Focus on Flatwork Produces Winning Results with Leslie Burr Howard

Photo © Rebecca Walton/Phelps Media Group


In today’s fast paced horse show world, the importance of flatwork can often be lost as riders are consistently going in the ring to win ribbons where the key focus is often speed and carefulness. To develop that speed and accuracy though, riders have to begin with flatwork. That is what the legendary Leslie Burr-Howard focused on over the weekend when she taught a one-day clinic at the historic Rutledge Farm in Middleburg, Virginia, as part of the Rutledge Farm Sessions, which hosts a series of clinics conducted by Olympic gold medalists.

Burr-Howard won Olympic team gold in 1984 in Los Angeles, California and Olympic team silver in 1996 in Atlanta, Georgia. Burr-Howard has also won both gold and silver medals at the Pan American Games in Caracas Venezuela and Winnipeg, Canada, respectively. Throughout her extensive career, she has competed in 18 FEI World Cup Finals, and is one of only five females champions in the event’s 40-year history. Burr-Howard also had a successful junior career, winning the ASPCA Maclay Finals at Madison Square Garden at just 15 years-old.

Photo © Rebecca Walton/Phelps Media Group

Each section of the clinic included just four riders so that Burr-Howard could provide a custom experience for each participant. All of the riders warmed up at the trot over a series of poles where Howard critique their positions to ensure they were getting the best ride out of their horses. One focus was on keeping a straight line to the mouth. If you set your hand down they get behind the bit. During the downward transition, riders should keep the balance up and not drop their hands. This also keeps keep flexion on the vertical, you do not want it behind because you want the horse eye level at the top of the jump.

“Flatwork is what you do until you leave the ground. And that’s how you get from one jump to the other, so I think obviously flatwork is very important,” explained Burr Howard. “It’s also very important that you understand how your horse functions and how to function on your horse in your half-seat, in your full-seat. We don’t do a collected canter, or a collected sitting trot, in between jumps, but this is important for building a horse up physically, but at the end of the day, this is a galloping sport. You have to be tuned in and responsive and rideable at the gallop.”

When they moved on to the canter, the poles were set as a bounce to a three-stride, to a one-stride, to a three-stride to a bounce. As the riders worked over the poles the focus was on collection and not letting the horses swap over the poles.

Photo © Rebecca Walton/Phelps Media Group

Hand to leg, leg position and seat position were a constant theme throughout the clinic. One horse wanted to be a little slower and Burr-Howard recommended using a posting canter to keep an active rhythm. She noted that posting can be good because it is lighter than a full seat but has some of the same effect, although added laughing, “McLain doesn’t post, but that’s because he’s perfect, we hate him.”

Burr-Howard gave each rider very individualized critiques on the flat before moving on to a simple jumping exercise. Riders began over a single vertical with a bending S line of an oxer five-strides to an oxer and five-strides to a vertical. They then continued off a short turn to a line that was a three-stride to a one-stride and then a bending line to a vertical. They finished by reversing over the line of an oxer, three strides to a one-stride, and a final three strides to a vertical. This exercise helped riders focus on balancing and turning their horses.

Photo © Rebecca Walton/Phelps Media Group

“It was great because we had to work on those tiny turns in that indoor and that really is where I think we all lack a little bit, just those tight turns coming off the corner,” said Tiffany Cambria.

Her husband Guy Cambria concluded, “We’re very lucky that we have this facility and were able to utilize it, and as professionals get help from that caliber of other professionals. I think as horse people, you’re knowledge junkies. So to get the knowledge from these clinicians and be able to have someone like Leslie sit on our horses and then be able to get right on after she sat on the horse and be able to get that feeling, that was really the big takeaway for us. To get the feel right after she was able to get on and tweak and do the things she was talking about, and then be able to feel exactly what she was talking about and have the results right there is amazing.”

Photo © Rebecca Walton/Phelps Media Group

For more information about the Rutledge Farm Sessions please visit