How many times have you heard a rider talk about how much they hate flatwork?
“It’s so booooring,” they say. “My horse hates it, too.”
It makes our instructor ears cringe, but it’s a sadly common occurrence, and not just among children!
Many riders prefer their equine adventures to include some adrenaline, and that’s perfectly okay – as long as they recognize that good flatwork is just good riding, and the foundation to to every discipline. Our goal is to help our students find the fun in flatwork, and to realize just how challenging and rewarding the simple stuff can be.
Mounted games, polework, and drill team exercises are all popular lesson options that contain sneaky dressage skills. But as much as we enjoy these activities, we don’t want our students to be dependent on arena equipment. We want them to be motivated to practice even if all they have is an empty arena or a flat patch of ground.
So how do we keep students looking forward to their flat lessons just as much as jumping and games days?
Patterns, patterns, and more patterns!
Equitation patterns, a long-time standby in English and Western flat classes, have become one of our favorite teaching tools.
Here's why lessons using equitation patterns could work for you:
The easy way to add equitation patterns to your flatwork lesson plans
We’ve created sets of equitation patterns for each Learning Level with pattern diagrams and modification options. You can also find patterns published by various equestrian professionals – see other recommended resources below.
Patterns fit neatly into a camp or clinic schedule, but we usually incorporate them into regular lessons, aiming for a flexible “Pattern of the Month” during a week when we’re not locked into keeping a jump course or grid set up in the arena. (Also works well for a week when that arena needs a drag!)
When planning flatwork lessons, select a pattern that teaches or reinforces the particular skills you plan to teach.
You might share the pattern with students before the lesson to provide a time-saving preview:
Or for fun, try sharing three patterns and let students vote on the one they want to ride!
Tips for teaching a lesson with equitation patterns
After a thorough mounted warm-up, we like to highlight the “main feature” of the pattern, then prepare students for riding the pattern by working on particular skillsets. Halts need a tune-up? Simple changes working the way they’re supposed to? How about that bend?
Once everyone feels prepared, we’ll assemble for a water break, girth check, and orientation.
When it comes to learning patterns, a visual is worth a thousand words.
If we’re not using printed handouts, we’ll draw diagrams in the sand. For younger students, we may demonstrate the pattern’s track on our own two feet, or enlist the help of a demo rider.
We then ask each student to verbally repeat the pattern instructions back to us before they ride off to their first cone.
How much lesson time the pattern gets will depend on the length of the lesson and the size of our group.
Whenever possible, we try to allow students three separate rounds:
Round #1: Practice
The initial attempt at a pattern is often the messiest. Designating the first ride as a practice round takes the pressure off and allows students to figure out what’s working and what’s not working for them. Effort is expected, but perfection is not!
This round gives you a chance to practice self-evaluation with your students. We find this important skill comes easier to some students than others; teenage girls in particular have a tendency to be brutally hard on themselves.
Emphasize that riding and training involves a lot of experimentation, and that mistakes are really just opportunities to listen to the horse and learn.
Round #2: Polish
Following the debriefing, we ask students to choose ONE (yes, just one) goal for improvement. Were transitions balanced in the last round but not entirely accurate? Does a tense horse need to find a quieter rhythm at the trot?
You can help your students prioritize goals if necessary. Ask why they chose this goal, what they think went wrong last time, and how they plan to fix it. Then let them give it a go!
If you have a small group or a private lesson, you may be able to allow multiple attempts at a polish round. This can be beneficial if the horse and rider are really struggling to nail a movement — but don’t drill endlessly.
Like dressage tests and jump courses, patterns are not designed to solve every challenge. Instead, they help riders identify their strengths and weaknesses, and motivate students to try skills and maneuvers just outside their comfort zone.
Round #3: Challenge
Finish up with a third and final round— we often refer to this as the Bonus Round. This round requires you to add some kind of extra twist to the pattern. This might include a more difficult variation on a movement, moving up a gait, or riding the whole thing without stirrups.
If you can do so safely, we highly recommend a horse swap for the final round. Students enjoy the opportunity to try different horses, and it illuminates exactly what is a horse issue and what is a rider issue — makes it hard to say “He won’t stop” when every horse you ride trots past the halt marker!
Why do students like these lessons?
But if “all” that happens is that a student feels entertained, challenged and motivated by a “boring” flatwork lesson, we’ll gladly take it!
FIND EQUITATION PATTERNS:
*Affiliate link: if you purchase this resource, we earn a teensy percentage of the sale — at no extra cost to you. It helps with the hay bill, and our ponies thank you!