Category Archives: Training Feel in Riders

Rider’s Question: What length of reins should I ride with and how to develop the right feel for it

By Wiola Grabowska

Rider Question: “[…]thanks for my videos. Can we have a chat about rein length at some point […] They just always look so much longer than they feel on Gilly and look awful to me! I feel like it’s something I have the wrong feel for and need to fix.[…]”

Mairi and Gilly blog post
A frame from the lesson the rider is referring to

Video feedback forms an important part of all the lessons I do and I try to send some footage to every rider at least a couple of times a month. Those videos are then open for discussion and I encourage the riders to send me their observations and thoughts on what they see on videos vs what they felt when the rode. I think it helps with being self-critical in a constructive way, reflect on what happened and how it happened. The “reins length” question is very common and in fact is asked often in the search function for this blog so I asked Mairi if I could use her session and her question to discuss this at more length (no pun intended here 😉 ).

She agreed so here we go. Remember that these thoughts might not apply to all riders and all horses. Just take out what you feel might be useful.

First, have a look at the frames below. They are taken at random out a 1min footage and rider’s reins do not change length significantly at any time…:

Mairi and Gilly length of reins
Notice variety of postures Gilly is offering on the same length of reins depending on his balance….

The interesting aspect of this session was that it was what you might call, a breakthrough session. There are some elements which we are training for and Mairi got a “real life” feel for them rather than only understanding them in theory.

I personally was not at all concerned  about her rein length during this session and at the stage we are at so her question made me think…

  • why the length of reins was the element she most noticed while watching the video?
  • why it looks “awful” to her and why?
  • what “feel” do we need to build up for her to make further progress

Some considerations when deciding on the “right” length of reins: 

  • do they create a neutral, supple, steady connection (not yet “contact” as that’s what the horse gives the rider not vice-versa) i.e. the rein is neither slack nor taut/pulling nor changes in between one option to the other from step to step.
  • do they allow the horse to carry his neck in a posture that matches his current level of training and conformation. In terms of Dressage training, Mairi and Gilly are working towards a quality Preliminary level (British Dressage). This level asks for minimal of engagement, forward basic paces (medium walk, working trot, working canter), progressive transitions between gaits and basic body balance and alignement that makes the Preliminary “test shapes” easy to perform.
  • do they allow the rider to act with passive resistance or encourage the rider to pull back
  • is the rider able to help the horse with balance through the connection (ask for poll flexion or a half-halt) without unnecessarily busy hands

Mairi & Gilly’s case: 

  • the rider’s reins are a little too long at times but this is more due to her allowing them to slip between her fingers
  • her feel changes from “all good” to “my reins are too long” when Gilly lifts his head above the bit. As these moments are very short in real life but can be unsightly when watched on the video, her attention is drawn to those “washing lines reins” rather than other issues (like loses of rhythm, half – halt that came too late and cost them balance, her own upper body posture that is changing and affecting balance, the seat that can be a little behind the movement or in front of the movement which again affects balance and encourages Gilly to catch it by lifting his neck)
  • rider’s adjustments are done “in front” rather than “behind” – this means that the slack or heaviness of the rein is not a “rein issue”, it’s a balance and engine issue. If the energy produced by the hind legs is misdirected or insufficient, this will show in the quality of connection the rider has between their hands and the bit.

I like to tell the riders to try to feel the horse’s hind legs in their hands and by that I mean that they ask the horse to travel forward and then catch the energy from the hind legs with the bit. Carry the hands and let the horse’s neck relax into most natural and functional (allowing athletic movement) position for the particular horse. That’s the starting point.

To answer Mairi’s question: the way to learn to feel for the right rein length is to learn to feel balance in the whole horse. Once the rider truly feels how to balance the horse with seat aids, how to energise or calm the paces in order to help with that balance, how to truly ride forward without chasing/running and how to maintain own steadiness, then there is rarely any doubt as to what rein length to have. Simply shortening the reins might help in some cases, but not this one.

Sometimes what feels good, is good for that particular moment, even if visually it’s not yet ideal 🙂 Once Gilly’s balance improves and rider’s feel for that good balance improves, he will raise his shoulders/withers and will be able to work with shorter neck and shorter rein. At the moment, short rein causes him to react defensively, block the hind legs energy at the wither and become disconnected through his body.

In summary: the reins are a little too long but perfect for this stage of learning the feel and experimenting what’s right and what’s dysfunctional for this particular horse. 


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:

A few fun ways to Increase Body Awareness and Balance Perception for Riding


But I can’t feel it…

Lack of feel for the right moment/thing/motion is something many riders struggle with and I have met quite a few who think you either feel it or you don’t.

In my experience, there are people with a very strong, natural, innate feeling of balance able to feel loses of it immediately whether they stand on their own legs or sit on a horse. They somewhat grasp the idea of equilibrium very fast. Then there are those who have very little natural body awareness. And of course, there are millions shades of variations of both in the middle.

I don’t subscribe to the notion that feel cannot be learnt. I have seen to the contrary over and over again with riders who started off with very little of it and slowly developed significantly more awareness.

Arguably, there will always be those riders whose balance is superior, even at a relatively low level of equestrian pursuits. This doesn’t mean that if yours is muted, you can’t improve.

Fun ways of Developing More Awareness and Perception

Children, although they might be falling off a lot in some cases 😉 , do have a great sense of balance. They often sit very naturally upright with no tension in hip joints allowing for a very soft, absorbing seat. There is one thing kids do a lot of to have that heightened body awareness. They PLAY 🙂

I get riders to carry poles, to lunge each-other, to walk on lines, to be pulled off XC jumps, to do many exercises on the lunge, to do the wrong things (like collapsing in the waist, or carrying hands unevenly)  – all with just one aim: play with balance and feel of own posture in space.

Below is a short video of several different exercises I like to use. The carrying a pole trick has many advantages. The variant you see on the video is focused on teaching the rider to feel for her upper body posture and rhythm of her steps (especially in leg yield). She tends to angle her upper body when riding lateral work so the exercise is helping her remain parallel to the fence. She can then “carry” that feel with her into the saddle.

Continue reading A few fun ways to Increase Body Awareness and Balance Perception for Riding

Video – Getting to know each other :)

The main reason why Aspire Equestrian programmes for non-horse owners are based on horse share/loan is to capture the most important and unique element of equestrian sport – the relationship between the two athletes. Making time to groom, tack up, work in-hand, get to know each other make a big difference in how riders learn and communicate with the horse during ridden training.

Some horses love attention, some prefer less of it, some learn very quickly, some need more time. Here is one who loves his interactions 🙂

What’s your “preparation for training” routine? If you don’t have your own horse, do you get to spend some time with your lesson horse?

To learn more about Aspire programmes for non-horse owners visit:!riding-programmes-for-non-owners/czxg

“Busy hands syndrome” and how to work on it…


If you are a more advanced rider: Would you be able to ride a good, round circle in trot or canter without the bit with your horse working correctly in a slightly rounded posture? Would your horse work “on the bit” without you acting on the reins other than retaining connection?

If you are a novice rider: Can you turn, stop, circle, change direction, leg-yield on your horse without using your hands as a dominant aid (imagine having no bit, would your horse go where you want it to go)?

If the answer is no to any of those questions you might want to read on…

Ventus and I circle
series of video frames showing a pony being ridden without the bit and allowed to chose his desired body posture on a 15m circle in canter. More about this picture in the post below…

Something that surfaces over and over again as a riding issue across all disciplines at pretty much any level is difficulty in keeping rider’s hands “quiet” and therefore not causing discomfort or having detrimental effects on the horse’s mouth.

The issue will have many shades and variables depending on rider’s experience and will vary from complete lack of independent hands, through hands that love to see-saw on horse’s mouth to keep its head “in” to more specific sins of contact like for example overusing inside hand in turns.

My way of working on rider’s “hands issue” has its origin in a simple belief:


Following this thought, “hands issue” is very rarely to do with hands themselves – at least in my experience – and pretty much everything to do with the seat skill set.

90% Seat 10% Hands

The kind of riding I like to teach, watch and do is one that doesn’t focus on pain response i.e. doesn’t abuse horse’s mouth in order to turn, stop, round the neck or engage. In other words I like to see 90% of rider’s seat/energy/thoughts and 10% of head placing through the reins or simply hand positioning. For this to be possible the rider needs to be able to successfully communicate with the horse through intricate pattern of slight muscular and weight adjustments that are correctly perceived by the horse.

With this in mind, I generally see 3 main causes of “hand problem”: 

1) Inadequate balance in the saddle (lack of independent, balanced, safe position in the saddle)

2) Low level of seat effectiveness (can be due to no. 1 point above but also due to incorrect schooling of the horse, laziness of the rider, horse’s soundness problems, tack issues to name a few)

3) Impatience (this I see most often in experienced/advanced riders and with complete beginners)

Sometimes the rider battles with all three causes at the same time or a combination of them. The first step in making a change is to determine the cause.

There are of course ways of working on the symptoms – like attaching a balance strap to the saddle and holding it throughout the ride – which do sometimes solve the problem by revealing real reasons for ‘handiness’ or simply by increasing rider’s confidence. However, if like me, you are a cause focused instructor or rider, you will want to widen your training plan a little.

Continue reading “Busy hands syndrome” and how to work on it…

Rider Training: Learning the Feel for Half-Halt. Step by Step Exercise for novice riders.

I have been asked to describe my way of teaching the feel for half halt to novice riders some time ago so apologies for the delay but here we go!

halhalt blog
Ability to rebalance the horse in a basic way is in my view absolutely necessary in all horse friendly school work, whether it’s dressage or jumping focused, whether it’s a young horse or an older horse.

The exercise I am about to share with you today is a progressive, introductory one that I like to use when teaching the concept of half-halt to riders unfamiliar with the idea or who are confused with what they need to be doing. I tried to keep the explanations fairly detailed but please feel free to ask any questions in comments below if there is anything you are unsure about.

The not so mysterious half-halt

I love simple explanations although they are the most difficult to formulate…In the most simple theory I can think of, the half-halt is an action of the rider’s body which aims at rebalancing the weight shifts in the body of the horse.

I also like Polish translation of this action (half halt = pol parada) which is described as “on your marks”/”prepare”.

From classical dressage point of view, this rebalancing is aimed at progressive increase of flexion in the joints of the hind legs (hip & hock).

At more advanced level and when done skilfully with great timing, the half-halt can affect flexion of a chosen hind leg – i.e. the rider feels which hind leg needs more flexion (or in other words which one needs to step deeper under the horse’s centre of gravity) and when and uses the corresponding rein on the side of that hind leg at the right time (when hind leg is forward) to act on it. Working on the latter is not for novice riders and doesn’t form part of the below exercise.

The A B C of a Half-Halt 

I like to think of an effective Half-halt as of a sophisticated sentence – nobody is able to build sentences before they learn words. Nobody can write words before they know the letters. Usually large letters. 

When I first teach the rider to make friends with half halting I start with those large letters. In schooling language those letters are the aids, words are “ways of coordinating the aids” and sentences are the actual movements or actions. If a rider doesn’t know how to coordinate the aids (for example when and how to hold with the seat, how to ask for more activity with the leg & seat, when to close fingers on the reins to hold the forward momentum etc) and the horse doesn’t understand them (for example lifts the head and neck when feeling fingers closed on the reins) then it’s not possible to play with sentences and “write a nice novel” …

hold t-shirt

STEP 1: “Big Half-Halt” in walk

In order to ride a reasonably good transition to halt, you need to coordinate the holding motion of own pelvis with a soft yet holding hand. I start with walk to halt transitions every 5-6 strides, then every 3-4 strides. I like the rider to feel in absolute control of their upper body and that means absolutely no rocking backwards-forwards when the horse moves off or stops. The more fluid and relaxed the joints of the rider (hip joints, knee joints, ankle joints) and the more correct, vertical upper body posture, the easier this exercise is.

Some riders find it hard not to rock in the saddle when transitions come quickly one after another. If this is the case I tend to hold the back of the rider’s clothing to the cantle so they immediately sense if they are being thrown about.

I find that the upper body stability is very important for novice riders if they are to remain supple and relaxed through their elbows and hands when they use the reins.

Another bonus of this upper body discipline is that most novice riders are substantially dependent in their balance on horse’s balance. A ‘downhill’ moving horse will cause the rider to tip forwards. By teaching the rider to keep their upper body directly over their seat bones at all times I find it helps the rider detect downhill tendency in the horse quicker.

Continue reading Rider Training: Learning the Feel for Half-Halt. Step by Step Exercise for novice riders.

Aspire Training Day at Rockley [Farm] Rehab Reunion 2013 – when reasons come from purpose…

Aspire at Rockley Rehab Reunion 2013

As I mentioned in my yesterday’s blog, I had a great day teaching fabulous Rockley “graduates” at Milton Keynes Eventing Centre this past Saturday. Normally I like to have everything organised well before the day but this time some riders confirmed their attendance last minute and some joined in on the day so this coupled with the fact I was compressing 3 days of content into one day made for a grand improvisation 🙂 I think we managed to get main points covered but I am hoping we can run a repeat with more coaching time next year!

As always I start with a chat with all riders to get to know them and their horses. As most of us follow Nic’s blog on rehabilitation processes with all the horses, nobody seems a total stranger.


Even a little chat with riders can be revealing regarding the real reasons for various riding issues. It’s important not to waste time on trying to sort out various symptoms. It’s the causes that need addressing for the riders and horses to benefit from long lasting effects. The biggest downside of very limited time is that many things just cannot be covered and worked through.

We did my ABC (awareness-balance-connection) workshop in the morning which I would normally do on a Friday when running the training as a full weekend event (you can read about the main principles of it in my post: Show me how you walk…). We had plenty of fun with that 🙂

Continue reading Aspire Training Day at Rockley [Farm] Rehab Reunion 2013 – when reasons come from purpose…

What are your plans for 15th of September?

Hello All!
Another of our Intensive Training Days is coming up on 15th of September. There are maximum of 4 places available (1 booked already so maximum 3 left) and the cost includes hire of horses, Racewood Equine Simulator, all facilities hire, all coaching, video feedback and some cookies if you deserve them 😉

15th Spt Poster
15th September

All levels welcome but most suitable for those riders who want to improve their skills and effectiveness.

Video from equine simulator session from our last Training Day at the venue:

Approximate times: 10am-5pm

Venue: Cullinghood Equestrian Centre (
Cost: £200 per rider per day (BRING A FRIEND OFFER – rider who books with a friend receives £15 OFF each).

Message Wiola on aspire @ outlook . com for more information and booking. If you have never trained on Aspire Intensive Training Days and have any questions please email away, always happy to advise if this is suitable Day for you.

Feel free to share with friends!

To see some photos from the same venue from Aspire June Intensive Training Day see here

Before and After: Training video comparison between Day 1 and Two Months Later

Practising focus without “trying too hard” and letting the horse perform the movement in a relaxed manner. Some lovely end result in this exercise in our final session.

I have just done the final filming session with one of our Aspire Video Library test-riders. I will very much miss our training but we need to focus on riders fully committed to Aspire programme to really present what the programme can do. Magda has been great to work with but declared to be happy with most of her training at the time saying she was happy with her competition results. She wasn’t prepared to make more changes so we needed to cross out some core elements of Aspire training. Nevertheless, I liked the rider and the horse and their drive to improve. I do believe in being relatively flexible in training approach at times and Magda bravely agreed for her progress to be made public so that alone was a proof to me that she was ready for a challenge. The rider remained fairly open-minded and gave her best during the sessions which made for a very enjoyable experience.

My initial training plan for the rider assumed a lot of work aimed at balance and suppleness (in-hand and ridden) but due to rider’s training beliefs we needed to alter that.

We did, however, went through all main points and started addressing stiffness and a holding seat in the rider to help progress towards more feeling, stable yet more supple seat which in turn will be eventually able to balance the horse without unnecessary tension. Long way still in front of Magda but considering the amount of training she did on these elements I think she made a good effort and showed proportional results.

Continue reading Before and After: Training video comparison between Day 1 and Two Months Later

11 Thoughts on Teaching Children to Ride Aspire Equestrian Style

teaching kids to ride
Aspire’s new website:

Today I will share with you 11 thoughts on teaching children to ride.  The thing I enjoy the most about giving lessons to kids is their imagination. Unrestricted, unspoilt, free mind. I feel we can learn a lot from that as adults.

Here are some of my “rules” when teaching 6 to 9 year old pony mad kids:

1) I get the child to help me prepare the pony for first lesson. Especially, when they are afraid of ponies. It lets  me show them how to groom and tack up the pony. From my experience most kids love doing it.

2) I teach them basic pony body language before they get on.

3) I let them just feel the movement of the pony first before letting them touch the reins. I always start on the lunge or lead rein doing various exercises to get the child to feel happy in the saddle and connected with the pony.


4) I always teach sitting trot first. Most children, if not scared or tense, will follow the movement of the pony’s back beautifully.

Continue reading 11 Thoughts on Teaching Children to Ride Aspire Equestrian Style