Establish a Routine, but Be Prepared to Break It

I was lucky enough to work for some top riders/trainers, one of whom was the late, great Elizabeth Solter. There are many amazing things I could say about her as a person and as a horseman, and watching her ride became a lesson in and of itself. A natural part of any animal she sat on, she rode with a rare grace and tact, always always putting the horse first and letting it shine to the best of its ability.

If I had one, all encompassing learning to take away from Elizabeth's system, it would be the importance of establishing a routine for flatwork.

Elizabeth's routine consisted of the following elements, in this exact order:

1) Walk 1x each direction of the ring
2) Trot 1x each direction of the ring and establish a bright, forward pace - do not try to do any sort of framing - leave the reins relatively loose
3) Trot 1x each direction, and start to incorporate 2x short periods of loosely collected sitting trot down each long side
4) Trot 1x each direction, this time adding 1x short period of more collected sitting trot down the long side, changing from inside bend to outside bend and back to inside bend before going forward and straight on the short side
5) Trot 1x each direction, and this time on the short ends, put in one, true circle of collected sitting trot on an inside bend, sending the horse forward and straight down the long sides
6) Trot 1x each direction, this time putting in 2 circles of collected sitting trot on each short side, 1x with an inside bend, and 1x with a slight outside bend
7) Once the above was finished, you walked for no less than 5 minutes
8) Pick up a forward, straight trot in a gentle frame, 1x each direction
9) Pick up a canter, and canter 2x each direction, 1x with loose contact, and the second time with contact and an easy frame
10) Canter 2x-3x more times each direction, putting in a collected circle on the short side, and going forward/straight down the long sides
11) Come back down to the trot, 1x each way on a loose rein - if you've done everything else correctly, the horse should be swinging easily through its back and stretching through it's neck down to the ground, reaching for the bit.
12) Walk for 5-10 minutes

That was the routine we had for each horse, everyday that wasn't a schooling day. It took about 45-50 minutes, and when we were finished, we felt like we had worked, even though we didn't do anything overly complicated.

But more than that, having this routine allowed us to truly track the progress of each horse that came into the program, and helped establish a consistent baseline to work from. How straight was it? How easy did it collect/extend? How willing was it to bend each direction? Was it heavy on one side or the other, or bulge a shoulder or a hip? And as we did the same routine everyday, how did we feel the horse change underneath us? Was it getting stronger? If we swapped out a bit, how did that compare? Did it help? Or not?

It also gave each rider who came through her program (myself included) a reliable structure to work from at other jobs where the program might be more organic - I was known at some places as "the girl who always rode in circles," and that was OK with me.

One of the best things about Elizabeth, though, was that while she made routine the foundation of her excellent program, she also knew when to change things up to keep the horses (and riders) fresh. If Routine was the meat, then Improvisation was the seasoning - and ultimately, she knew that you needed both to make riding a delicious experience.

Elizabeth aboard the legendary mare, Rox Dene

** Disagree with anything above and want to start a discussion? Let's talk! But first, please read my disclaimer post. 


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