How NOT to pull on the reins – active vs passive resistance


The “how can I stop pulling on my horse’s mouth in transitions” question comes up very often when I am out and about teaching so today’s post will form a little chat on exactly that 🙂 

First, let’s look at an important muscle we all have but not all use when it comes to “using the reins”: the lattisumus dorsi (shown below in red), otherwise known as “lats” :

Latissimus dorsi.PNG
Latissimus dorsi” by User:Mikael Häggström – Image:Gray409.png. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Why NOT to pull?

Before we come back to the muscle shown above, let’s look beyond some obvious answers here. Yes, first of all we want to stop pulling as it’s simply painful on the horse’s mouth but there are other aspects too. If you use the reins to pull (act directly backwards on the reins with prolonged pulley pressure) you are very likely creating a dysfunctional posture in your horse (via defensive and strenuous use of his/her muscles in the neck, back and legs). Dysfunctional posture leads to dysfunctional movement which in time can easily lead to a plethora of unexplained soundness issues.

Pulling reins will also never let the rider achieve real throughness in transitions, they act like hand breaks on horse’s hind legs, create tension in the neck muscles and generally produce variety of micro-evasions that the horse employs in order to find some acceptable comfort.

The “Long” answer

To be able to be independent of the reins and apply their action without stress/tension or pulley action, the rider needs good basic balance throughout their seat. In other words they need to be in control of own frame and not be dependent in it on how the horse moves. It might seem obvious to say this but it’s important to mention that the seat balance is the pre-requisite to what you will read in ‘short answer’ below – if you struggle with some aspects of seat stability AND tend to pull on the reins in transitions, then the short answer below might not be for you yet…

The “Short” Answer

If your seat skills are decent and you can easily go from full seat to half seat (two point/ light seat) and back to full seat without altering horse’s rhythm and feeling out of balance yet you struggle with correct rein action, this short answer might be for you. Otherwise, seat developing/improving exercises might be the ones to go to first. However, even when your seat skills are yet not up to scratch, you can still practice the below “short” answer exercise in walk to halt transitions.

To stop or to ride a transition without pulling action on the reins it’s important to develop feel for passive resistance. The difference lies in which muscles you use and how you use them. Cue: check out the photo of muscles shown in red…) To test yourself, you will need someone on the ground holding the rein whilst you are in the saddle (as shown on picture below):


The person on the ground will need to pull on both reins as if trying to pull you forwards. A moment later, they can release the pressure without warning you. If you were pulling back you are likely to lose your balance as the ground person lets go. Now, experiment with engaging your lats muscles together with correct posture (neutral spine and “standing with knees bent” feeling through your thighs instead of “sitting in a chair” feeling) in order to withstand the momentary pull. You should notice that as the ground person releases the pressure, you stay unmovable and balanced thanks to passive resistance you created.

This stability producing passive resistance let’s you regulate the horse’s speed and weight distribution with your body/seat rather than backwards traction on the reins. The reins themselves transmit this resistance to the horse’s mouth or nose (if riding with bitless bridle) but very often, no rein pressure is necessary as the horse will react to the seat/lats resistance alone.

This passive resistance can be used in half-halts, transitions within paces, direct transitions – always with forward “thinking” hands i.e. with no backward traction and no negative tension in rider’s joints (elbows, wrists, fingers).

The key with this exercise is to introduce it slowly and develop feel for resisting in the rhythm of the horse’s movement. At the beginning you might find yourself tensing up too much, holding the resistance out of sync with horse’s movement, clenching your buttocks, tensing your arms or fingers etc etc These are all “normal” mistakes to make so do make them, read your horse’s reactions and keep trying until you can isolate the right muscles and until your timing and feel improves.

Please feel free to comment with any questions, thoughts or experiences if you do try/have already tried this exercise!


The All-Rounder Training Series: Relax, Supple Up, Collect. Part 1 – The forgotten “light seat” ?

Laura 7608
Aspire training session June 2014. Photo by Magda Mucha

This post starts a new mini summer series. I am not sure how many parts it will have yet, I will let it flow organically (hopefully I won’t waffle too much!) so if you would like to add suggestions or questions please feel free to leave them in the comments section below the post. 

The series will discuss some elements in training process of an all-round, grassroots riding horse and an improvement driven rider i.e. the type of riders and horses we teach on Aspire programmes.

I should add that all input in comments is welcome, there are many ways of doing the same thing, we always learn with horses and the thoughts written in this series are just one of those ways…

Please, grab a cup of tea or coffee or whatever else you fancy and let’s chat 🙂 


This little series is here as a consequence of questions I receive from riders which makes me think that perhaps more general chat about training horses and riders at grassroots level (lower to medium level) might be of use. Questions that come up most often are focused on the following 3 elements of training a horse: suppleness (“how can I make her more supple?”), relaxation (“how can I can get him to relax?”), collection (“how can I ask him to collect ‘better’ ?” ). In many cases the riders are perfectly able to recognise the issue(s) when they watch their lessons on a video. They can often tell me with great attention to detail when and what is happening but the struggle lies in corrections. Therefore, I would like to chat about the tools that a grassroots rider (an average, amateur rider who doesn’t ride many horses a day for a living) can develop in order to achieve training results and help their horses develop athletically as riding horses.

In Part 1 and 2 I will focus on ways of achieving “[bright] relaxation” as that is to me the element that comes before any other. Just to be clear as to the “bright” side – I don’t mean sofa-popcorn-TV type of relaxation but a state of body and mind that is ready for learning…An athletically relaxed horse should still have a spark about him 🙂

magda on black mare
Magda Mucha, one of instructors who worked with me – here riding for a client on a young mare in a fairly good, basic stretchy trot. The horse could have her nose out a little more and be softer through lower neck muscles but she is only just learning more athletic way of going so is very much a work in progress

PART 1: The forgotten “light seat”? 

One fabulous key to this bright and focused relaxation that seems to be very much a struggle for many riders is work in light seat. The Army used it, Reiner Klimke used it, the classical trainers have used it – the benefits are many both for the horse and for the rider. First of all, light seat is most natural of all seats for any horse whose back and neck muscles are not yet in a good “riding horse” condition. This might mean a young horse as well as one that had worked under the saddle for years but was never ridden in a way that helped him build the muscles that carry the rider.

The light seat as a training tool for the rider fabulously improves feel for balance, movement synchronisation, joint suppleness, core strength and leg and hand stability. When practised correctly it shouldn’t cause joint pain in the rider.

Below is a short clip of a rider on Aspire Development Programme having her lesson on a stiff backed riding school horse and using light seat in warm phase of her lesson: 

Light seat is a great tool for the rider to “relax” the horse in trot and canter. Relaxation we are after manifests itself in regular, repetitive length of steps, desire to move forwards, “neutral”, relaxed posture i.e. usually fairly horizontal neck position (depending on conformation), neutral position of the back (neither hollow nor overly round), loose throat area with open angle between jowls and neck and ground covering movement that looks purposeful and quietly active. As the horse in this posture will almost always be naturally front heavy (on the forehand to some degree), it’s important for the rider to develop good, supporting balance. I generally love light seat work as part of a warm up for most horses, as a re-training tool for horses with back issues or contact issues, older horses, hollow moving horses, nervous and/or anxious horses to name just some examples. On negative side I personally don’t like to use it for long periods of time for months on end as the only way of riding (especially for heavier breeds) precisely because it can encourage front heavy way of going but I will get back to this in further parts of this little series.

As far as riders who practice light seat go, I see improvement in seat balance (ability to remain in balanced posture regardless of horse’s issues) and effectiveness (ability to achieve more functional posture in the horse) in both beginner and advanced riders…

Below you can see a still frame of a rider who came to me for lessons when Aspire programme were just starting out (in 2010) 🙂 The still frame at the top shows her in rising trot…She is a beginner rider but many much more advanced riders have very similar problem. As you can see, she is losing her balance at the top of the rise which will cause the horse to contract the back muscles and remain hollow. I used variation of light seat work (including standing in the stirrups in trot shown on the frame at the bottom – this was her first ever try) to improve her perception of “staying in own balance” which in turn improved her overall balance, leg position and horse’s way of going.


Most horses will relax into forward-down posture when ridden in a well balanced light seat. If this is what many of us want in the warm phase of our schooling sessions, why is light seat not utilised on larger scale as a routine exercise? Large amount of horses work with tense backs and blocked necks – another very good reason for warming such horses up without full weight in the saddle.

The beauty of this exercise is that it allows almost any rider with even relatively no experience in schooling a horse, to feel the benefit of forward down posture and relaxed back. Danger starts when riders get stuck with always riding for relaxation and stretch and never sympathetically teach the horse to use his body in various degrees of collection as well. We shall get back to this some posts later!

Over to you 🙂 Do you use light seat in your regular schooling sessions in the arena? Do you think it’s beneficial? Have you noticed how it can promote athletic relaxation in your horse?


2014 Coaching Offer:

Back from our first Aspire Training GetAway! Read on to find out how it went :)

Italy GetAWay

The idea behind Aspire Training GetAways is to create a very special equestrian training experience for riders of all grassroots levels who love horses and enjoy learning, training and pushing themselves. We hope to learn ourselves from each trip as we go in order to improve the service the more we provide it.

The key ingredients that we are after when searching for the hosts of the GetAways are comfort for riders and horse friendly conditions for the horses. The latter might seem obvious but there are many incredibly beautiful centres and stables around the world where horses have very little to no turn out and can live in quite an artificial environment. This is not necessary for grassroots horses that do not compete at high levels so the search was and always will focus on places that are fun both for human and equines 🙂

Sharon and Lorenzo’s La Fiaba certainly ticks many of our boxes:

Bringing the horses in from the fields
Bringing the horses in from the fields. Photo by: Emma Zadravetz
Bringing the horses in from the fields. Photo by: Emma Zadravetz
A little bit of human comfort 🙂
A little bit of human comfort 🙂

The long weekend aims at creating a full on bootcamp riding activity including horse care, in-hand work, post training video feedback (nice chunk of work for me on this one upon returning home 😉 We like the idea of combining trail riding with lessons, groundwork/in-hand work, body awareness training and yard work – the video below should give you a little more insight into the trip.

magda in hand work
Magda Mucha doing a groundwork/basic in-hand work demo

Our next planned training GetAway at La Fiaba will most likely be in September this year and we are also organising training GetAway to Poland in a very near future 🙂 If you would like to be kept informed on any future training trips please email Wiola on
We hope to bootcamp many more riders in the years to come! 🙂

Huge thank you to our wonderful hosts for plenty of fun, delicious food and great company 🙂 

Aspire at la fiaba collage




So You Want to Improve Your Sitting Trot? Try this :) [plus voucher for Aspire blog readers]

So you want to improve your sitting trot?

Perhaps there is another pesky seat issue you just can’t seem to get right? Maybe you have a young horse or one with sensitive back and you would like to improve your balance and technique?

Check out our seat bootcamp sessions offer below! Come by yourself or get together with a small group of friends from the yard and boost your riding this summer All levels and ages (11+) welcome. These sessions are fun, educational and often enlightening and are suitable to improve your seat for dressage, jumping and just-for-pleasure riding (hacking, schooling at home etc).


All Aspire NewsBook readers who would like to purchase the session(s) please mention “Aspire NewsBook Special Offer” when booking to claim £5 OFF the total fee per person. 

If you are not familiar with how the sessions might look like, please read more about mechanical horse training on HERE or have a look at the couple of videos below:


Anyone welcome 🙂

Riding Posture vs. Riding Mindset

kate d
Rider on Aspire training course learning about the amount of tension she has in her upper body and shoulders even when just lunging her horse. Increasing body awareness is fun and allows the rider to address their effectiveness not only in lesson environment but most of all, when they ride on their own or compete. Photo credit: Jon Smith

A really insightful comment left under my Riding Emotions.. post has made me think about expanding on the subject of riding posture vs rider’s mindset…The comment said:

What I’m learning more and more is that rider’s emotions quite often tie hand in hand with their posture and body language in the saddle. Improve their mindset, and their position improves- and sometimes even vice versa- as many frustrations can be caused by those pesky bad habits. Horses can no doubt read our minds- but they can for sure read our bodies. Position biomechanics, thought process, and resulting performance are all within the same dynamic process.

By Kathma of

Controlling the controllable 

You see, the reason I focus 80% of my teaching efforts on the rider and about 20% on the horse is that, from my experience and observations of thousands of grassroots riders out there, it is the second relation (improved posture = improved mindset = improved performance) that provides the key to sustainable improvement.

As discussed in the comments to the other post, every person comes to this sport/recreation with own set of prejudices, worries, beliefs etc and to address them well might not be possible. Posture or rider’s seat on the other hand, is what all good instructors can teach and control. Sometimes it takes a long time – many years – to achieve lasting postural changes in the saddle but I learnt to never underestimate what effective, balanced, sympathetic seat skill can do to rider’s confidence and emotional control in and out of the saddle…

Understanding movement

It is a well known fact that both adults and children learn best when having fun. It doesn’t have to be a laugh-out-loud type of fun but when something makes you smile, you are bound to remember how it made you feel…Riding training that focuses on improving understanding of the rider’s and horse’s movement rather than just “making moves happen” builds rider’s confidence almost imperceptibly.

posture collage
Understanding meaning of posture and crookedness in rider and horse…simple but very effective exercises that make you think and never forget 🙂 Riders at Aspire Grassroots clinics at Charlton Village Stables, London (left) and Lindrick Livery, North Yorks (right). Photo credits: Bella Giles Smith (left) and Pure Essence Photography (right)

Understanding posture

Could it really be that by sitting in a certain way we can become more confident riders? Could it be that simply the way we sit instils confidence and quality of movement in our horse? And if so, how much focus on our own training need we have alongside our focus on our horse’s way of going?

From my experience, I could describe the answers like this: if I sit on a horse and correct him by 80%, his rider can correct/improve themselves and the horse by 20% (not always in absence of trainer). However, if I establish a 20% correction in the rider, they themselves can achieve a much more positive mindset and the relative 80% improvement in the horse…(also when riding independently).

Do you teach grassroots (non-professional) riders? What are your experiences? How much attention do you pay to rider’s technical and feel abilities vs horse’s way of going? Are you a rider taking lessons? How much of your lesson content with your trainer(s) is focused on you and how much on your horse? Do you think it matters?

Click on image below to watch an interesting talk 🙂

body vs mind

Calling horse owners in London, Berkshire, Surrey – Aspire lessons going mobile

As some of you will know, the Aspire courses have been mainly venues based and non horse owners focused in the last three months and we know that some of you found the distance to Reading too much to travel. Starting from today (6th June 2014) we are much more mobile and available for regular lessons in many areas of London, Berkshire, Surrey, Kent (Orpington) and who knows, maybe somewhere where you are too 🙂

Give Wiola a ring, book your trial lesson now and start a very aspirational summer this year 😀

If you share our training values for grassroots riders and would like to help us to spread the word, please feel free to print out the below poster and pin it at your yard, tack shop, feed shop or just forward the link to this post to your friends. 

berks and london

One morning discovery on how to improve the feel for and ability to ride in balance…

We have all heard it – riders need good balance. We heard Carl Hester say about him doing hundreds half-halts per ride. And what are half-halts in essence if not a call for balance in the horse? We all heard that we need independent hands, independent seat, independent legs…Independent from what exactly? From the movement of the horse that unbalances us. From our own loses of equilibrium…

Created with Nokia Smart Cam
[…] And then, a fortnight ago I went cycling with my father…[…]
These thoughts were on my mind as I was trying to come up with ideas that will both explain physically and let the riders feel the “balance” better. It seems that many of us, once sat in the saddle, struggle with refining our balance. We are “fine” in a slightly chair seat or with a asymmetrically held body, one shoulder higher, waist collapsed – comfortably seated on a horse that “catches us” we don’t perceive to be out of balance. Yet, we are as if we removed the horse from underneath us, all the above issues would quickly brought us to the ground.

I have used Pilates balls and various other exercise routines with good results but still wanted something more. And then, a fortnight ago I went cycling with my father…

I am sure I am not the first one to have this discovery but WOW – try cycling with no holding on to the handle bars and you can get the feel for:

1) upper body balance
2) how only small adjustments can cause big differences in trajectory of the bicycle (horse)
3) how it feels to “keep the horse in front of your leg/back” with just enough impulsion for the ground incline
4) how to relax the extremities (legs and hands) while torso remains in positive tension and balance
5) how even rather small slackness through spine or unnecessary tension makes the “no hands” cycling (or balancing) into a big struggle
6) how dominance of one leg (stepping much stronger into one pedal or another) makes you fight for your line and balance
7) how overall tension or “trying too hard” kills the smoothness of the ride
8) how little is needed to stay in balance if we find the right posture
9) how to turn by adjusting weight shifts rather than by active big movements

Now, you might say, the horse is not a bicycle but having compared my “feel” in the saddle for all above I can confidently say that the execution is incredibly similar 🙂 I have always cycled without holding on for years but only that morning I made the connection.

Have you tried to make these comparisons? What do you think?


Land Management – the significance of livestock

Due to my interest in equine management in relation to hoofcare and how different ways of horse husbandry determine hoof health, I read various land management articles from time to time. Today, I came across a mention of Allan Savory, a ‘grassland ecosystem pioneer’. From link to link as you do (and often spend a bit too much time playing with Google!) I landed on the below video…Now, it is not directly about equine grassland management but if you are not familiar with Allan’s concept do grab a cup of tea/coffee/beer whatever and have a listen. I promise you won’t find it a waste of your time…



I wonder if and to what extent this applies to grazing horses…What are your thoughts?