Breeding my little horse of a lifetime. Part 3: Moving again, preparing for foaling and udder watching

Story by Kelly Hill

Tilly now and then
Left: Tilly in her new field, free from daffodils! Right: Tilly some 8 years ago

Moving the pregnant mare

Looking at Tilly surrounded by poisonous plants in her maternity field was making me more nervous by the minute. We had spent a lot of time (2 months) doing the field up and making it as foal friendly as possible in any spare time we could find. Fields in our area aren’t easy to come by as we are on the outskirts of London and not exactly spoilt for choice.

Read part 2: Counting costs, watching Tilly grow and a drama with daffodils

It was an old orchard, so there were sycamore trees as well as the daffodils. They are a flipping nightmare as their seeds and seedlings can carry toxins that cause Atypical Myopathy. The field also had a yew hedge, apple and oak trees, all of which I didn’t know about, as we arrived in November when the trees were bare. Daffodils covered the majority of the field and I didn’t want to risk the horses consuming any of them, especially as they chose to mainly graze amongst them (of course they did!). Putting my paranoia aside, the horses probably wouldn’t have touched them, but a foal probably would. They consume anything and everything, just like a naughty little puppy, and I wasn’t prepared to take the risk with my horses or the foal. My commute to the field was also a problem sometimes as I had to coordinate with London traffic.

I suppose I should have thought about logistics beforehand, but I never think about these things until after. I just do it and then worry about it! I needed to move Tilly quickly as she was fast approaching her due date and I was advised by the lovely people on ‘The Foaling Hub’ Facebook page that, from previous experience, it would be better to move her sooner rather than later. Thankfully, there was a field available for rent just 20 minutes drive from my house and we moved Tilly together with her little Welsh Section A companion pony for what we hoped would be the final time.

Tilly new field

She’s happy and settled there now and I have the current field until August time, so I will see how things go. I will either move Tilly and the foal one last time before weaning or separate them slightly early if the foal is no longer dependant on Mum and take Tilly home. I plan to look for a grass livery option for youngsters once the foal is ready. People ask if I would rather Tilly had a colt or a filly. I think a filly would be easier, but I would prefer a gelding long term. A filly would be easier at the start because some people are funny about putting colts in their fields. I also wouldn’t have to worry about chopping the colt’s bollocks later on. Sometimes they only drop one testicle and you either have to wait for the other to drop before castrating — which means turnout options can be limited — or they can retain one which makes them a “rig”. This is when they have stallion-like tendencies but visually appear to be a gelding.

Tilly udder 3
Some of the hundreds photos of her changing milk bar that I take daily…

Getting ready for the birth

There’s a saying that “the foal picks the day and the mare picks the hour”. Knowing when mares will go into labour isn’t straightforward, so most people keep hem stabled with CCTV installed to monitor their behaviour. I’ve chosen to let Tilly foal outside with the option of a field shelter if she wishes, although I wish I could have CCTV on a drone constantly above her field .

We have no wi-fi here for any technology that I could use. What I have got, though, is a scope with night vision. I borrowed it from a friend who uses it for deer stalking at night. It means that rather than disturbing her, I can put the scope on and just look (see similar one here).

Tilly and Rosie

I’ve got my foaling kit ready. Among plenty of important things, it includes a little bottle in case Tilly rejects the foal and a tiny leather headcollar. I also bought a foaling prediction kit to test the PH levels in Tilly’s milk when foaling is due. A certain level (6.2 is the lucky number) will tell you that the mare is imminent.

Apparently, maiden mares are not very cooperative. Some won’t even bag up much before foaling and you can just come one morning and they’ve popped the bubba out! I’m hoping that Tilly will give enough indication nearer the time that I don’t have to spend too many sleepless nights camping out .

Tilly belly and KellyIf she follows the rules, which she has so far, mares start to develop an udder 4-6 weeks before their due date. Some mares leak milk before birth, which allows you to test the PH levels, although it’s not wise to force strip a mare of any milk. You should only test if they are leaking. A very good sign you are close is when they start to wax up (when wax like beads of colostrum appear at the end of mare’s teats). This tends to happen 24-48 hours before they go into labour, although this is not the case for all mares.

Other signs include the hind-end muscles relaxing and slackening off and the vulva
becoming elongated and opening a centimetre or two. Nearer the time, I’m going to watch as many foaling videos as I can so I know what to look out for and when to call the vet. I want to know how long to wait before I start worrying about something. I have my usual vet on standby. I’ll ring him first and if he can’t come there is a practice on my doorstep so it should be fine to get someone here quick.

I want to be present myself too! I’d probably be tempted to assist and help pull it out, you should have seen my dog having puppies, I practically gave birth for her! I’d be relieved if I came and the foal was just there, but I’d be gutted I’d missed it. How often do you get to see horses giving birth?
To be continued….Part 4: When Tilly gives birth! Due date in a couple of weeks! 

Behind the scenes tilly storyStory put together by Wiola Grabowska

Edited by Mairi Mackay

Photo: Listening to Kelly recalling all the events leading up to the current day – less than a month to due date…

Breeding my little horse of a lifetime. Part 2: Counting costs, watching Tilly grow and a drama with daffodils

Story by Kelly Hill

Tilly in April 2010

Knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t do it again. Not like I’ve done it with Tilly, anyway. I have a nice Welsh mare that I’d like to breed but would like her to run with a stallion and be covered naturally.

For the kind of foal I wanted out of Tilly, I needed a good stallion. Natural covering would never be allowed with those more valuable horses.

I wouldn’t breed Tilly again. It’s too stressful. I worry that I will either lose the mare or lose the foal. Hopefully, it will be all worth it.

Read part 1: Choosing the stallion, measuring follicles and hoping for a heartbeat 

The first scan back home

Alas, we made it to the 28-day scan. I could see the heartbeat on the vet’s monitor. The baby was there! No regrets!

tilly 2 heart

It was all good so she went back into work. I rode her until the day I moved her in November last year to the field she was supposed to have the foal in.

I wasn’t sure if I was going to move her from my yard until I really had to, but a friend of mine with another pregnant mare found a field to rent that suited us both.

Cruising along

Tilly collage
Top left: November 2016, Bottom left: December 2016. Top right: January 2017, Bottom right: February 2017. She appears to be changing shape depending on time of the day. Sometimes she looks huge, sometimes her belly disappears somewhat. Apparently it is all to do with the position of the foal that can lay flat or “starfish” some days!

So far, with about 20 days to go, Tilly has had a problem-free pregnancy. She had herpes vaccinations at five, seven and nine months. People worry a lot about pregnant mares aborting their foal. Equine herpes virus can cause abortion in pregnant mares at any stage of the pregnancy.

One girl I know of had a mare who aborted at seven-and-a-half months. She was 15, the same age as Tilly. Someone on The Foaling Hub , a Facebook group I am a member of, had a mare that aborted three weeks early, so the fear is always there at the back of my mind.

Mares gestate for an average of 340 days but they can give birth from as early as 320 days or as late as 365. The foal grows the most in the last trimester. It’s all really slow and small, then it goes from a “rabbit” to a foal!

I keep a constant eye on Tilly’s changes and udder development and take photos most days to make comparisons. When mares get closer to foaling (around 4-6 weeks from delivery) their udders start to change. When they begin to “wax up” and produce milk you know you are close!

Early days…

Feeding mum

At first I grazed Tilly in a field that had been rested, so I just had her on Alfa A and Youngstock mix . For the last three months of the pregnancy I put her on Bailey’s Stud Balancer because it has all the vitamins and minerals pregnant mares need, especially in the last trimester when the foal grows the most. Tilly held her weight well over winter and is looking great.

Tilly 2 blog

If I could afford it, I would have left her at the stud to foal but I had already spent nearly £3,000.

I drive to Tilly’s field every morning and as I get closer and I get nervous that I will find her with the foal aborted. When she is looking peaceful, I think: “Oh my God, she is looking lethargic!” I look at her back legs and if they are clean with no discharge, I think “Phew”!

Scary googling

If something worries me I Google it to within an inch of its life! Google is the bane of my life. It’s terrifying what you can find on there.

I have joined various online breeding and foaling groups. The one I like most is The Foaling Hub. It’s been the best page ever. They are all so nice and helpful with any questions or worries I have had. Most of the members have a lot of experience and some have their own studs. Many have had BOGOF or “buy one get one free” experiences, which is when you buy a horse not knowing they are in foal. Then spring arrives and they pop out a foal.

Tilly from underneath
Waiting game…

Breeding costs

My first advice to someone who wants to breed their dream horse would be to check out the costs first. For me, it has been way more expensive than I thought it would be. If I knew it was going to cost me nearly £3,000 before the foal was even on the ground I might have reconsidered.

I don’t regret it at all, though. I wouldn’t have done it if I wanted to sell the foal. It wouldn’t be worth it because before the foal is born I will have spent more than its value. I would say only do it if you are going to keep the foal.

Having said that, I maybe did more than your average experienced breeder would have done. I had more scans than I needed to and I kept her at the stud longer than I needed to. Usually the mares go home straight after insemination, but I kept her there for an extra few weeks to be sure she had took and to minimise the risk of her reabsorbing the foetus. Maybe I could have cut my costs, but I knew it was something I was only doing once so I wanted to do it properly.

The daffodils


One of the most stressful moments of this entire journey was in March/April time when thousands of daffodils sprang up covering one third of the mares’ maternity field. They are highly poisonous plants and every part of them, if eaten, can kill. Daffodil toxicity symptoms can include loss of coordination, gastrointestinal upset and convulsions.

There was a sea of them in Tilly’s field and she was attached to the other pregnant mare with two months to go until her due date. I wanted to move her but had nothing lined up and we had put so much effort into making the current field foal safe.

Except, now it wasn’t safe at all.
Story to be continued…Part 3 coming Sunday 30th April 2017

Behind the scenes tilly storyStory put together by Wiola Grabowska

Edited by Mairi Mackay

Photo: Listening to Kelly recalling all the events leading up to the current day – less than a month to due date…


Please see the story of Dotty, the pregnant mare that tragically might not survive giving birth to her foal. Urgent foster mare search is on (by 25th of April 2017) – please see: Dotty’s Journey


Training show at Oaklands Collage

Mairi Mackay aka Mary Macken (as the commentator decided to re-name her) and Farmer’s Boy (Gilly)

As part of the programmes for all the riders on regular Academy training I offer support at events. I do question my sanity sometimes with this as it does mean crazy amount of hours out and about but seeing the riders riding other than on home soil is pretty invaluable for any further lessons plans.

Warm ups are stressful and often the horse “does” the class well or not so well depending on how he/she is ridden before he/she goes in the ring.  From teaching point of view it is really interesting how different the riders ride in the warm up at a show in comparison to the simulated warm up at home. Day and night. Nerves, horse’s behaviour, unpredictable environment, real or perceived pressure from family and friends – everything together creates a rather buzzy cocktail 😉

The today’s show was a small, unaffiliated show – jumping show and it gave me plenty of ideas for the London gang. Note to self: take a chair next time! 


Behind the Scenes: Preparing the sessions contents for the Spring Intensive Training Camp

From the Academy’s “Admin office” by Wiola Grabowska

Usually, about 2 weeks prior the Camps, I like to have a several hours put aside to quietly reflect on what I want the riders to learn and how best to deliver the sessions so they are not overwhelming to the horses.


Half way through brainstorming Intensive Training Camp ideas between Dr Klimke, Dr Heuschmann, Susanne Von Dietze, Beth Baumert, Major Lindgren, Anja Beran , more other interesting trainers and myself 🤓😁 It’s hard to get into a properly good , thorough thinking zone where ideas slot together and I have a clear plan for each rider but love it when it works.

I used to attend various intensive clinics and events, some were very educational, some a complete waste of money. It was obvious which trainer did some preparation and who just assumed they were good enough to ad lib on the go…With over 20h of coaching sessions a weekend in various form, I don’t trust my ad lib skills and like to have a good plan in my mind!

A few weeks before the Camp, I ask the riders to set themselves a few goals for the intensive training weekend. The goals themselves are not that important but I believe the best learning happens when a person has some ownership of the learning process. Otherwise, they are just being told what to do with no critical thinking involved. The process of thinking about what one tries to achieve is of value by itself.

Jazz doesn’t understand Admin. She’d rather I was out there in the arena with her eating horse poop and chasing shadows 😉 

Once I receive the riders’ goals, I convert them into potential training session(s). Some riders set goals that would need 100 sessions to become a reality. Some have a better understanding of a training process but at the end of the day, they all provide me with fabulous feedback on what to teach next.

I also set my own goals for each rider and convert those into training session(s) too. Then, I find a middle ground content, something that will progress the rider, help progress the horse, be challenging but hopefully fun too.

This time I also booked Clare from RiderCise to run a 2h warm up session for the riders on one of the days.

ridercise website

Every Camp I try to mix and match off horse training with training in the saddle so I am hoping to work with many different professionals out there who can complement ridden training with rider-as-an-athlete specific exercises. Clare’s programme intrigued me so I am very much looking forward to meeting her and getting to know more about how she works with the riders.

The overall plan is now ready with preliminary timings set up. I have a large picture of what I want to work on with each group and now it’s all down to smaller details like specific exercises as well as variants of them in case the main ones don’t work. I know all my riders fairly well as the Camps are currently only for my regular riders (I do plan to open the Camps to more riders soon 🙂 ) so want to make sure the Camp sessions bring a bit of fresh set of challenges, not just a multiplied home sessions.

The intensive training weekends are also a good challenge for me. As trainers/coaches we can become reliant on what we already know and stop pursuing new ways of achieving the same thing. The research for the Camps’ sessions those few times a year keeps me open minded and always searching for answers.

Eight days to go!








The dreaded rising trot without stirrups – why do it and how it can help you with your riding skills

By Wiola Grabowska
Rider: Mairi M.
Horse: Boo


Most riders I know and teach wouldn’t describe rising trot without stirrups as their favourite seat development exercise but I do rate it and use it as often as possible.

Here’s why:

  • It’s one of a very few exercises that relatively quickly change a “busy” rider into a much more organised and “quiet” one.
  • It is very difficult to do rising trot with no stirrups if the rising mechanism is wrong, it will simply be a torture on many levels!
  • Almost by default, this exercise, when done well, only rewards the rider when they organise their body in optimal position and join the horse’s movement well. This in turn is a great ingredient in developing better feel for nuances in a stride, for timings of half-halts etc
  • It strengthens the muscles in rider’s legs and core. When done well, it will help the rider achieve optimal, positive muscle tension. It works well for riders who ride with “too much muscle” and the riders who ride floppy. The ones who put too much muscular effort in, will get tired very fast. The floppy ones will need to dig in and discover deep skeletal muscles to stabilise themselves.
  • It doesn’t require fancy equipment, all you need is a relatively calm horse that is used to lunge work. I wouldn’t do it on young horses unless you are an experienced rider looking to refine some aspects of your seat. I would under no circumstances do it on nervous horses, horses with history of back pain or those that seem to over-react to rider’s corrections. Stay safe and keep the horse happy 😉
  • Each phase of the trot will be distinctly “feelable” – the rider can catch the moment she/he is being lifted and how much tension she/he needs in her inner and outer thigh.
  • There is nothing to brace against (stirrups) so as long as the rider is well guided by the trainer. she/he can really work on the right feel of the thigh and the hip initiating the rise rather than push from the stirrups (more on rising trot mechanics HERE)



  • I like to warm up the rider off the lunge in walk, trot and canter both to make sure the rider is ready and the horse too
  • We start with a slow sitting trot to feel for frequency of the stride before starting short periods of rising trot with individual corrections
  • We build it up from 5- 6 rises to 5-6 minutes of rising trot 😉
  • We then practice smooth changes between sitting and rising trot back to sitting
  • Depending on my goals for the rider I might have them holding the reins (as Mairi is on photos in this post) but more often than not I prefer to do this with no rein connection so the rider can fully focus on their seat.

If you do try it, build it up slowly. Make sure you have good guidance to correct you in an effective and long-lasting way. Simply suffering in rising trot with no stirrups won’t make  you into more sensitive, more aware rider.

Happy training!

To watch a short video from Mairi’s training rising trot without stirrups, head over to our Instagram, just click image below to watch it:

InstagramVideo Rising Trot No Stirrups

Breeding my little horse of a lifetime. Part 1: Choosing the stallion, measuring follicles and hoping for a heartbeat

Story by Kelly Hill


Oakham Veterinary Hospital Stud welcomed us with fields full of mares and foals. Mares that looked much more expensive than Tilly, who I worked for three years to call mine. I had thought about breeding her for years, constantly weighing up the pros and cons. I always thought of the worst case scenario. Every time. But I finally made the decision.

I came off the trailer with my little coloured cob and the manager’s facial expression dropped. I told him I knew her breeding was nothing special. “The pony is special to you,” he said, “that’s the most important thing”. The pony he called her! At 14.3hh my very special mare was there to breed to Royaldik, an Oldenburg licensed stallion known to refine and improve many mares.

It had taken me a long time to get to that day, with many ups and downs, and even longer from then until now, the final stretch of Tilly’s pregnancy. She’s due in 26 days and I’d like to take you on this stressful but exciting journey with me, from when I started looking at potential stallions to the day I will meet Tilly’s baby.

Swimming in the sea 

Decision made, now to find a dad

She’s basically my dream horse. I love her. I’ve always wanted to breed Tilly but couldn’t decide on the right time as you have to sacrifice riding them for a whole year, really. But, it was good timing last year, she got arthritis and had on and off soundness issues. I had Una, my other horse, and wasn’t doing much with Tilly.

The first thing I did once I’d made the decision was to go to The British Bred Stallion Event  at Bury Farm to look at potential stallions. I decided to go with The Stallion Company .

The stud fee was €900 Euros plus vat (nearly £1000) and it comes with a live foal guarantee. That means that if the foal doesn’t live past 48 hours, you can access more sperm from the same stallion with no fee and use it on any mare. This mattered to me when choosing the stallion as I knew it would be harder for Tilly to get pregnant because, at 15, she is older. So, being able to try again on Tilly or another mare was a good safeguard.

Tilly jump
Tilly jumping at home

I wanted to breed something big and was looking for a stallion that would complement Tilly’s faults. She doesn’t have the best paces, so I wanted something with very good movement. A good trot, strong canter.

Royaldik had a beautiful trot. Holy smokes! He wasn’t at the Bury Farm show, but I saw him on the website and looked through videos. 

I eventually got to see him in real life but I chose him before I met him. I don’t think he’s done that much but his young stock is proven. Mary King used him last year and late superstar eventer Headley Britannia was covered by him.


Photos used courtesy The Stallion Company. In France: Ken Rehill +33 789 55 33 41. In Ireland: Kim Wade +353 87 356 8539

I emailed the company about his temperament. They told me how lovely he was. And he was. I met him while Tilly was at the stud and they let me spend some time with him. I went into his stable with him and he was very friendly and quiet.

Some others at the stallion showcase I was allowed to see before and afterwards were jumping all over the place. They were nippy, too much testosterone. Considering Royaldik was jumping on a dummy every other day he was really chilled.

Photos used courtesy The Stallion Company. In France: Ken Rehill +33 789 55 33 41. In Ireland: Kim Wade +353 87 356 8539

The mare check

The first test Tilly needed was a pre-breeding conformation test. Some horses have very bad vulva and hind end conformation and shouldn’t carry a foal as they struggle with giving birth. She then had various tests done to detect any potential diseases endangering pregnancy. They all came back clear. She was ready to go.

Tilly certificates
Good to go! 

The next thing was to have her scanned to predict how far along in oestrus she was by measuring the diameter of the follicles. Once they reach certain size (35-40mm) you know the mare will ovulate. When the vet said Tilly’s looked like she was going to ovulate within 24 hours I ordered the sperm. It’s costs £140 each time to order it because it is delivered by a special courier and charged for collection off the stallion. I waited all the next morning for it to arrive!


Royaldik semen
Whole morning waiting for this special delivery! 


The vet I used is not my usual vet. My vet of 12 years is based quite far away and independent so was unable to commit to multiple scans of her follicles and be able to be there at the exact time I would need him to inseminate her so I opted for another vet I knew that was familiar with the breeding process.

On re scanning Tilly her follicles hadn’t quite reached the diameter he predicted. It meant she wasn’t going to ovulate. The vet inseminated her anyway. I didn’t know it at the time, but it can cause infection. All I knew was she didn’t take.

My usual vet warned me that Tilly might be too old to take. I knew I was running out of options as ordering sperm each time was really expensive. So, I thought I might as well go all in and send her to a stud, somewhere where they know exactly what they are doing, and have her inseminated there.

The Stud



I went for Oakham because Royaldik was already standing there and his fresh semen could be used. I was told that using fresh semen increases chances of successful insemination.

Tilly was at the stud for nearly three months and that was expensive: £12.50 a day plus a package to include all scans etc.. at £220 per cycle (season)+ £120 in foal fee (payable if mare scans in foal at 15 days). She was there so long because a uterine infection was discovered after the second time she was inseminated. She had fluid on her uterus and the problem was most likely caused by the first attempt when she was inseminated and hadn’t ovulated. She was treated with antibiotics, then a long wait of six weeks for the infection to clear and for her to come into season again. By that time, I decided that it was to be the last try. If she didn’t take, I was going to bring her home as it was getting too expensive.

tobiano gene testing
I always wanted to know if Tilly is destined to have a coloured foal so a friend of mine paid for the test for my birthday. Tilly has a 50/50 chance of giving birth to a coloured foal.

When the stud manager phoned and told me they had successfully inseminated her I didn’t believe him! It was 7th June. I’ll never forget that. Two weeks later Tilly was scanned to check if she took. I was waiting for that phone call and the whole day was a killer, but she had conceived and scan didn’t show any signs of twins. I will never forget that feeling.


on way to Stud
Arriving back home

I brought her home and waited. On 5th July she was booked for the “28 day heartbeat scan” and I was sure the baby wouldn’t be there!

Story to be continued…Part 2 coming: Monday 24th April 2017


Behind the scenes tilly story

Story put together by Wiola Grabowska

Edited by Mairi Mackay

Photo: Listening to Kelly recalling all the events leading up to the current day – less than a month to due date…





Progressive jumping exercise to train correct canter lead landing

By Wiola Grabowska

Rider: Sasha Eastabrook

Horse: Boo

Videos available on our Instagram, details at the bottom of the post

Blog 1 and 2
BENEFITS: An ability to land on the lead of choice after the jump helps the rider to navigate courses of jumps with accuracy and balance. Coming to the jump from a turn on the wrong lead often causes unpredictable, unbalanced take offs and poles down. It is also unsettling for many horses, affects impulsion in the canter and line of travel. Maintaining balance is the key to calmer rounds, helps the horse to think and do its best. 
  • Set up a jump on centre line of your arena and start with poles on the ground. I prefer to keep all jumps small, cavaletti style so if the rider makes mistakes, the exercise can be repeated several times without overstraining the horse. Same goes for the horse – if you are working with a young or green horse, small jumps set him up to win rather than catch him up. Trot over the poles in a figure of eight on two 10m circles (or bigger if your horse struggles with balance on smaller circles) paying attention to change of direction over the poles: remember to keep your shoulders parallel to the horse’s shoulders and look to the side you are planning to turn to, turn with your outside rein close to the neck and inside rein acting as an opening rein (slightly away from the neck or further away if needed). Repeat until you feel a nice flow to the exercise with the horse understanding that change of your weight aids over the poles mean change of direction. Allow your weight to drop slightly onto the inside stirrup as you prepare the turn. This aid you will carry with you over to the next stages of the exercise.
  •  Set up a small X-pole and proceed to canter. We are going to repeat the pattern again by riding a figure of eight. Approach on the left canter lead, land on the right and vice versa. Start on the rein on which your horse’s canter is a little weaker. This way, you are giving him an incentive to land on his preferred lead after the jump and since that is what we are after, we are creating the best situation for a successful outcome. Over the jump repeat exact same aids for change over that you used in trot: look precisely to your side, open the inside rein towards the new turn, shift slightly more weight into inside stirrup. Turn in the air, not upon landing as aiding on landing is too late. Prepare on take off, aid in the air. At first you might find yourself too late with your timings – keep practicing 🙂

Blog 4pics

  • Once the above flows well, you have a feeling of the horse always staying in front of your leg without rushing or slowing down and you are able to calmly navigate on a figure of eight, you can add more jumps that complement your choice of direction. Example of our set up below:

Sasha end exercise

X-pole on the left lead, land right, continue right over a small upright, land right and continue on the right lead to the X-pole again, land left, continue left to a small upright/cavaletti on the left rein. I chose to have a smaller jump on the left as that is Boo’s weaker canter so again, the set up always is in horse’s favour so the rider can relax and learn.

Super ridden Sasha! Videos from this session available on Aspire Equestrian’s Instagram under today’s date (16/04/2017). 

Warm up idea before jumping lessons. Stress control, balance control & muscle workout in one

By Wiola Grabowska

Mairi and Gilly. Photo copyright: Christine Dunnington Photography

Everything happens fast between the jumps. Small losses of balance on route from one jump to another can become big issues when getting closer to the fence. Here’s just one scenario: breathing becomes shallow (some riders seemingly stop breathing altogether!) and/or fast, muscles brace, tension creeps up the shoulders and inhibits soft hands. Nerves can be overwhelming but so can the speed with which decisions need to be made: a little more impulsion, a little less, wide turn, sharper turn, shorter stride, longer stride, light seat, full seat…then there are things around the arena the horse can spook at. Jumping filers that can cause run outs and stops.

Caitlin and Mollie. Photo copyright: Christine Dunnington Photography

It is difficult for a one horse rider to create enough training challenges to work on various training behaviours with sufficient repetitions so if you are a learner rider learning to jump or you find some of the above issues apply to you, have a play with the below exercise as your warm up.

You will need:

  • a gym ball
  • something to hold on to
  • distractions for further challenge 😉


  1. Stand on the gym ball. This in itself will give you a raised heart rate and muscle workout similar to being taken off with on a long one and landed with the reins flapping 😉 Don’t give up if you can’t do it at the first go. Keep climbing on that ball, hang on to something near you and don’t let go!
  2. Once you can remain with both feet firmly on the ball for several seconds, assume a light seat/two point seat position and try to become aware of the tension through your upper body so you can release it by breathing and consciously relaxing your shoulders/neck/arms.


You want to remain in this position coordinating tiny shifts of weight that need to happen in your body in order to stay put. The feeling of the world slipping from underneath you is going to be there with you but don’t give up, breathe, consciously look around, smile, check if you can move your arms as if releasing the reins.


Calmer, more aware state of mind when in the saddle. Heightened awareness of where the tension is in the body and how to release it. Stronger core. Stronger mind.

If all goes well, you can introduce variety of distractions 😉

Have fun 🙂 



All photos in this post are copyright Christine Dunnington Photography

Stiff, unsettled neck/head/contact – helpful suppling exercises to try with your horse

Neck suppling ideasBy Wiola Grabowska

This subject is coming your way thanks to a little Twitter conversation I had last night on #EquineHour with Tail End Jewellery.

I like to think about the horse’s neck and head as if they were a barometer of what happens in the rest of the horse’s body. For this reason I generally prefer not to use any training devices that place the head and neck in a “desired” position.

Sometimes we will deal with the actual physical issues within the neck, head or poll but many a time these issues resolve or greatly improve once the body balance had been addressed.

It is common to try to immobilise the unsteady neck and head via stronger rein connection, variety of bits or perhaps with gadgets like draw reins. This might give the rider an illusion of stability or control but it is not a long term, wellness focused solution.

Body issues that can manifest themselves in neck stiffness or excessive movement of the the neck and head include misalignment (natural crookedness or rider caused crookedness), subtle and low grade lameness, back pain, hollow backed way of going as well as simple loses of balance in a young/green horse.

Before assuming the neck issue is The Issue, I personally prefer to address all the above possibilities. If I work with a rider who is also learning own balance and stability while remaining supple, the neck stiffness or contact issues are secondary to the rest of the body.

However, here is a suppling exercise to try on the ground – best with your instructor or a physiotherapist watching if you have any doubts as to whether you are doing it correctly. It might give you as a rider a better insight into the degree of tension your horse is really holding in the neck: 

Kelly and Mojo – poll flexions. Something has grabbed Mojo’s attention so he is more focused on that rather than on what is being asked but overall, the exercise has a nice, neck relaxing effect on him. Photo by:  

Poll flexion in-hand. Place one hand on the horse’s neck just behind the ears and the other on the nose just above the noseband. Both hands should be relaxed and never exerting any force on the horse. The “nose hand” acts in a slow, soft on-off manner to bring the nose towards you a little. Visualise all the structures around the atlas/axis joint loosening up as you softly bring the nose to the side. With your “neck hand” you can stroke the muscles you want relaxed adjusting the degree of pressure to what your horse perceives most relaxing. In the photo above, Mojo spotted something in the distance half-way through the release so although he is flexed at the poll he is also fixed in that position. The feel you are going for is one of release of all tension so pay close attention to yourself too…Any impatience or tension in you will affect the horse’s reactions. Horse’s eyes might close a little and ears go sideways a fraction too. Many horses find this exercise really relaxing once they realise there is no force in it. Done regularly and gently, it can help with habitual tension carried in the neck and poll due to issues further down the body.  Repeat a few times on each side but bare in mind some horses can be protective about any parts of their body that feel a bit “off” so they can try to pull the head away or shake you off. Don’t force the issue, just repeat calmly a little bit each day.

Caitlin and Mollie (around Christmas 2016 time hence Santa hat! 😉 ) 
Sofija and Jack – flexion right in-hand

The flexions in-hand can be developed into ones in-motion to help with alignment and relaxation on a circle as on photos below. If this is something you would like me to blog more about please let me know in the comments and I will add more on this next time.


Please consult your physiotherapist or a vet if in any doubt whether these exercises are suitable for your horse. 




Reflections on learning Shoulder In

by Mairi Mackay

Teaching your horse shoulder in can have loads of benefits. All horses are ‘sided’ ( i.e. in very basic terms they have a rein that they find it easier to bend/balance on.) and shoulder in is a basic lateral exercise that can help your horse improve straightness. This has a myriad of benefits and books have been written about it! Shoulder in is also a great gymnastic exercise to help your horse become more flexible, strengthen his hindquarters (as it is a bit like a weight lifting exercise targeting each hind leg) and develop balance.

Mairi and Gilly walk
Photo by Christine Dunnington Photography. Starting from slow, deliberate walk where horse and rider focus on each other. A must before any lateral movement is taught.

For more on straightness read this and that 🙂 

One of the best ways to describe shoulder in is to imagine your horse walking along the side of the arena with the wall or rail on one side. It will look like your horse’s shoulders are coming away from the wall at a small angle and the inside hind leg steps deeper underneath the body. To help visualise this, many people recommend thinking of the horse taking the first step of a 10-metre circle and carrying on straight along the wall holding this shape.

If you are standing in front of a horse performing shoulder in you will see the horse’s hooves moving on three tracks: The inside front foot is on one track, the outside front and inside hind on the middle track and the outside hind on the other.

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Mairi and Gilly – first go at positioning for shoulder-in in walk

One of my goals this year is to teach Gilly more lateral work in-hand for all the above benefits, and so in a recent in-hand session I started working on the basics with him. My equipment was a lunge cavesson and lead rope and a schooling whip.

We started off by working on improving his walk to halt transition. I walked in front of him backwards and gradually slowed down, lifted his head gently asked him to transfer his weight onto the hind legs as he halted. Starting with a simple exercise like this seemed to help him focus his attention and ease us into the rest of the session.

The next exercise we practiced before moving on to teaching shoulder-in was turn on the forehand. It helped Gilly understand that he needs to do something with the hind leg I touch him on with the whip which provided a building block for shoulder-in aids later.

I started attempting shoulder in by walking along the rail of the arena holding Gilly’s head straight and then putting my hand on his shoulder. This focused my attention on angle my body forms with the line of Gilly’s travel. I then asked him to bring his front end off the track a little using my “cavesson hand” (the hand I held lead rope with) and tried to assume correct angle myself while pointing the whip towards Gilly’s inside hind leg which he needed to engage more underneath his body.

One of the things I noticed as a novice to in-hand work, is that I find it quite difficult to know when the horse is correctly performing shoulder-in.

If you are lucky enough to have a mirror in your arena, start practicing walking towards the mirror and look for the ‘three tracks’. If you don’t, then it can really help having someone else who knows lateral work to watch and help you adjust.

You could also ask them to do it with your horse and video them – a reference can really help with things like where to position your body in relation to the horse to communicate what you want.

I’m going to keep practicing this as I think it will take a while to develop my feel for when Gilly is doing it right. But in the short term, one of the benefits in the saddle is that when Gilly falls in and out on circles a bit of shoulder in feel can encourage him to correct his bend and redistribute his weight so he is more balanced.