Tag Archives: reflections

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 🙂

Lessons from Portman Horse Trials

By Wiola Grabowska


Run on the grounds of a beautiful Rushmore Park in Dorset, Portman Horse Trials welcomed us with bright sunshine, good going and a nice, calm vibe. Although not a surprise, it’s always interesting to see how very differently the horses warmed up on grass as opposed to when they work on surface.

Walking the XC course
Watching the warm up before the dressage

Lesson 1. Get schooling on grass pronto. All bendy lines, circles and corners seem like a triple challenge in comparison to a non-undulated, well groomed surface of an indoor arena 😉 

The dressage tests on grass in arenas set one next to another always seems to come with a few issues, main one being accuracy and control.

Lesson 2. Practice tests in a well measured space ON GRASS to quicken rider’s reaction time and improve quality of preparation for each movement when dealing with uneven, slightly undulated ground. 

Lou and Robyn – dressage

Show Jumping course at Portman is short but well spaced out giving horses of all shapes, sizes and length of strides an opportunity to do well.

The challenge here was not to get overwhelmed by the size of the arena and the atmosphere, get a good rhythm going from the start and keep the pace active yet controlled. Many horses ran into trouble on this seemingly simple course, plenty of stops and canter troubles.

Lesson 3: Practice powerful, controllable canter ON GRASS, play with different lengths of strides and adjustability, play with balance on undulation in a controlled canter (as oppose to more open XC canter). Build confidence in one another. Pick level of events very wisely as confidence is lost quickly and takes ages to build. School on undulation regularly.

Merehead show-jumping

The XC course is one of the most varied at lower levels and I love it. There is plenty of gradient, challenging the rider to balance the horse well and the horse is challenged to look after oneself. All the jumps are fair and questions are well matched to the level I think but the course does require a fit horse to ride well. Many combinations were off the bridle and low in the neck half way through the course, visibly tired and jumping clumsily.

Emma has kept Merehead moderately fit to help keep the cap on his exuberance but she got it spot on, he finished inside the time and full of running.

Lesson 4 – adjust the fitness level to the course. A too fit a horse that is so wound up it’s unrideable is not great, tired one is a hazard. 

Emma and Merehead1
Merehead after last jump looking full of running and ready to keep going
Little Florence attempting to help with Eventing lark 😉 

How to jot down meaningful notes after lessons/rides

How many times have you gotten off a horse after your lesson or ride thinking about something that really worked well or made your horse feel great? Or perhaps vice versa, how many times have you finished the lesson or a ride thinking it didn’t go as well as you hoped? Have you told yourself “oh I must remember not to do that at this moment in the ride” or “Ahh that’s what gets his trot better”, “that’s how I can ride sitting trot in a more supple way” etc ?

Now, how easy was it to remember those thoughts until your next lesson or ride? How easy was it to constructively use your thoughts to improve in next lesson/ride?

If the answer is “not easy” you might want to start a habit of 5min-reflection-time. It really doesn’t have to be complicated and if you on’t like writing you can record yourself on your phone or even make a short video with your thoughts just for yourself after each training session. You will be amazed at the results…

When I started doing little online coaching sessions in 2010/11 I created a short print out for my long distance clients which I titled: “After Training Reflections Notes”. 

reflection notes
The 2011 version of the After Training Reflection Notes

I noticed, probably unsurprisingly, that the riders who took 5-10 minutes to sit and jot the notes down after lessons, were able to not only progress faster but they developed a thinking rider mentality which allowed them to be much more independent and efficient in their riding. I also found the simple reflection method to be invaluable for any instructor who cares about improvement of own coaching skills.

I based the 2011 notes on a very simple model of Gibb’s Reflective Cycle which can be illustrated as below:

Gibbs PDF
Image source: eportfolio.qmu.ac.uk Believed to be free to use but if you are an owner and would like me to take it down please let me know and I will remove immediately.

I have updated the Reflection Notes pdf and will be sending a downloadable 2014 version of it with 1st November Newsletter so if you would like to get your hands on it, sign up HERE for free 🙂

If you would like to learn more about the use of reflective practice check out this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reflective_practice

If you are an instructor/coach you might like this tool to practice more thorough reflection: http://www.sportscoachuk.org/sites/default/files/scuk_learning_v3.swf

And if you would like to read a more comprehensive article about reflection in sports, check this article: https://www.sportscoachuk.org/sites/default/files/Reflective-Practice-Report_0.pdf