Category Archives: horse training

Secret Language of Sweat Marks – Continued

By Wiola Grabowska

sweat-marksFive years ago I wrote this post – Secret Language of Sweat Marks – after teaching a lovely young rider who was sure her loaned horse’s saddle wasn’t fitting him very well but wasn’t sure what to look for. I wanted an easy way to describe to her what to look for and how to spot pressure points and areas of concern that were not immediately visible and so we went for taking photos of the horse’s back directly after the lesson.

There are now many articles out there talking about it issue very eloquently.

This post has since proved one of the most popular on here and I have received many messages about it. There are a few things about sweat patterns as well as structure / feel of the hair on the horse’s body that I didn’t mention at the time and that I reckon are worth mentioning so here we go!


There are horses that sweat profusely whatever they do and those that barely break any sweat whatever they do but observing the muscles that work hardest and therefore sweat more can be a good guide to how correct (biomechanically) the training is.

Repetitive marked presence of sweat alongside the horse’s lower neck muscles could indicate the horse is overusing those muscles in place of engaging the top of the neck musculature that assists in developing better self-carriage.

Sweat patches in front of the wither (base of the neck where many horse’s has atrophied muscles and a smaller of bigger “dip”) and over the middle and top of the neck could on the other hand point towards the fact that those muscles are the ones undertaking harder work and therefore increase in strength and functionality.

Having no clavicles, horse’s scapulas are suspended in a powerful muscle sling that has an ability to significantly lift the horse’s wither (think of those moments when your horse “grows a hand” when they see something that excites them). This anatomy detail means the front end conformation can appear unrecognisable when a green horse is compared to a more advanced one in their training.

Sweat over the shoulders might at first indicate “forehand driving” but it is also believed to be a sign of that powerful muscle sling being employed, especially in collected work (front end has a significant part in “lifting” the horse in collected work).


Observing the sweat patterns over the barrel (belly, lumbar area/flanks) helps in assessing whether the powerful core muscles are being used. Slight belly sweat and flanks sweat is believed to be a good sign of the right muscle chains being tasked.


Sweat over gluteal muscles and sweaty upper thighs are usually thought to be good indicators of an efforts being sustained in the rear engine but it is worth noting that too much localised sweating around stifles is not so desirable, especially if coupled with a feel of lack of power from the saddle.

Although many of these observations are of very old origin and quite possibly don’t apply to every horse working well, I personally see a fairly accurate correlation between functional work and sweat patterns, especially over the neck.

Have you ever observed sweat patterns of your own horse post training? Do they correlate with “the feel” the horse gave you in his/her ridden effort? 









Simple exercise for the rider to “put the horse on the bit”

By Wiola Grabowska

There are so many ways to describe what riding “on the bit” is, so many techniques to achieve it with and many ways to explain what takes place in the horse’s and rider’s body when it does happen.

This short post is not a comprehensive description of any complicated processes but it is rather aimed at those who already know what the concept is about in theory but perhaps struggle with execution and like to experiment with a simple idea to see what they can learn from it…

How I feel it

If I was to describe in the simplest way what it feels to me to ride a horse “on the bit” I would say it’s a way of moving where I find most comfortable position for the horse to be in between his left and right bend in the body and flexion at the poll and most appropriate pace for whatever we are doing that feels like he is always between the ‘go’ and ‘whoa’.

The Simple “on the bit” Exercise

Here is one simple (not always easy, depending on how focused the rider is able to be) exercise to experience ALL ingredients of riding “on the bit”.

  1. Set up a square with poles that gives you about 12m circle inside of the square and has enough space on the outside to ride a 15m circle around the square.
  1. Walk your horse into the square and take an even connection on both reins. Feel like you are just carrying the bit for the horse as if the cheekpieces broke, don’t ask for anything, just be a neutral “handshake” at the end of each rein.
  2. Start walking around inside the square as close to the poles as possible while asking the horse to follow a shape of a 12m circle.
  3. Your first focus is on the rhythm of the steps. You can say to yourself ‘left,right, left,right’ each time you feel the hind legs stepping or shoulders of the horse moving. Repetitive, clock-like rhythm will help with relaxation which in turn will help with suppleness. If your horse is on a slow/lazy side, maintaining the rhythm can help with awareness of hind leg activity.
  4. Alongside the rhythm focus, pay attention to the position of the horse’s neck. Direct the neck with both reins so it always stays in the middle of the horse’s chest (be careful not to overbend it either way).
  5. Focus on your upper body staying directly above the horse. No leaning in. No leaning out. No leaning back or forwards. You walk each of your shoulders directly above each of your hips as much as you can. Your spine joins your horse’s spine at the right angle and stays so.
  6. Once you have the even footfalls (rhythm), neck in the middle of the shoulders and your own body stacked well and vertically balanced, ask for inside bend in the body by asking your horse to step deeper underneath his belly with his inside hind leg. Your outside leg stays a little back, your inside hip leads the movement. Feel like you are asking for a series of tiny, mini leg-yields so the horse shifts his weight a little from inside foreleg (which he is likely to be leaning on) to the outside hind leg. Let your hips follow the walking motion of the horse’s back. Be careful not to brace against your horse’s bracing/tension/reluctance to bend.
  7. Ask for flexion at the poll with your inside rein. Avoid any backwards pulling or repeated shuffling of the bit. Use simple opening rein if needed. Stabilise your horse’s neck with outside rein so only poll flexion happens, not more of a neck bend.
  8. Constantly keep checking if you are allowing the horse to use his neck in movement. In walk, it will need to move a little forward and back, in trot in will be static but still needs to be able to relax. Avoid the feeling of “holding the horse’s neck in round position”. You want the feeling of directing the neck and poll in front of the rest of the spine so it curves left or right slightly depending on which rein you are on. Keep the neck in the middle of the chest (if you are not sure, ask someone to film you and watch the video frame by frame. Most riders tend to keep the neck of the horse too much to the inside so it is almost in line with inside point of shoulder rather than the middle of the chest. This “breaks” the line of communication between the rein and the hind leg on that side.
  9. Repeat every stride – position check, rhythm, bend, flexion. It all happens almost simultaneously but you can focus on one element at a time if that’s easier.
  10. Work on both reins and build your feel for finding the posture your horse is happy to maintain.


What you are doing via this exercise is laterally bending the horse. Lateral bending helps develop straightness aka evenness through the body. Lateral bending encourages the horse to engage (aka flex in all joints and increase pushing power) of his inside hind leg.

All this encourages prouder, rounder posture through the back, longer top line and shorter bottom line, more definite feel in your outside rein and softer feel in your inside rein – all this is otherwise known as the horse being on the bit.

You might find you are only able to keep such posture in the horse for several strides. Then maybe only on a 12-15m circle. Take your time. Your feel will improve. You will start feeling how much ‘go’ to add to repair lost rhythm, how much ‘whoa’ to ask for to stop the horse from running away from inside leg aid, how much left bend to ask for so your inside flexion happens almost by itself etc etc

Many a time, the rider’s position or inability to keep the horse “in front of the leg” when riding “straight” or in gaits other than trot (often easiest as the horse’s neck remains still and rhythm can be defined via rising to the trot) is what causes the horse to lose rhythm, suppleness, engagement and connection needed to remain “on the bit”.

You might say that one could simply ride a smaller circle in walk and larger in trot and think of the same elements as above. Maybe. I have, however, tested the square exercise on variety of riders from children to more advanced riders with green horses and the discipline of the square, the fact that they need to focus on exactness of the shape seems to make it work every single time.

Happy practicing 🙂







Schooling a “difficult” horse – defence, vulnerability, trial and error

By Wiola Grabowska
I had this post in a draft form for some weeks now but wasn’t sure if to post it. It’s tricky to make oneself clear on a wide subject such as this one. However, last week’s message from the owner of the pony featured here made me think that perhaps I should just tweak the content and let the post go live…

Last week I received a message from an owner of a pony I’d been schooling twice a week for about a year and a half. The pony was seen by his regular physiotherapist and for the first time since we started his “getting better programme” there was nothing specific for the physio to work on. It’s the sort of message I was hoping for since taking the pony on as he’d been one of the more “difficult” cases I have ever worked with.

April19th – stretching after canter work

The meaning of “difficult”…

What I mean by difficult here has nothing to do with the pony being dangerous. The difficulty lied in the fact he had (and still has but we will get to this later) so many ingrained defence mechanisms that most exercises or even simple things like trotting or cantering around the arena in a balanced posture, were impossible for him. Thankfully, he is a small pony as the extent of his crookedness and evasions in the decent size horse would be a much harder task to tackle.

At the time we met, Jack was a strongly inverted, incredibly one-sided with very high neck carriage, fairly spooky and quite anxious pony in the arena but very loveable on the ground, very people oriented and despite his issues, very willing to “do something”.

Getting the basics right

For about a year I worked him with emphasis on relaxation and straightness with combination of ridden and in-hand work and together with his owner doing her best to match all I was doing and the physio helping us re-educate his odd movement patterns, we made a fairly good progress.

The true breakthrough in my work with him though came when I realised the extent of his defence patterns.

Making mistakes

About six months ago, I had an incredible ride on Jack. I was riding him a bit more for a couple of weeks and at some point it was as if he said, ok I get it, you do this I do that, I relax my back you sit quiet. I said to Jack’s owner that wow, I think we fixed the canter.

But then I made a mistake – I expected him to pick up in the next session from how we left off. Even though I know full well not to ever do that. It was a costly mistake but one that eventually led me to discover how deep the problem sat and what I needed to do about it. This kind of get it – lose it game is part of the reason I encourage all the riders to experiment and make mistakes because without them there is no learning, just military drilling.

“Defence – the action of defending from or resisting attack”

Jack with his owner at my Intensive Training Camp – end of April 2017

I pushed his schooling on and lost him for some weeks again but I had my answer. “Schooling posture”/Dressage posture (however you want to call it)  is for a horse a vulnerable posture. It’s a posture and a way of moving where the horse allows the rider to influence and instigate change. It’s relaxed yet active. How often would you allow someone else to tell you what and how to do something? How to move your legs? How to hold your head?

Dressage posture is everything but flight readiness which is Jack’s preferred option.

In our own social interactions vulnerability is defined as “the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally”. In simpler, less dramatic terms this can mean allowing someone to see that we want and need them in our life, and trusting them not to hurt us. The horse needs us to help them move better with us on their back but it also needs some level of confidence to believe we are going to be fair. I don’t mean to anthropomorphise horses but we are humans after all and comparisons can help get the head around a problem.

Some horses are very trusting and being vulnerable comes at what seems a small price. So small in fact we don’t ever think about “offending them”. Others seem to see everything we do on them as an attack and that is more of a Jack’s mentality.

The solution

I needed to be absolutely consistent and confident in everything I did with him from rein connection to amount of impulsion. No chancing, no random aids, no random questions. It seems obvious but if you think about it, how many times do we ask the horse to “go” in EXACTLY the same way? How many times do our left leg acts PRECISELY in the same way in every single step of a leg yield? How many times do we stop for a moment and ask for that halt EXACTLY the same? It’s the kind of focus riders at top level have but not when pleasure riding a 13.2hh pony 😉

I don’t have a grand prix rider body control nor the skills to repeat every movement exactly the same but the moment I became aware of the extent of the problem, I started seeing his reactions differently and came up with different ways of dealing with them.

I do realise that this mental side of training is often disregarded in many “horse training” articles or is considered a “soft” approach and somewhat inferior if we train for “sport”. If you do have a “difficult” horse that you think is in turn making your life difficult, it might help to look at how he might be perceiving the aids. Physical defence is what the rider is fighting but it starts way deeper than the skin and muscles level…

Jack is a work in progress and simply realising how to train further doesn’t mean he is “fixed”. He will never be as dependable under pressure as some less sensitive and less defensive horses but I am happy he is comfortable in himself now and gives both the owner, myself and his sharer plenty of good rides 🙂

Jump training – dressing the jumps

By Wiola Grabowska

This must be one of the easiest and most cost effective ways of transforming your plain jumps set into a proper colour and pattern challenge!


We’ve dressed several jumps with the Jumpstack and been using the covered bales for all sorts of jumping exercises both ridden and on the ground.

The covers for the bales made fantastic fillers, you just need a good tape to secure the openings as if your jumps are outdoors, the stickers that come with the covers won’t be strong enough to stay on.

The pole covers are great for transforming plain poles and do a super job used on raised poles as horses being vary of them, pick their feet up neatly.

We are looking into adding some yellow and green patterns now. It makes training interesting and helps the horses get used to variety of different jumping challenges. I find some fillers are more of a rider’s frighteners so it helps the riders to become accustomed to jumping more than simple poles.

The covered bales are also very handy for creating gymnastic set ups like small grids to work on technique – improving quality of the canter and rider’s position.

When used for groundwork, they provide a low level distraction for the horse  habituating him/her to situations where they need to ignore slight worry and go forwards when asked.

Photo: Christine Dunnington 

To purchase the bale covers and more, see

Working the hind legs – leg yield in-hand

Ferris leg yield
Ferris, an ex-steeplechaser, beginning to coordinate leg-yield in-hand. He’s a quick learner.

There are many different reasons why leg-yielding is beneficial in any horse’s training programme and here is one of them: creating more even use of each hindleg.

I like to start it in-hand because the biggest benefit is when the rider can ask for leg-yield from the saddle with minimal aids. Strong use of legs contort the rider and often braces the horse’s back so the overall goodness of the exercise decreases.

The horse that learnt a movement in-hand, has a much easier job understanding the request from the saddle later and so the rider is able to act with more subtle aids.

The roles of the hind legs in the leg-yield

  • Inside hind leg: flexes, crosses over and under (engages) and creates push
  • Outside hind leg: carries weight, stabilises the weight

Performed in both directions and adjusted to the horse’s natural crookedness, it is a nice and relatively easy exercise to help the “pushing hind leg” develop more “carrying skills” and vice versa.

Also great exercise for riders to develop feel, coordination and body awareness (how it can communicate with the horse).

To see video of Ferris the ex-racehorse learning leg-yield on the wall see our Instagram HERE.

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

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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 🙂

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  • 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). 

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.

Groundwork exercise for distracted/unfocused horses

Here’s one fun idea for a groundwork exercise that works very well for horses that are:

  • easily distracted and unfocused when ridden
  • spooky and generally either too much in front of the leg or behind the leg
  • uninterested in the rider
  • uninterested in communication with the rider


You will need:

  • a lot of random things to clutter the arena with!
  • go for objects that are safe when knocked
  • possibly boots or bandages for your horse
  • lunge cavesson or a headcollar and a lunge line (don’t use any gadgets for this exercise. You want to cut the horse some slack and believe he can handle life without those)
  • lunge whip


The play “rules” :

  • you lunge the horse navigating around the objects
  • you let the horse think for himself, you suggest the route but don’t wrestle, let the horse make mistakes and learn that when they listen to you, life is easy
  • the more distracted the horse (or inattentive) the harder routes you can suggest for them


Horses learn very fast that the game is about thinking and problem solving. They start looking to you and communicate with you which directly translates into more focus when ridden. “Lazy” horses can become much more forward, spooky horses, come more “on the aids”, unfocused horses start finding “chatting” with the rider more interesting.


The most important rule is to have fun with this. Use body language, voice, lunge aids to communicate, not to tell. Invite the horse to play with you as an intelligent creature not like one you need to tell exactly where to place the feet.


You might get into trouble at first. If you work with a horse like Mojo (the chestnut) they will be looking around and noticing everything but you at first. They will bump into the objects but they learn fast 🙂

Mojo preferred to look over at the horses being brought from the field instead of listening to my suggestion to go around the barrel…;) He didn’t make that mistake again!

They might, like Jasper (the black cob), just want to find their own routes at first.

Play. From this communication you can create much more refined aids.


Potty Training by IKEA Equestrian aka Raised Poles training

Some time ago there was a photo circulating on social media with potties being used to raise poles off the ground and play the role of inexpensive low cavalettis.

Yesterday, Gemma brought her latest purchase – 8 bright green IKEA potties – to the yard to give them a test drive in the lesson.


She owns Ozzy, a 5 year old for whom pole work/balance work are an important part of the exercise routine.

I use poles in their lessons regularly and they have a very positive effect on Ozzy’s coordination and suppleness which in turn improve his balance. Raising poles off the ground helps with encouraging more bend in all the joints of the hind legs, has a very good effect on Ozzy’s usual downhill way of going by naturally creating more hind legs effort and shoulder lift as well as helping with the gelding’s straightness (as his suppleness improves he starts using himself more symmetrically which makes it possible to improve his straightness).

In canter, the pole work highlight differences in Ozzy’s body use on the left and right rein which gives us ideas for exercises and routines to use to help him even the work up.

If you have a young horse you are bringing on, using cavalettis as part of their flatwork can be a really fun element of the overall training.

The IKEA potties are proving very easy to handle (light to move about), don’t roll at light touches and if the poles get rapped harder by the horse, the potties just “fall over” without rolling away much at all.

Gemma and Ozzy over raised trot poles

They hold the poles we use easily allowing for a roll over of about an inch either way. I think it would be great to collect more of them 😉

Do you use poles/cavaletti in your training? What’s your usual set up?