Do try it at home – improving stickability & balance in the saddle

By Wiola Grabowska

rider balance 2

The first time you try to stand on the gym ball you might conclude it a mission impossible. Your joints might go all stiff, muscles all rigid and you might try to grasp for anything and anyone to grab hold of for balance.

If this sounds a bit like you when your horse is playful and fresh or when he takes off awkwardly over  a jump or when you feel nervous in the saddle for whatever reason, you might want to try this exercise at home.


The ability to relax during an intense effort is something that is possible to learn. That “active relaxation” allows for a positive tension to keep muscles in a state of readiness without the negative tension creeping in and making you rigid and and stilted in your movements.

For the above exercise you’ll need: 

  • a gym ball (65cm should work well unless you are very tall or very short! – go for 75cm if the former or 55cm if the latter)
  • a helper, someone to catch you 😉
  • safe area around you
  • we used a couple of poles to stabilise the ball a little and this worked well for Caitlin’s first go. You can slowly build up towards no outside help.
  • a Pilates band (black one we used gives a good amount of stretch without feeling too much like pulling on a chewing gum!)
  • somewhere to attach the band to (or you can have a second helper holding the band)

Benefits (if you persevere with this exercise) : 

  • huge dose of balance effort – it’s like learning to walk again 😉 You’ll feel like an earthquake and white water rafting happened to you at the same time!
  • you’ll find muscles you never thought you had
  • you’ll make discoveries about your balance that you won’t make walking on an even pavement
  • you’ll learn to breathe through a state of mild panic 😉
  • you’ll learn that your arms can move quietly even if your body is fighting a crazy battle to remain on top of the ball (not to unlike a calm balance required during playful bucking episodes, jumping efforts, XC etc)
  • you’ll learn a different dimension of relaxation, one that perhaps you have not experienced before: relation inside an immense effort…It’s when you are able to let go of negative tension in your muscles but remain engaged and positively toned. The skill that takes riding to higher level.

How to: 

  • stand on the ball (simple but not easy 😉 )
  • the position you are aiming for is a correct squat with your knees in line with your toes, your centre of gravity low (not up in your shoulders – feel like you drop your weight into your hips and like your shoulder blades relax down your ribs)
  • you want to feel supple and loose in your shoulder joint, elbow and wrists
  • your back needs to stay as neutral as possible (avoid hollowing your back or rounding your back). A nice little video about neutral spine below:

Polework: Improving bend and suppleness

By Wiola Grabowska

Kelly & Mojo

Polework is becoming increasingly popular probably because it brings together elements of directed focus and fun.

Here is one of my favourite exercises that helps horse and rider develop better bend and suppleness.

Set up: 

  • you’ll need minimum of 6 poles
  • set them up in a shape of an “S” letter
  • the distances in the middle of the poles are set at about 1m

The How To: 

  • this exercise is done at a walk with you walking alongside your horse’s shoulder. During the change of bend, this gives the rider a good test of timing because you’ll need to continuously monitor the balance through your horse’s shoulders. On one of the turns you will be turning from outside in like you would when riding (rather than pull on inside rein to rescue turns) which again increases appreciation of how much outside shoulder movement is needed for a good turn.
  • start at either end walking slowly and with attention to accurate line through the middle of the poles
  • over the middle pole you’ll need to change direction and that is also the most beneficial and most testing step for your horse. He/she will need to accept your influence without speeding up, tripping over the poles, slowing down or losing balance and falling out/in.
Action caught by: Christine Dunnington Photography

You can do this exercise whilst riding too but I would really recommend giving it a go on the ground first. Rider’s perception of balance always increases via in-hand work/groundwork and that in turn develops “riding feel” in the saddle.


If your horse is young or particularly crooked or not used to working with you on the ground, you can start with this intro exercise.

  • walk with your horse on a 20m circle and try to notice how he/she likes to walk in both direction
  • notice how he/she distributes weight through their body, which foreleg/shoulder tends to carry more weight, which hindleg tends to push stronger than the other
  • notice which way they carry the neck, is it outwards/inwards and when
  • notice where is the horse tending to “lean” on you – is it through their ribcage, shoulders, maybe they just try to turn at you
  • Time: about 20 minutes or so
All action caught by Christine Dunnington Photography 

As you make these observations you will start having more of a picture of your horse’s balance and way of going on both reins.

You want to build this exercise up until you can walk with your horse by your side and be able to “shape” him/her by gentle touches where you feel they brace/fall in/tense up. The horse will learn your touch (i.e. your aids, your body language) is there to help them not to fight you (tension is just another form of fight).

It’s a super exercise that can transform the way your horse perceives your aids so it’s worth trying even with more experienced horses.

What Can Possibly Go Wrong. Part 1 – Looking for troubles, hidden problems and screening for underlying issues. Thermoimaging for horses.

By Wiola Grabowska

SyncEquine - Leo's scan with Lou

In this series we will explore some common and less common issues that tend to happen with horses. We will try to draw from experiences as much as possible as well as link to interesting research and resources out there. All suggestions of what you’d like to read about on here welcomed so feel free to comment below with ideas.

I personally have a keen interest in performance issues in horses and several of my clients’ lessons focus on what might be classed as rehabilitative schooling. This can range from bringing back after period of inactivity, post-injury schooling or working with chronic issues. There are many horses out there in need of such approach so we will shine some light on this subject within this series too.

Today, I’d like to share my experience with one of the newer diagnostic/screening tools out there:  Thermography  for horses. 

Earlier this year I received a very generous offer from Louise Crow, a technician for SyncEquine.

She wanted to donate of a full body scan plus veterinary report to Leo. Whenever I look at a horse with some movement issues I always think how useful it would be to see inside them to plan their management as best as possible without forking out thousands of pounds for usually suggested diagnostic tools like MRI or scintigraphy.

What happens during the scan: 

  • you will ideally need an empty stable or an area where windows and doors can be shut to block out direct sunlight.
  • the camera with which the images are taken with is moved about on a wheeled trolley so there can’t be any bedding around the horse
  • it’s best to remain calm and quiet when standing the horse for the screening, the character of the whole activity is not unlike a traditional photo-shoot, the difference is that the lenses reach a bit deeper under the skin!
  • the full body scan lasts about 45min to an hour, the horse is then exercised lightly (lunged) for 10min and the whole scanning process is repeated in the same order as the first one
  • I assisted Lou with several scans to date and all horses settle well into it as long as handlers stay calm and don’t over-react around the horse. The post-exercise scan is usually much quicker as the horses know what’s expected and placing their bodies in required positions is much easier.

The whole process is very non-invasive and low stress, doesn’t require sedation or any other medications which can be very beneficial to some owners/horses.

As an owner, you provide the horse’s history and explain the reasons for the scan. I did Leo’s as a baseline screening scan as well as to monitor the effects of schooling I do with him. I wanted a veterinary report with the scan as in my opinion the images alone don’t really provide any valuable answers.
The report from the Vets from Leo’s scan came a few days later and gave me plenty to think about, pointing at areas of concern and suggesting ways of addressing them.

Lou will re-scan in a few months so I can see if whether what I am doing is helping with some of the issues and re-evaluate the plan of action.

I think thermo scan can be a very useful tool for pinpointing areas of discomfort, areas where potential injury is likely due to some strain present but not yet manifesting itself via lameness.

Have you used it with your horse? Was it useful? What other diagnostic/screening tools do you or your vet use?

Louise Crow covers Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Surrey and London. If you would like to know more about the scans and how they can help, contact her on: , 07807882034

LEO – ASPIRE JOURNEY: Groundwork for posture

By Wiola Grabowska & Leopold The Last

This snapshot is taken from a short video made for me by Christine. It’s good to watch the horse work “from the side” from time to time so you can catch details you might miss when positioned at his head. 

In Leo Aspire Journey series, Leo and I will share with you our weekly work with photos of any groundwork set ups we do, why we do them and how they work. Leo will share his top tips too 😉

February 27th 

Today’s set up: raised circle poles (I use them at walk to encourage core muscles to work, joints to flex more as well as to focus on the rhythm and bend). I like to stand on a block to see the whole spine of the horse as it lets me observe the quality of the bend through the whole body.


I need to work on stretching Leo’s intercostal muscles (muscles between the ribs) on the left side and this exercise does quite a good job as it makes me pay attention to each step and to how he organises his balance through the middle of his body.
The poles at the background are set for trot at about 1m40 distance in between and I use them to again increase his core engagement, flexion of the front and back legs (stifles, pelvis, hocks).

On photo above you see Leo dropping his neck forward and down. I generally encourage this neck carriage but think it’s important to constantly observe how supple he remains in this posture for it to be of benefit. To test this I can ask for a little flexion at the poll via the lunge line attached to the cavesson. If his reaction is to softly flex as I ask him, I continue, but if he responds by bracing against the flexion or pulling me outwards, I go back to short neck and poll suppling exercises which I will write about another time.

February 28th

Today’s content of the early morning groundwork for Leo is 30 min pole work & 10 min trot & canter work on gradient in the field.


I focus on lateral flexibility in the first part of the session. The three poles just behind Leo are set at random distances and we full pass/side pass in walk over them. He finds it tricky and I change between turn on the forehand and side pass as the first movement is a good introduction to the second.

In side pass/full pass there’s no forward movement like in a leg-yield or half pass, the horse simply moves fully sideways. Adding poles increases difficulty but I do it very slowly, letting Leo take it all in and stop often.

It’s a good exercise for improving proprioception, handler’s skills at maintaining balance and horse’s dexterity. Great suppling exercise too.

After 15 min of the lateral work I move him onto the second exercise. I set a rectangle out of 4 poles with 5th one across. We walk over the corners, then in and out and through in fairly slow walk paying attention to footwork, bend through the whole body and shoulder control.
After 10 min I put him on a circle around the rectangle which gives us 6-8m diameter depending how far from corners I guide him. I jog him for one circle, then walk 3-5 steps, back to jog. I find that the slower the pace in trot, the more weaknesses and strengths can be spotted that can go amiss when horse is driven forward into active tempo. In a slow jog everything happens in slow motion, you can really see which hindleg works harder, which one less so, which foreleg bares more weight, how each hip moves, which one tends to drop more, how back muscles move etc etc
The arena work done, we move into the field for working trot and canter work. It’s sunny but very chilly which keeps the ground firm enough for this work.

Leo’s Top Tips for fellow equines 

  • to avoid whole body bend when she stands in the middle on that block, keep turning slightly in facing her to check if she would give you a treat (never underestimate the cute factor)
  • another tip to avoid the bend, especially on the side you don’t want to be bending, you can walk a little quarters out whilst barging your shoulders inwards a fraction. Just arch the neck, you might get away with murder as long as you arch your neck. Or you might not, depending on your human.
  • drop a tiny more weight onto your outside shoulder but not all in one go, do it so slight that she finds it hard t notice so you can get away with less bend on some quarters of that circle thing
  • lift your legs extravagantly – all humans love it and forget about everything else
  • arch your neck from time to time, again, humans love it and even if that’s all you do you might get a treat
  • over the trot poles, give a mighty push from both hind legs, takes you over them faster and if human isn’t observant you can get away with less belly muscles work!
  • keep checking for treats as often as you can, they are there, you just need to be persistent
  • to avoid side passing, keep going back or forward, you can also jack-knife your body and test their skills in keeping you aligned. Plenty of scope for ideas here to be honest, you can also scatter the poles, I don’t like touching them but know plenty folks that don’t care so give it a good bash.

Happy ground working 🙂






Gilly’s rehab after injury: The plan I used to get my horse from walk to canter

By Mairi Mackay

19th February – First trip out for Gilly and Mairi since the injury. Photo by: Christine Dunnington Photography

It’s been a couple of months since I started working on rehabilitating my horse Gilly from his hock injury late last year, which I wrote about in more detail here. We’re cantering now and will start to pop over a few small jumps soon. This weekend, 11th March, we are going out XC training and while we won’t be doing anything very taxing — some canter work, getting reacquainted with water and maybe a few small jumps — keeping Gilly used to going out and about with other horses and reminding him to stay sane in wide-open spaces is an important part his rehab too.

It’s been a long — and I’m not going to lie – at times tedious couple of months getting to where we are right now. But I have really noticed the benefits of taking things slow and I’ll go into that in a bit more detail later.


He was very weak after being out of work for eight weeks and Wiola and I decided he should spend a month just walking to gradually get him into condition before asking for anything more strenuous. So, Gilly and I went out on lots of progressively longer hacks, starting at 20 minutes and adding five minutes every four or five days until we reached an hour.

During those hacks, I focused on asking Gilly for a really energetic, swinging walk, making sure that he was working his hindquarters. I also focused on his posture: Gilly can hold his neck high and be hollow and above the bit, so I tried to be vigilant for that and ride him forward into the contact when it happened. I also spent a lot of time riding him on a long rein to keep him as relaxed as possible. Later on, I started riding a few steps in a leg yield both ways and big circles and figures of eight in a field on our hacking route with the aim of making him more supple.


Gilly started trot work with a few short bursts of trot, which I built up by one minute a day in intervals with walking rests in between. I kept an eye on how he was coping with the extra workload but, because we had taken things slow in the beginning, he sailed through the extra work unfazed, and I decided he could cope with increasing the trot work by two minutes each day. I also shortened the hacks to around 45 minutes.


When we first started trotting, things were a bit all over the place and he had his nose stuck in the air and was quite excitable. But as we progressed to longer trot sessions and started schooling again, I’ve been able to start to work on the quality of the trot and ask him to work in a better outline. We’ve still got a long way to go but he seems more willing and able to work in a better posture than before his injury.


By the time we were riding about 20 minutes trot each session, which took about three weeks, Gilly got quite fresh, and we decided that he was fit enough to slowly introduce canter work into the mix. I added it in in exactly the same way as trot: Starting with a few short bursts to see how he felt and then adding a minute a day to build up his stamina and condition. I’ve been doing lots of canter work in a big field near our yard so that he has space to stretch his legs and to get us both used to cantering on uneven grassy surfaces for later in the year when we are competing. This plan is just what I am doing. If you are bringing your horse back into work after an injury or even just into fitness after time off, talk it over with someone knowledgeable who you trust like your instructor or your horse’s physiotherapist, so you can work out the best regime for your particular horse.

Core exercises and ground work

As well as the work he’s been doing under saddle, Gilly has also had a few sessions with brilliant physiotherapist Rachel Keeble and I do exercises she has recommended to strengthen his core before and after he’s ridden. Beforehand, I do a series of balancing exercises and afterwards I do carrot stretches. I do the balancing exercises with Gilly after I’ve groomed him and he seems to find them relaxing. As you can imagine, he pretty much lives for the carrot stretches. I’ve also been working with him in hand doing various ground pole exercises (again recommended by Rachel) and turns on the forehand and haunches and leg yields in walk that Wiola has been helping me with. I’ll talk in more detail about the in-hand work and core exercises in another blog, but I think they have been a great addition in the mix for Gilly’s rehab. I think they are gently helping to re-train him to use his body in a better way — in baby steps and very slowly — but I think they are making a difference.

mairi and gilly 2.JPG
Moment caught by Christine Dunnington. Not all photos Chris takes are of “print & hang in gallery” quality. She’s also documenting our sessions in quick snaps, sometimes even with a phone camera 🙂

Although Gilly is at the end of his rehab I will keep doing the in-hand work and pole exercises.  I’m a complete convert to in-hand work. From the ground, it’s easier to see what imbalances and difficulties your horse might be having and it’s helped me to develop my awareness and eye.

When I started a couple of months ago, I was hoping to get Gilly’s hind legs more active and get him off the forehand.

He’s now more willing to walk forward and is getting the hang of using his whole body, although keeping him off the forehand is probably a lifetime of work for both of us! Another of my aims was to improve his suppleness and mobility through the shoulders with lateral work. I think this will take much longer to achieve as he puts a lot of weight on his right shoulder but I’m much more aware of how this manifests in the way he moves and will keep working on it. One real difference I’ve noticed is his willingness to work over his back more and have a better neck posture. I put that down to all the conditioning work we’ve done — and not being obsessed with his neck posture. One of the key things Wiola teaches is to ride the horse from leg to hand and focus on riding the body and not to worry about the neck posture as that will sort itself out once the rest of the body is working properly.

Gilly is almost out of rehab but his training is a work in progress and I’m excited to keep going with everything I’ve learned.

Christine Dunnington: Using training photo collages to raise money for cancer charity

The idea of involving a creative photographer was to add value to what we do within the Academy, spread the happy training vibes and create some interesting, inspirational projects (more on this soon! :-D). Here’s a first little action Chris is running at the moment…:)

Wiola has kindly invited me to write another guest blog post and what better story than my latest ‘away day photo collage for charity’ option open to all Academy members.

My photo collages have always been something I enjoy creating, and the printed and framed version proved to be my most popular photoshoot session last year. Wiola and I have been posting a number of these digital collages over the past few months on both the Aspire Equestrian and Christine Dunnington Photography social media network and they are being well received, which got me thinking….

By asking for a small donation, I could create these small memento collages; I’m happy, you’re happy and I get to support my chosen charity – The Mouth Cancer Foundation – it’s a win-win situation. Full details can be viewed in the poster below.



When my Mum passed away after major surgery for mouth and neck cancer three years ago, I wanted to support a worthy charity relating to cancer research, so I Googled “mouth cancer charity” and it was only then I learnt of The Mouth Cancer Foundation, registered charity number 1109298.; their aim is to spread awareness offer support and advice to patients, careers and health professionals. Since then I donate regularly and my family, friends and my two Golden Retrievers take part in the annual 10km charity walk which takes place in Hyde Park, London, each Summer/Autumn.


I launched this offer just prior to the recent away training session at East Bysshe Cross Country Course and your support is so much appreciated, I am now in a position to donate £30.00.

Thank you all so much.


GO SLOW TO GO FAST PROJECT – reflections on finding own path in the equestrian industry

Photo: Teaching Mairi on Gilly and Caitlin (check her page: Fireblade Equestrian) in-hand with Nugget. Working out how to achieve repetitive quarters of a circle on a 10/15 and 20m circles without losing bend and rhythm. Photo:

There was a time I was angry with the sport for glorifying the kind of riding that I didn’t want to teach. You might say I didn’t need to be involved, didn’t need to be teaching any riders who wanted to compete.

The catch was, the competition riding was all I knew. Having spent ten years surrounded by riders whose predominant goals were to jump bigger and higher regardless the quality of the basic education, train harder and harder and bring home the winnings, I thought theirs were my goals too.

Things changed in my twenties, I learnt more about how horses learn, how riders learn, how a muscle might need thousands repetitions of one movement for it to even become a superficial habit not to mention a reflex. For it to turn into a reflex or a subconscious reaction? You need years of focused practice (not just hours of riding) for that.

How mental and physical training are both equally important. Many horses struggle with a simple task of a walk, trot and canter on a long rein without becoming inverted in the posture, crooked, tense in the back, uncooperative or plain dangerous through lack of control. I learnt this means that the foundations of mental and physical comfort and understanding of training are missing.

It was out of these experiences and a desire to teach good foundations that The Aspire Academy was born and I’ve been finding my ways to shape the job accordingly ever since but have never quite settled on the idea of quitting the involvement in the competition realm. In fact, I found the grassroots levels of the sport most satisfying and rewarding to be involved in.

There are many things I have always loved about it: the athletic pursuit, the idea of bettering and testing oneself one step at a time, the training process of both the horse and the rider, the motivational kick you get when you know the preparation time scale, the road trip adventures, seeing new places and new venues, watching the riders I teach out of training environment, catching ideas of what next to work on.


I wanted to blog about various training related concepts hence the Aspire blog was born too and at some point in 2015/2016 when I was posting regularly, this little blog became reasonably popular. I started receiving suggestions of cooperations, adverts and companies asking for product reviews. At the same time, I also started receiving many more emails with questions from the readers.

Majority of the questions I could classify as “could you give me a quick fix to…”

Imperfect moments happen all the time. I like them. They are part of learning. Part of allowing horse’s brain to learn. Gemma could have irritated Ozzy’s mouth there by moving the bit and “making him stay round” in this first rein-back attempt. Or I could never post this photo anywhere now that he goes back with a relaxed neck and back most of the time. But I think it’s good to see these kind of moments too. (I am helping there on the ground so Ozzy can connect his knowledge of going back to touch on the point of shoulder with Gemma’s aids from the saddle). Photo by Christine Dunnington but altered on Instagram. 

In my day-to-day teaching this pursuit of a quick solution is less common because the riders interested in my way of training will have generally be briefed into the Academy work prior the commitment to longer term lessons.

With over 20 riders in regular training, an 8 week old puppy arriving in my life in spring 2016 and needing constant attention, time becoming sparser than ever and an overwhelming feeling that nobody wanted to read about it taking several months of regular, focused practice for each training task to have a chance to feel somewhat confirmed, I blogged less and less until this space became very quiet indeed.

This is about to change 🙂

Post lesson chat: Kelly with Mojo and Mairi with Gilly. Photo: 

Posts planned schedule: Wednesdays, Thursdays, Sundays and Mondays.

My reflections on finding the way in the industry will form one of the series planned. I’d like to explore here different coaching qualifications, different training systems, training values and how to marry it all together to create a career/job/life path that feels fulfilling and long lasting. Or at least, how I am trying to do so.

I hope it brings inspiration and a guidance for those instructors-to-be or slightly lost- for-purpose- coaches out there 🙂

On this note, if you are an instructor/coach/trainer who focuses on a thorough rider and/or horse education, mainly without the use of gadgets that shape horse’s posture, we would love to hear from you for another project in the pipeline…

Email  Wiola at with a title: “Go slow to go fast project”