If you hang around horse shows long enough, you’ll hear this comment ringside: “You can’t beat that daisy-cutter. He’s going to win this flat class.” But the truth is you don’t always have to have the best mover to be competitive in the under-saddle class. Most judges are looking for the whole package: a horse who has good movement but is also obedient, alert, sound and has good manners. Does your horse look like he is a pleasure to ride? Are his ears up? Are his gaits balanced and his transitions smooth? How well you present your horse to demonstrate these details can have a tremendous impact on the judge’s ultimate decision.
Even if you’re not aiming for a blue ribbon, doing your best in the under-saddle class is growing more important. Some of our top horse shows have transitioned from four to three jumping classes in a division. This makes the flat class all the more influential. Sometimes just being able to get a fifth- or sixth-place ribbon on the flat can give you the points needed to bring home the tricolor. So even if you don’t ride the absolute best mover, learning to show off your horse on the flat is a valuable competition skill.
In this article I’ll share some exercises to practice refining your flatting skills at home. Then I’ll offer a few tips for making the most of your ride at the actual competition. Together, these critical tools can help you optimize your chances in a flat class, regardless of whether or not your horse is the best mover on the planet. They’ll help you and your horse stand out from the pack—and maybe even beat that daisy-cutter!
One simple skill you can tackle at home is training your horse to stand nicely in the line. Take breaks in the middle of your rides and ask him to stand in the center of the arena. Keep some peppermints in your pocket and reward him when he stands quietly. Gradually, over many sessions, lengthen the amount of time you ask him to stand still.
Stage a Mock Flat Class
Nothing beats practice. A great way to rehearse the show-ring scenario is to stage a mock under-saddle class at home with five or six friends. This is a terrific opportunity to see how your horse will behave in company and for you to practice your hack-class technique. Designate one of your friends to be the judge, standing in a typical judge location and calling out instructions to the riders.
In under-saddle classes it is important to get seen early and often and by yourself. To do that, you must know where the judge is and where you should be in relation to him to be best seen. The most common places for a judge to stand for a hack class are in the center of the ring or just outside of the ring (usually in a judge’s box on the long side of the ring). Practice simulating both those possibilities in your mock class.
You also need to recognize the places in the ring where you can make adjustments that perhaps you’d rather the judge not see (shorten your reins, balance your horse, etc.). Practicing this in your mock class—both from the rider’s and judge’s perspective—will make a big difference.
Start with your judge standing on the side of the ring outside the rail. Give your horse a short warm-up first to make sure he is paying attention. Then start the class just as you would at a show, entering the ring through the in-gate. As you do so, tracking to the left (as all flat classes begin), practice putting your eyes on the judge. Notice where she is looking. The best place for you to be seen is usually on the quarterline—the track on the long side of the ring midway between its center and the rail—and, in competition, ideally with no other horse around you. So pick up a nice trot immediately, then ride down the quarterline with your horse in balance, setting an even, consistent pace.
After you pass the judge and enter the corner, realize that this is where she can see you the least. It’s a good place to make any necessary adjustments. Ask your judge to call out when you pass out of her normal peripheral line of sight (as if she were watching other horses on the quarterline) and again when you come back into her natural zone of attention.
Next, have your judge move to the center of the ring and repeat both steps of the exercise. Where in the ring can she see you best and least? Note that in a real class you might choose either the quarterline or the outside track, depending on the amount of horse traffic.
During this mock flat-class session, take turns playing judge. Get off your horse and stand on the side of the ring, pretending you are judging the other people riding. Take note of where you can see them well. Hold both arms out in a V shape to frame your optimal sight zone. Then identify your blind spots: Where can’t you see? Next, try this from the judging position in the center of the ring. Putting yourself in the judge’s shoes will teach you a lot about what he sees and when he sees it.
Maximize the Quarterline
In a hack class, you want to maximize your time on the quarterlines of the ring, with your horse straight from his nose to his tail for as many strides as you can. To do this, you need to execute the corners correctly. Here’s a great exercise for practicing that:
Place a chute of poles on the ground along each quarterline of the ring. How many poles you use and how far apart you space them depends on the size of your ring. You may want to put one pair of poles at each end of the quarterline, then another set in the middle to create a straight chute that you can identify visually.
You can begin this exercise at the trot, but if you have difficulties, go back to the walk until both you and your horse have mastered the basics. Start by tracking right. Trot through the corner with an active, engaged pace, bending your horse slightly to the inside. As you exit the corner, make the early turn toward the chute of poles by opening your inside right rein and using your outside left leg to push your horse over. Be careful not to lean in on this turn.
Once you are on the quarterline, your goal is to have your horse as straight as possible. Use two reins and two legs evenly to drive him straight down the chute of poles. Make sure you are sitting evenly in the saddle so he can stay evenly balanced as well.
Aim to leave the quarterline and get back to the rail just before you approach the next corner. As you exit the chute, move your horse to the rail by asking him to leg-yield to the left. Use your inside (right) leg to push him left while keeping a slight inside bend with your right rein and opening your outside (left) rein a bit. This will get you back out to the rail just before you enter the corner, and that will set you on the best track to navigate the next quarterline.
If your horse doesn’t move off your leg, try using more pressure or move your leg back an inch or two to get a better reaction, still keeping your heel down. You can also use a little tap with the crop behind your leg. Keep your leg on the horse at the same time you tap. Remember: The crop backs up your leg; it doesn’t replace it.
Once you have mastered this exercise in both directions, try it at canter. Use the same aids at all gaits.
Show off Your Horse’s Movement
To show off your horse’s trot, ask him to lengthen his stride down the quarterlines, then collect and rebalance him on the corners. Practicing this at home will teach him to do this seamlessly while responding to your body position as part of the aids. Place an object—a cone, flowerpot, etc.—at the beginning of the quarterline and another at the end to mark where to make your transitions.
To practice this exercise, pick up a normal trot and ride through the corner just as you did in the quarterline exercise. Your horse should be balanced and ahead of your leg. As you track onto the quarterline, relax your biceps, thinking of your arms being elastic. Close your hip angle slightly and add some leg. You are asking for just a small step up in speed, but you want your horse to visibly extend his stride, relax his neck and lengthen his frame from nose to tail.
Your goal is to keep this frame from the moment you enter the quarterline until the moment you leave it to enter the next corner. This is your horse’s opportunity to shine!
At the end of the quarterline, stretch back up with your shoulders over your hips and return to a slightly deeper seat. Keep squeezing with your legs, close your fingers on the reins and ask your horse to slow his gait and shorten his frame. Continue posting. Once he has collected his stride, begin your leg-yield back to the rail.
Some horses get strung out or on their forehand riding the length of the ring. Practicing this collection in the corners presents an ideal opportunity to rebalance your horse. You can do it at all three gaits.
Do Your Pre-Class Prep
With all of this homework under your belt, you should feel more prepared to perform your best in the ring. Keep in mind that presentation really counts. Your horse should be well-groomed with tight braids and a clean, white, properly fitted saddle pad. Your clothes should fit well and your boots should be polished to a high sheen. You both should look like you are “in it to win it.”
As you plan the rest of your hack-class strategy, think through all the details that will play a role in your success, including your warm-up. Get on at least 15 minutes before your class to warm up your horse in the schooling area, especially if it’s the first class of the day. Just do a little walk, trot, canter; loosen up his muscles and make sure he is in front of your leg.
Before you enter the ring, notice where the judge is standing and decide what you will do during the first few minutes as the class fills. You can’t control the size of the class or who you compete against. But you can control, to some extent, the picture that the judge sees. So plan your strategy ahead of time.
Connect with the Judge
Once you’re in the ring, the first thing to realize is that it’s not the judge’s job to discover you; it’s your job to present your horse to the judge. Especially in a crowded flat class, judges are looking for the winner the second you walk in the gate, long before the class has filled. So use that opportunity to get seen early and by yourself.
Try to make a few passes by the judge at your horse’s best gait to create a great first impression.
Once the class has started, look for opportunities to be seen by the judge when your horse is at his best and to minimize the view of him when you are correcting or rebalancing his gaits.
Remember that in a hunter hack class the judge is looking for light contact with your horse’s mouth. That means the tight frame used in equitation classes is not appropriate. Get your horse in a balanced gait with impulsion, then soften your hands and let him stretch his neck out a little bit. He should feel long from nose to tail and loose in his back. But be cautious not to create a really loose, loopy rein; there should still be light contact with your horse’s mouth.
In a typical flat class, you will be asked to walk, trot and canter in both directions. (The U.S. Equestrian Federation rules also permit the judge to call for a hand gallop, but that is rarely requested these days.) But this is not Simon Says—it is more important to do a nice transition than to do it immediately. You can take up to four or five steps to prepare your horse for a smooth up or down transition. And in a crowded ring, sometimes waiting those few seconds can help put more space between your horse and the one ahead of you. So take your time and plan it out.
Keep thinking! If your horse is not behaving or is not in the correct balance or pace, consider avoiding the quarterline and instead find your way to the outside track, where you might be somewhat hidden behind another horse while you correct the issue.
When the judge calls to line up, try to end up in the center of the line, once again making sure that the judge can easily find you. Sometimes the judge is scrambling to pin the class at the end. So this is another opportunity to be seen—or at least not forgotten—before he makes a final decision!
Don’t Undermine the Trot
Trying too hard at the trot is a common mistake in hack classes. Sometimes you will see a rider ask the horse to lengthen the trot by using a heavy driving seat with an open hip angle. But the driving seat is counterproductive, as it can make the horse lift his head and drop his back, which creates a quick, choppy step rather than the desired long, loose step. And if the rider lands too heavily in the post, it can make the horse crabby or pin his ears.
To address this, do lots of work at home in the two-point position. This will give you the leg strength necessary to keep the right position even with a horse who is reluctant to go forward. Then, when you return to normal posting trot, use the same position for the “up” part of your post as when you were in two-point, especially when asking your horse to lengthen his stride. When he goes forward, you want him to stretch his neck out and down, reach up through his back and take a nice step through his shoulder. Being light in the saddle will allow him to do this.
When you come “down” in your post, slide your hips back in the saddle an inch or two and slightly close your hip angle. Think of landing in your thigh and heel, not letting yourself land heavily in the saddle.
About Amanda Steege
Growing up, Amanda Steege was never far from a horse. Her parents were horse professionals and owners of Red Acre Farm, in Stow, Massachusetts. At a very young age, Amanda would frequently be placed on top of one of the school horses in its stall to keep her safe while her father, Mitch, completed his barn chores.
As a Junior, Amanda campaigned her Small Junior Hunter, One In A Million (aka Spanky), to great success. Coached by her father and Bill Cooney (and still riding Spanky), Amanda won the 1991 Massachusetts Medal Finals and competed in the Medal and Maclay Finals in the following two years. She graduated magna cum laude from Boston College and started her own business, Ashmeadow Farm, in 2001.
Amanda has been the World Champion Hunter Rider for the northeast region for the last seven consecutive years. She and her clients have won numerous championships at Devon, the Hampton Classic, Middleburg Classic and the Indoor circuit. She runs her farm with her boyfriend of 14 years, Tim Delovich, splitting time between Ocala, Florida, and Califon, New Jersey.
This article was originally published in the July 2018 issue of Practical Horseman.