horse and rider to jump obstacles.


Anrie Diedericks

I've been around horses since I was 6 years old and started competing at the age of 9. Horses are my greatest passion and I am thrilled to be able to share my 23 (and counting) years of experience and knowledge with you.

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