Help! I Bought A Horse! What Now? – Natural or Pampered? ‘Quick’ or Classical or Parelli?

Weekend is coming so I thought we might as well have a chat about one of those subjects everybody has a different answer for! 😉

One of the big questions every new horse owner has to ask themselves is what next? Since this blog is predominantly addressed to aspiring grassroots riders, let’s look at this rider who I will call “Alice” who just bought the “Grey Boy” to do a little bit of everything with, some Riding Club shows, some horse trials, some grassroots dressage championships.

Grey Boy arrived – what’s next??

Alice wants to make sure Grey Boy is healthy and happy with her and that they have many wonderful years together. With this in mind, Alice asks for some advice on management and training decisions she needs to make.

Let’s get to some basics.

Dear Alice,

There are 3 main elements to every horse’s happiness: Diet (nutrition), Environment (turn out options, type of bedding in stable, time in stable, company of other horses, interactions or lack of them) and Exercise (amount of time outside of stable, hours of ridden work, hours of other work). D E E – that’s what’s going to to determine where to keep your boy (not that nice toilet that actually has toilet roll in…although, you know, that matters too 😉 ) .

As far as diet goes it’s important you will have a say in it so go for places that will take into account any changes you wish to make. Avoid livery places where “all horses get the same feed just because that is so”. Unless you found a yard filled just with other Grey Boys and other yous doing exactly the same thing, steer way clear.

Kingsley turn out 16th January 2010Smell some hay. It got to smell fresh. Look inside the stables and check if stabled horses have some hay available. Ask about summer turn out – not all horses can be on rich grass, you might need some non grass turn out option too.

Now environment – look at turn out fields – look for hay stations and conditions of the ground. Are there any trees around for shade? What kind of trees are there? Are they toxic at certain times of the year? Are the fields free from ragwort?

Check if you can decide on what bedding will Grey Boy be stabled on and what’s the turn out policy.

Can horses socialise? They got to be able to see each other, touch each other, play together. It generally makes for a happier, well adjusted animal altogether.  Don’t immediately discount a yard with some turn out restrictions. The yard owner might be looking after the land in dreadful conditions so look at the whole picture. You might just have to ride more in the pouring rain so your horse gets enough exercise on a non-turn out days 😉 However, watch out for vague answers and places with stunning amount of fields that look too pristine (just there to look good) or too damaged – bad field management can mean bad stable management too. 

Kingsley new yardAsk for “new horse on the yard” procedure – you want to see a quarantine stable available and turn out introduction being done in stages. If there is none for him, there will be none for the next one and with many illnesses being cheeky hide and seek fellows, you do want to make sure your yard owner is a responsible one.

Same when it comes to first turn out. You don’t want to be told he will have a great time meeting ALL the boys and girls tomorrow…

Ask who he will go out with once quarantine is over – watch out for individual turn out or just two horses per field because separation anxiety can hit your boy like a train if companion gets taken for a ride…and then you might get a phone call telling you your horse has impaled himself on a gate.

Now, delicate matters dear Alice. 

If you happen to like your horse shod all round, wrap him in duvet rugs, groom him until you can see your reflection in his shine and are hunting for a new sparkly headpiece on eBay as you read, you might want to avoid those yards where other owners prefer more natural way of keeping horses. You can of course consider also doing it more naturally but if you don’t want to change anything, look for other sparkly friends.

Equally, if you are planning to compete Grey Boy barefoot, use one rug on when really needed, out as much as possible and prefer tack minimalism, do seek a yard with like minded owners. It might seem like a detail now, dear Alice, but you got to trust me here. I get it, miracles happen and varied approaches can work well together, but on the whole, never underestimate the power of like minded support. You will enjoy your riding and your horse much more if you follow this advice.

If on other hand, you are unsure how to keep Grey Boy, then grab some books about equine behaviour, evolution, social needs, physiology and basic health. Read them when the boss isn’t looking. Then base your management decisions on this knowledge (not on what a friend of a friend of a friend tells you about their friend’s gelding’s likes and dislikes). 


Now how do you decide which approach to take and which system to follow to make sure it’s all the best for Grey Boy and enjoyable to you…How do you decide who to have lessons with if everyone is telling you different things and prizes that person or another…

One way to go about it is to focus on your values first. What are your principles? Beliefs? Standards? Try this simple one: Let’s say you believe horse is there to do as he is told at all times, to perform when asked and to have no say on the matter. The horse must conform to your lifestyle, time you have for him, resources you have. If these were to be your beliefs, training approach that is focused on why the horse does something and how to approach the issue long term rather than on quick results and super-submission is very likely to irritate you. Equally, if you believe in progressive, solid training on wide foundations, the quick result approach will make your blood boil.

Have a good think about these things dear Alice because the answers might tell you a lot about what you want from relationship with your horse. You see, once you have your principles in place, it’s easy to pick and mix all sorts of training methods because many systems have something that will suit you and something that will put you off. Clarity of your values will make it possible to differentiate and chose. 

So there, dear Alice, I know there are many aspects and details we didn’t discuss here but I hope it will give you a starting point on “what now”…Have a great time with your little prince…


About Stability (Core, Pelvis and Thighs Connection) in The Rider and Why To Work On It

How do I get my horse to move “more forward”, how do I get him to have “better impulsion”, how do I keep my lower legs from swinging forwards/backwards, how do I stop my horse from “falling in or out” through the shoulders and have a better balance – all these questions are some of the most commonly asked ones among many riders and so today I would like to chat about an important element riders might need to work on before being able to solve those issues. 


Our stability in the saddle or in other words being independent of horse’s actions yet harmonious with them, is probably a single most difficult and most important skill to acquire for anyone who wishes to school/train horses. It also determines how effective you will be on a horse that is already well schooled.

up and down 2a
Sometimes up…Sometimes down…The balance of the horse changes from stride to stride and even within the stride…as a rider, to be effective, we need to remain constant and not “allow” the horse to adversely affect our own balance. If we do become overly affected, we lose our ability to improve the horse’s balance. Photos from my own training. Portugal. September 2012.

When in the summer of 2011 I tried to ride a series of 7 one tempi changes across the long diagonal of the arena for the first time, I felt like I was competing for an Olympic Diving medal. My usually ok stability of the seat proved useless as the physics put the horse more and more downhill with each change, our line reminiscent of slalom giant and the reins going form lightly connected in canter to having stupid amount of weight attached to each. It took me several goes on that day to even complete the task in semi-acceptable manner without hitting the ground with our noses but as soon as I was off the horse I knew I needed to up the strength in my seat if I was to help the horse.

Several weeks of everyday focus on my stability on and off the horse helped me improve both my own and horse’s balance and we could do the changes with the mare staying lighter on the bit, happier and more relaxed. She was a schoolmistress and knew the job, it was up to me to work on myself so she could do the movements better. If I was to teach her those lines of changes, I would have to work much harder on my own skill at the time.

I tend to think that without stability, there is no true relaxation (try standing on a tennis ball on one foot with the other in the air…with practice you can relax the “redundant muscles” and only use the ones you really need to maintain your balance on the ball but at first you will very likely be employing way too much tension and effort. Once you can relax some muscles and only work the ones you need, your balance will feel much more effortless) .

Without relaxation there is no greater balance. Coming from this belief it is no wonder I put a lot of emphasis on seat training in all the riders who come to me wanting to improve their effectiveness.

How stable is stable enough?

You might ask, why do I need this hard earned, fantastic stability if I am not interested in ever riding movements that require high degree of coordination and balance from the horse? You will be right, you don’t need such a degree of it at all. If all you want is a healthy balanced horse doing low level dressage or jumping or hacking, you simply need to acquire enough stability to match requirements and needs of your horse.

Start and Foundation Level

For riders on my Start and Foundation level programmes (beginner to intermediate riders who work primarily on own skills rather than those who learn to school a horse) I focus on developing a thorough basic stability.

I do this by working on:

1) Core muscles: major and minor deep muscles of the torso and pelvis. There is so much about it all over the internet I won’t go into it now (but if you want me to do a post specifically on how I work on rider’s core muscles please let me know and I am happy to do so 🙂

2) Identifying and using rider’s thigh muscles correctly in order to:

a) be able to start using the thigh position and inner strength for maintaining own balance

b) teach the rider the meaning of the “seat” (core + pelvis + thighs)

Here’s my teaching routine: 

First of all I ask the rider to sit as relaxed as possible with their legs loosely dropped from their hips. This allows me to asses the natural tendencies in the rider’s body like perching forwards, leaning back, collapsing one way or the other, gripping etc It also gives me a chance to relate the rider’s built (like the length of the thighs, the proportions of their bodies: upper body to lower body etc) to the horse’s conformation, the saddle, the position of stirrup bars etc All those details will influence the rider’s position and later the way they influence the horse.

Once I have an idea about the above I ask them to find neutral pelvic position. I don’t think there is a text book image of this as everybody is different so the rider has to find its own neutral spinal alignment. I use posterior and anterior pelvic tilt to give the rider an idea about the two extremes, then help them find the one in between.

I then ask the rider to sit with what they perceive as a relaxed but toned upper body posture (when possible we practice this off-horse before moving on to the saddle), elongate their spine and maintain slight abdominal muscles engagement.

Then we move onto identifying different muscles around pelvis and thighs….

finding the muscles that stabilise1
On photos above you can see me helping the rider isolate different muscles so they can stabilise the leg (in this rider’s case, she needs to find the muscles that will stop her going into “chair seat”).

On photos above from left to right: I put my hand behind rider’s calf asking her to push against it as if she wanted to move my hand backwards. Then I draw her focus to the feel she gets when she pushes my hand back and how it engages her thigh muscles. I then place my hand in front of her toes and ask her to push against my palm again. These muscles are often much stronger than the latter. Finally, I place my forearm against her lower leg lightly and ask her to push against it with her lower leg outwards as if she wanted to take her whole thigh away from the saddle. This gives her feel for yet another set of muscles..

The muscles that I really want the riders to find are those that will almost instantly give them control over thigh position...Here is how I do so in the saddle: I ask the rider to palpate their hip bone and then slide their fingers to the side of it where they can feel a little dip/shallow shape. They are to keep a couple of fingers there. I then press my hand against their lower leg (as on the big photo on the collage above – excuse the quality, it’s taken from a video) and ask them to rotate their thigh bone inwards just a fraction and push against my hand outwards with the whole leg starting at the hip. This action moves whole thigh away from the saddle for a moment. Then I help the rider to achieve the same while keeping their legs gently touching the horse’s sides.

Sometimes it takes a few goes to do it right but when done correctly the rider can feel a tiny muscle belly popping up underneath their fingers. Once they can feel it, there starts the game of using those newly find muscles in motion 🙂 This little change brings huge results when it comes to rider effectiveness…

[I was taught this method by a Centred Riding instructor in 2003 and in 10 years I have been teaching this I am yet to meet a rider who, when corrected this way, did not improve their seat effectiveness and posture dramatically]. 

From my observations of riders learning to develop their seat as well as from analysing my own riding, no matter how strong the core muscles are, if we don’t use our thighs correctly (both in terms of position and muscle use) and then connect both the core, pelvis position and thigh use, we are going to struggle with seat effectiveness and stability.

Development and Performance level

For riders who school own horses or those who want to test themselves more, I work on dynamic stability more extensively including regular off-horse exercise routines. Even when done once a month by fairly leisure riders, they do bring very visible results!

Movement of the horse always unbalances the rider. It is up to us to what degree we will become unbalanced. Jumping, especially at speed (like XC), requires the rider to work on coordination, reaction time, independence of horse’s mistakes (a trip, left leg etc), confidence in own balance. All of these can be worked on off-horse to speed up the learning process…

My off horse workshops on very simple rider bio-mechanics games are designed to awaken rider’s balance skills. Apparently, and I quote a professional physiotherapist here, balance skills are one of those every single one of us can improve. Some of us have it naturally better developed, some less but they are not static in their status!

Below is an older video I took of two riders on Aspire Development Programme during their pre-XC work out on balance and stability. How we position each part of our bodies matters. The riders are playing and experimenting with different angles of their upper bodies and learning to remain in a “kneeling down” or “skiing” position at all times in order to maintain their independence of horse’s problems as well as to absorb the horse’s movement to the best of their abilities.

As you can see, it’s not easy 🙂

More experienced riders will appreciate how connecting their core use to pelvis stability to thigh use expands their feel and control of horse’s movement. How it helps improve throughness in the horse, this elusive big goal many dressage riders strive for.

One rider after she first tried it described it to me as a “feeling of all the insides of the horse” 😉 To me it feels like I could pick a horse up or place it left or right by their ribcage and guide them wherever I need them to be. It’s the feeling of control over impulsion in the horse, over own body parts, over contact…It’s the most incredible feeling as it allows you to be light yet shape the balance of the horse. It comes and goes and it doesn’t appear from nowhere. It takes a lot of work. Independent, supple and stable seat used with empathy is to me what makes a good rider.

How do you work on stability of your seat, core and thigh use? Do you? Do you think it matters? 

Until next time 🙂


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Riding For Fitness and Riding for Weight Loss aka Horses as a Gym – Yes or No…

Please note our website is now:

As you can guess, the subject of obesity among riders is not one that can be discussed easily without a cloud of controversy. I don’t wish to stir an argument but simply share my thoughts on the matters of riding fitness and weight issues from a riding instructor point of view. I’ll start with looking at horse riding as a fitness routine and then share my thoughts on using it for weight loss. 


riding for fitness3black
Post-jumping happiness 🙂 The rider had a body protector on which she removed before these photos were taken – hence such sweaty patches!

In my view, on average, there are really only two stages in which the rider truly and fully appreciates the requirement of own balance, mental focus, muscular effort and core stability needed for good riding. First one is the early lessons stage on the lunge or otherwise when postural habits and behaviours are explained and taught: staying in harmony with the motion, first rising trot, first sitting trot, first canter. Second stage is when a rider first learns about their share of responsibility for the balance of the horse.

Outside of these two stages or if the rider never experiences proper tuition at the time, it is somewhat easy to overlook the element of own fitness in horse riding at lower levels.

Travelling on horseback vs horse riding 

For the purpose of Aspire riding courses I divide horse enthusiasts into two groups:

1) ‘Passengers’ – riders who get on a horse to travel. They expect no effort, the horse should have a go and stop and turn buttons, comfortable saddle and should be unaffected by either rider’s posture, weight or riding abilities. Riders in this group might be of any level, from beginners through occasional riders to competition riders. Attitude is irrelevant of experience I find.

2) ‘Riders’ – riders of any level who want to improve own skills to pursue preferred way of riding be it hacking, dressage, jumping, general schooling etc and who have minimal to extensive understanding that horse riding, whether done as a recreation or amateur sport, requires muscular, mental and cardiovascular effort to various degrees.

The main difference between the two, especially at lower levels, is earlier mentioned attitude and perception of the horse’s “job”.

Travelling on horseback rarely has any real fitness benefits for the ‘passenger’ and it’s the horse who does 99% of the work with the rider just choosing the way to go (sometimes just following another horse). Here is also where many rider’s strains and problems can occur like back pain, joint pain or muscle cramps due to the ‘passenger”s relative lack of responsibility for own posture. Sadly, these issues are then said to be the problems of horse riding in general.

I am personally the happiest in my job when focusing on the group number two. It doesn’t matter whether riders want to ultimately be happy hackers, never compete or whether they dream of Olympic medals one day. It’s the drive to be the best they can be for their horses or horses they ride at a riding school whilst enjoying the level of riding they find most suited to them – teaching these kind of riders is what drives me in my work. The kind of training or lessons they do is also where to me, riding can be a fantastic way for active, fit and healthy lifestyle.

AmyHe carries you, you carry yourself 

I would like to share with you an interesting fact…I have taught quite a few riders over the 20 years of my teaching journey and observed that horses don’t go better or remain healthier for riders who love them more or who know more about them but for those who respect them more…What I mean by this is that if a rider has a respect for the horse they ride, they do all they can to carry themselves in own self-carriage. And the process of acquiring such self-carriage is the most amazing fitness and wellness routine out there…

Having said that, I disagree with the notion of using horses as gym equipment, they are more of a master-motivator, challenger, maintainer and a condition tester 😉 We ride and we discover which of our motor skills need working on, which emotions need attention, which behaviours need improvement.

Then we need to find ways to improve those areas and so a supplementary plan of action is put in place. We might need to move more and sit less, we might need to address certain areas of our diet, perhaps we need to stretch something and strengthen something else. Maybe we need to learn to be calmer, less aggressive or more assertive and energetic. Perhaps our overall body balance needs attention, or our posture, or attitude to others. Before we know it, we can have a nice little wellness routine going so we are a partner not a burden for our horse(s).

Horse riding, when treated as a progressive learning process of certain skills rather than as a “sit on a horse, pull here, kick there and off you go” will maintain and improve your fitness, I have absolutely no doubt about it.

On so many levels…


You know that feeling you get hacking through the narrow green lanes between stubble fields with sun adding so much contrast to the colours around you that you have to squint your eyes to look? The scent of leaves, the sound of bird songs? Or the absolute focus on minute movements in your dressage lessons? Adrenaline rush approaching a cross country jump? The studious precision with which you make your transition to canter so you can get the perfect amount of impulsion and control at the take off to your jump? Or the evening after work when you walk on the yard and your horse’s head looks out of the door, looks at you? How do you feel?

At times I see horse riding as the multi-disciplinary therapy which, when utilised in the right way, can enrich our lives beyond our expectations.


obese rider on a horse
Rider too big for both the saddle and the horse. Photo credit: unknown. If you would like to claim this photo or wanted it removed please contact me.

Now, since riding can be so beneficial for ones health and since obesity is currently one of the biggest health issues in the UK, the crucial question is – should we promote horse riding for weight loss?

The way I see it, horse industry is so diverse that people of all shapes and sizes can get involved in various equine activities. If a person is too heavy or unfit to ride a horse, they can slowly work their way into a weight that doesn’t compromise horse’s welfare.

What’s too heavy though? 

When it comes to riding I personally would not teach any obese adult and would assess case by case when it comes to overweight novice to experienced riders. If you click on the underlined words above you can read the exact definition of both based on BMI (body mass index) formula.

Most riding centres I have worked with have a weight limit of 14 stone (88.9kg / 196pounds) plus horse’s tack (which can add a stone), rarely 15 stone plus tack, which corresponds with type of horses they have and kind of lessons they do. As long as an overweight rider can be matched with a suitable horse (so rider + tack doesn’t exceed 15% of the horse’s normal weight) and is willing to work on oneself, I will teach with pleasure.  

It’s easy for me to control the situation when dealing with riders without own horses but everything becomes much more complicated when teaching horse owners. I have not had an extreme experience yet which I heard or seen other instructors having to deal with.

Over the last 20 years I noticed a considerable shift in how riding establishments handle their weight limit policy. When I first worked at a yard for lessons at 14 no obese person would even ask to get on a horse. I doubt the understanding of horse’s welfare was greater than it is now but somehow people instinctively knew that if they struggle to maintain good balance on the ground due to their size or sometimes even simply walk well with a good posture, they should not inflict themselves on an animal to carry them. If they didn’t consider themselves obese and did enquire we simply said it was not possible for our horses to carry them in lesson environment.

Serious health issues aside, obesity is a reversible condition that requires discipline and commitment to tackle – two qualities that are also great attributes of any rider. From my experience of preparing heavily overweight people to ride, once they set their mind on the goal of riding, they are one of the most rewarding of pupils.

Read more about Haflinger Horse: The one on the photo above is lacking some strength in the loins area. Photo credit: Unknown. If you wish to claim the photo and have it removed please get in touch.

If you are too heavy to ride dear reader, and you are desperate to be around horses, you don’t have to wait until you lose enough weight to start learning. Here are my suggestions for a little game plan for obese of heavily overweight horse enthusiasts who want to get ready for riding lessons.

  • find a riding school or a friend with horses if you already have some experience, where you can groom 3 to 5 horses per visit. Commit to come at least once a week and give all the horses very thorough groom doing it correctly i.e. changing hands when changing sides. Grooming is a great exercise for the rider-to-be: it builds trust and connection with the horse and it gives both sides of your body a steady, gentle but effective work out. If it hurts your back or knees to pick out feet leave it for now and focus on the rest of the horse. As you groom, you can learn about conformation, muscle development, injuries, back issues – in fact, I have done fairly comprehensive, practical lessons that didn’t involve any riding yet brought a lot of satisfaction and motivation to the person involved.
  • address your diet – sooner the better. Find what works for you, be it Weight Watchers or other formal groups or simply own determination.
  • get yourself in a pool regularly. Swimming is a great exercise for anyone carrying spare weight due to joint relief.
  • try yoga. It focuses your mind and incredibly strengthens your whole body. It’s one of the best exercise routines for riders I discovered last year and now, after some months of practice I can really feel its benefits. Go yoga.
  • book in-hand lessons: working with horses in-hand is like a power walk, intense riding theory and fresh oxygen mask in one. Keep them short to start with – 30 minutes is plenty. You will learn more about riding in two months of weekly in-hand lessons than in six months of weekly riding lessons…Trust me here 😉

feet on scale

As you gain fitness and lose pounds/kgs, keep your eyes open for a suitable horse to ride that can cope well with a larger rider without undue stress on own body. Search for:

  • a horse of a breed traditionally bred as a riding/weight carrying horse: Norwegian Fjords, Iberian horses from older, bigger boned lines, Haflingers, Highlands, cobs and draft x (be watchful with lighter types of cobs and also draft horses as although seemingly massive the latter are often bred for pulling power not for carrying ability and can have surprisingly weak backs)
  • a horse with a fairly wide, well muscled back and loin area
  • go for a mature horse that is done with his skeletal development, check individual breeds for details but generally avoid horses younger than 6 years old,
  • a horse whose shoulder and back conformation can accommodate a saddle in which you can comfortably sit in the right (centred) spot (without your seat pressing onto the back of the saddle)

I would personally prefer to see horse riding being strongly promoted as a prevention NOT cure for national obesity problem. Rather than riding being an outdoor gym for obese enthusiasts I would like to see it to be motivation to lose enough weight to be able to ride and further maintain own fitness.

P.S. There is a great national programme set up by BETA together with HOOF and British Equestrian Federation encouraging active and healthy lifestyle with horses, do check them out as often you can take part in very inexpensive lessons via participating centres.

Main Take Up The Reins website:

What do YOU think ? Please share your views whether you agree with me or not 🙂 


Now, as we know our wonderfully legality obsessed world I must stress that although I have a huge interest in both human and equine fitness and physical education I am not a doctor and therefore any suggestions mentioned in this post must not be taken as a qualified advice. If you wish to follow anything I mentioned above, please first consult relevant specialists. 

Recommended reading:

Review of “Evaluation of indicators of weight-carrying ability of light riding horses” by DM Powell, K Bennett-Wimbush, A Peeples, M Duthie, Ohio State University Agricultural Technical Institute, Wooster, Ohio

How Much Weight Can Horses Comfortably Carry? (very interesting study focused on use of Japanese native horses for therapeutic purposes) 

How Much Can a Horse Carry? – summary of recent research presented by Horse Science News

How Big is Too Big?

15 stone woman loses weight to ride her horse

To Bare or Not to Bare…Bareback Riding in Rider’s Education.

Beginner rider on Aspire Equestrian Start Programme experiencing sitting bareback on a horse for the first time.

Bareback riding is a forbidden part of rider’s education at quite a number of riding schools across the UK. The reason being (given to me when I asked) that riding without a saddle is an unsafe practice and having it on the agenda jeopardises the terms of riding school’s insurance policy. It goes further than this. While working at a BHS Where To Train Centre (to read about what centre qualifies as such see HERE) I was under instructions to limit no-stirrups lessons and if lunging a client I was to make sure they always had either reins or stirrups always available. In other words, if I took stirrups away, I was to make sure the rider had the reins in their hands. If they had no reins in their hands, they were to have both feet in the stirrups.


On one hand I feel I must stand on riding schools side because I know how difficult it can be in current litigious climate to provide any sort of sporting tuition. Perhaps someone more in the know can comment on whether the disappearance of bareback riding is the case of insurance companies increasing their fees for establishments said to offer it or whether there are different reasons altogether. Personally, I don’t know. I do know, however, that some BHS Approved riding schools have no issues with bareback lessons so I am somewhat confused as to why some centres can have an insurance policy happy with the practice while others can’t…

On the other hand, I find bareback riding a must for any rider to experience at least sporadically in their riding education. It is possible to conduct it safely and benefits are huge.

Bareback for riders…

Except from obvious benefits of improved balance thanks to bareback riding, I believe even more important benefit is the connection the rider feels with the horse when riding without a saddle. When my horse developed a small sarcoid behind his elbow, just where the girth goes, I was unable to ride him unless I wanted to ride bareback. I was reluctant to start with as he was quite a sharp, young stallion but when treatment after treatment failed to deal with the issue I gave it a go. Little did I know that I would ride him bareback for entire year before finally removing the sarcoid…

At first I stayed in the arena but when I felt more comfortable and secure with him I started hacking him out too. Slowly at the beginning, then doing usual fitness work with him including jumping. Throughout that time I never appreciated how much more understanding of his movement I gained until I put the saddle back on. It felt like someone has blindfolded me that much feeling was missing. At the same time though, my security in the saddle, confidence and effectiveness improved beyond my imagination.

Movement and touch are important element of communication between horses so for rider to learn to speak the same muscle language means being closer to that elusive harmony we all seek in riding.

Issues like straightness or one-sidedness are easier to explain to a novice rider when they feel it right underneath them without the much more perfect mould of the saddle.

So is the importance of good posture since slouching or crookedness in the rider’s body is not going to help them stay on the round, slippery back of the moving horse.

Check out the below video showing children during a rather unique lesson set up at a riding school in Dubai. I highly dislike how incredibly dull this work must be for the horses involved but I do love the idea behind teaching balance and movement in a safe and agility focused environment.

Shorter lessons of this sort where there is more appreciation for horses’ wellness are something I am very keen to explore.

Bareback for horses…

While I do believe bareback riding is a fabulous addition to almost any rider’s education, I don’t think it’s suitable for every horse. Undermuscled horses with underdeveloped backs are in my opinion not good candidates for bareback riding not because they are rather uncomfortable for the rider but because they will find rider’s weight and bone pressure hard to cope with. Well fitted saddle disperses the weight over larger area and diminishes any localised pressure points.

If your horse has a weak back and you do ride him bareback I would suggest only very short sessions while you wait for his condition to improve.

Another issue that I became aware years ago when witnessing a certain situation is that horses and ponies that are being educated to carry themselves well without a downward flexing spine might find bareback riding a burden…It’s important to monitor your horse’s behaviour and observe whether he/she is able to carry you with relaxed back without the saddle protecting their muscles from pressure points coming from your seat bones. Try to sit on a hard chair and slide your hands under your seat so you know exactly what your horse is feeling over time.

The signs to look out for is the neck carriage and fluidity of movement – an experienced instructor will notice back tension in the horse straight away but many novice riders feel it very quickly too. If tension happens regularly it’s best to practice on a different horse until your horse’s muscles are re-educated and conditioned.

One solution for pressure points could be using a bareback pad like this one but I personally don’t know of any research done on their protecting abilities.

Image source:
Bare in Mind…

The “everything is good in moderation” seems a perfect mantra to me when it comes to bareback riding. I believe it can have enormous benefits for developing all round rider skills but must be done safely and in a way that doesn’t harm the horse.

If you have good experiences with bareback riding or if your riding school allows it please leave a comment and share your views and experiences 🙂

To finish off, possibly most famous recent you tube bareback riding/jumping video:

Thank you! We’re in the Finals of Equestrian Social Media Awards!

test for cover esma2

Huge thank you to all of you who nominated Aspire Equestrian Riding Academy! We are now in the FINALS of Equestrian Social Media Awards ! It’s a privilege to have you supporting our efforts in communicating passion for horse friendly and rider centred equestrian education.

What now?

Help us improve grassroots sport and recreation one rider at a time and leave your vote for Aspire Equestrian in Category 11:

Thank you from myself and from everybody involved in Aspire Equestrian’s social presence 🙂  


P.S. Our guest blogger – Susanna Halonen – has also made a finalist cut in Category 5 so if you enjoyed her positive blog post the other day, give her a vote too 🙂




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Guest Blogger Susanna Halonen about Riding With a Positive Mindset

Here you can see smiling in action as Susanna giggles as her 20 year old Ollie is eagerly going towards a small jump.

When you train your horses and want to improve your riding, you are very focused on your body and your horse’s body. From suppleness to swing, from forwardness to relaxation, your training is focused on getting your horse’s body working in the best possible way. You adjust your riding, from half halts to your posture, to affect how your horse moves forward. But the one thing that’s often forgotten is your mental training.

Riding horses is a challenging sport because you have at least a half ton animal underneath you with a mind and body of its own. This means things don’t always go to plan. That’s why riding with a positive mindset is so powerful and helps build your resilience. Not only does it help you enjoy your riding more, it also helps you perform better.

As a positive psychology practitioner, I work both with riders and non-riders to help them find their best performance through positivity – be it in riding, in life or at work. All the research is there to support how happiness fuels success hence this is a really opportunity for you to get more out of your riding by adapting a more positive mindset. Here are some tips to help you get started.

1. Use challenges as opportunities to learn. 

Maybe things didn’t go quite as planned in your schooling session or your latest competition. Think about what you actually learnt from the experience and how you can use that to do better next time. You often learn best through setbacks so really cherish that opportunity.

2. Focus on using your and your horse’s strengths. 

By focusing on the good you set yourself into a more positive mindset which helps your body perform at a better level. Also, you can often use the good to fix the not so good. Every horse and rider has strengths and weaknesses, so think about how you can make the most out of the strengths and use them to help improve those weaknesses.

3. Celebrate every little success. 

No matter how small. It’s easy to get hung up on fixed goals but it’s actually counting the little successes that make all the difference. Think about what went better today than yesterday, which could be anything from picking up the left canter straightaway on a horse that usually doesn’t, to getting your young horse on the bit for one circle, to being brave enough to pop over a cross-country jump for the first time in your life.

4. Smile while you ride. 

Smiling sets a positive chemical reaction in your body which helps you relax as well as perform at a higher level. Even fake smiling sets it off! So if you’re feeling frustrated, tired, or your horse isn’t cooperating, just take a moment to take a deep breath and SMILE 😀

Really think about putting these into practice in your daily riding schedule and make an effort to practice riding with a positive mindset. Trust me, you will see a difference quicker than you think!

Good luck in your riding adventures & until next time!

All posts by Susanna can be found on:

Susanna Halonen is a Finnish rider based in Southeast England. She’s competed up to 120 cm show jumping internationally and advanced medium level dressage nationally. She offers positive psychology coaching to help you to get the most of your riding, be it enjoyment or performance wise. You can follow her blog and find out more about her here: 

Introducing new guest blogger Susanna Halonen – Positive Psychology Practitioner

susanna halonen2 Susanna is a Finnish rider based in Southeast England. She has been a passionate rider since the age of 9 and her global lifestyle has allowed her to train and compete in Brazil, Sweden, Germany, Portugal and England. Even though she currently focuses her riding predominantly in dressage, she has competed up to 120 cm show jumping internationally and up to advanced medium level dressage – all with her own superstar horse Ollie (aka Orlando Metodo). He’s now enjoying retirement from competitions at age 20 (she’s had him since he was 5) and her energy is now focused on bringing on her rising 5 year old Mickey (aka Eurythmic) whom she’s owned for 2 years.


She is passionate about riding with a positive mindset. As a positive psychology practitioner, she offers coaching which helps you get the most out of your riding through a more positive mindset. Not only does this help you enjoy your time with the horses, it also helps you perform better. Her work also extends to working with individuals and organisations both inside and outside the equestrian world to help fuel enjoyment and performance through a more positive mindset.

You can follow her blog at SH Dressage and find out more about positive psychology coaching for riders here.

She is also on twitter @SHdressage and on Facebook at SH.Dressage

Video Blog from Aspire Grassroots Clinic in Toruń, Poland. 14-16 January 2014.

clinic Torun 14 16 Jan

I’ve just returned from a great few days in Toruń, Poland where I ran jumping focused clinic and brainstormed with a young instructor, Magda, who works hard with me on Aspire programmes and who is based over there.

At first I planned to post a usual photo blog to share some lovely moments from the clinic. However, as some of you know, I would like to start publishing Aspire Video Library sometime in the autumn this year. Talking to a camera in some coherent and semi-interesting way can be surprisingly intimidating so I decided to get on with it and film vlogs…

This way not only do we get to practice some public camera action but you can come along with us, share our day and have some fun together. If my time allow I will try to fit in a couple of vlogs a month. They will hopefully get better as we all get the hang of it 😉

Do let me know if you like it and what can we do better – perhaps there is something specific you would like me to vlog about?

“How I wish I was taught to ride well from the start”…

My little niece’s first day “at work” 😉

Each week, on several equestrian forums I visit, there are posts by riders who have been riding for many years or who ride at various riding schools and who are now re-learning plethora of bad habits they were allowed to acquire during early education. There will be at least 3-4 different discussions on this subject on Horse & Hound Forum alone (one of the biggest UK equestrian forum) and many more on other forums, blogs and on yards…

Personally, the posts that sadden me the most are written by people who are desperate to do well out of huge care for their horses but they struggle and fight to re-wire their muscle memory. They know their bad habits affect their horse’s willingness to work and progress and so they painfully recollect the slow process of getting it right. It’s not easy to start with but it’s certainly mentally and physically demanding to change the well known pattern.

Those who care about the state of early equestrian education at many riding schools can lament but a conversation with my beginner rider this weekend made me want to approach this issue from another angle…

There is nothing that we can do to change our past experiences but we can certainly look closely at the training we receive now and do something about that.

Beginner rider during a lesson. Aspire Equestrian Start Programme.

There is always something we are beginners at…

Do we allow ourselves to truly learn the basics of more advanced skills right now or do we live for the end goal barely noticing tiny milestones being achieved along the way?

In the process of re-learning, do we let our bodies adjust, accept and then re-connect with new awareness, feel and effectiveness? Many bad riding habits come from rushing the things that need time. Take rising (posting) trot for example. How many riders at riding schools who are at a stage of cantering ever re-visit the technique of correct rising that encourages relaxation in the horse’s topline, promotes looseness in the body and helps naturally control the left to right balance? Not many.

Good riding technique is not just for competition riders and not just for young supple people. It takes as long as it takes to get it better and re-visiting simple skills improves higher skills in the long run. Seems obvious yet I am sure you all see the Big Rush around you, I definitely see it all the time in many riding arenas.

Beginner rider during lesson. Aspire equestrian Start Programme.

If we are having problems teaching our horse flying changes, revisiting our seat in canter can help us spot tension and resistance. If we do it with the beginner’s mindset we shouldn’t have to end up 2 years later with our horse changing late behind, shortening through the neck or flexing his back downwards at the thought of a change. We might not have to then go back and start all over again thinking, I wish I had worked on my own seat two years ago…

Enjoy The Moment

I very much enjoy starting beginner riders who have not had much experience of riding before. It’s a great responsibility to give them the widest possible support of the basics so they will always know if someone teaches them to abuse the horse or their own body. The best thing about teaching beginner and novice riders who want to learn is that they have yet no idea how many turns there are in the learning to ride labyrinth and so they apply themselves fully to each simple task.

Beginner rider learning about feeling the contact through relaxed elbows and shoulder blades as well as learning about how seat instability affects that feel. Right now she doesn’t get to ride with reins in her hands, she might do sometime in February if all goes according to plan. I only let the riders ride with contact when they are able to use their body for balance, not hands.  Aspire Equestrian Start Programme.

I think this beginner approach is a great one for anyone going through the pain of re-learning bad habits because amazingly, when you do the tiniest things very well, the bigger things – that are made up of these tiniest things – follow suit.

You don’t need to have a perfect body, perfect posture, perfectly straight spine to improve yourself as a rider. All you might need is a beginner’s mindset and experienced person’s determination 🙂