Tag Archives: relaxation

The All-Rounder Training Series: Relax, Supple Up, Collect. Part 2: The “forgotten” groundwork?

Relaxed readiness is how I like to describe a horse and rider’s state of body and mind that is best suited to learning. Not every one, however, is able to achieve such state in the warm up part of their training session and that can lead to arguments between the rider and the horse.

Even if you are not a skilled, professional rider with a seat that can change the horse’s back, you still have a very good tool you can use in order to warm your horse up towards relaxed readiness and that’s in-hand /groundwork exercises.

You should find groundwork of great benefit if your horse:

– is easily distracted, spooky and unfocused
– is crooked
– has a naturally high and tense neck carriage
– tends to warm up and/or jump with hollow, tense back

It seems that nowadays, groundwork is considered to be suitable for those who are “scared” to ride a fresh horse or simply “the worriers” or “the anxious” or otherwise an opportunity to tire an exuberant horse. Then there is the lunging “in shape” with pessoa and the likes.

I would really encourage you to look at groundwork afresh 🙂 Forget “doing Parelli”, “doing Monty Roberts/natural Horsemanship”, “doing [enter another brand here]; forget what others think if you walk with your horse for 10 minutes before you get on him or that you don’t put equipment on to “get him to work from behind”. I would also like to challenge you to really look those phrases in the eye and question their true substance and meaning…have a think back to times and circumstances of Nelson Pessoa producing his gadget…think what marketing ideas would sell such products and to whom he was selling… Just question this and that, you know.

Try to look at groundwork or in-hand work as an integral part of your training that develops communication and trust between you and your horse…

In this post, I will describe 2 very simple yet potentially powerful exercises you can do with your horse regardless of your ridden skill level.

Exercise 1: Walk your horse in relaxed posture (loose, relaxed neck and purposefully moving body)

laura in hand
6 year old TB, been in training but have not raced. Here walked by her owner at the beginning of the training session.

This might seem simple but the key to this exercise is the quality of the walk. You might need a long schooling whip and your horse can be fully tacked up in his usual tack ready to be ridden after the groundwork session. Make sure your noseband is loose enough for the horse to be able to chew easily and move his tongue without restriction (see here for reasoning behind that).
Start by walking purposefully alongside your arena fence or on a chosen line. Observe if your horse keeps up with you or whether you need to energise him forwards or calm him down to slow down and act accordingly. You want your horse to walk besides you in a good medium walk.
Leave the reins on the neck of the horse and encourage him to lower his neck by applying small amount of on/off pressure on inside rein (you should see that this action puts pressure on the poll and does not cause any backward pulling on the horse’s mouth. You can equally do it on a headcollar or in a bitless bridle). The pressure should be slight and lasting just about the same time as it takes the horse to move his foreleg forward and put it on the ground. Most horses react by dropping the head in response to an equivalent of the weight of the hand on the rein.

Avoid tugging on the rein and forcefully lowering the horse’s neck. You should feel like the action of the rein is suggesting rather than telling…

Ideally you would want a few minutes of walk with your horse consistently moving at given rhythm with his neck level with his withers. If you have never tried this, please do and you might be amazed what effect it has on horse’s relaxation. The lowered neck position is generally already a mental relaxant for the horse and as a result, it helps him focus on you instead of on the world around him.

Exercise 2: Lateral poll flexion in – hand

Remember the old instruction : “when turning, make sure you just about see the corner of your horse’s inside eye “? That’s what lateral poll flexion is – not a neck bend and not too much flexion so we can see entire nose from up the saddle. Many tense, hollow moving horses are also laterally tense at the poll. This could be an effect of crookedness where the horse compensates for lack of correct alignment of the spine in relation to the shape the rider is trying to ride by tilting his head or carrying it outwards which in time causes strain, muscular tension and joint pain. The poll being a joint needs the same level of suppleness as any other joint in the horse’s body in order to function without problems.

If you look closely at any grassroots event whether it’s dressage, jumping or eventing you will notice a large amount of horses with some degree of tension at the poll. Ideally, we want the right flexion at the poll when going right and left when going left. All you need to teach the horse to do for it to happen smoothly is to make sure he/she is not tense in the neck when being asked for flexion. A healthy, sound horse should have no issue with turning his head slightly to the left or right.

Flexion at the poll is hugely helpful when riding circles, serpentines and turns – it helps the rider maintain better balance in the horse (inside flexion limits ‘falling in’ onto the inside shoulder/foot) because is helps control the amount of weight the horse is transferring onto each shoulder (inside flexion “lightens” the inside shoulder).

When asked for from the saddle, it can cause confusion to the tense horse who might offer immediate turn in response to the movement of inside rein. Flexing the horse’s head (poll) from the ground allows the rider to observe what is happening step by step.

When your horse stands with his neck relaxed and lowered slightly (top of the neck about level with his withers):

Flexions in hand blog
Young horse doing the exercise for the first time. He is tilting his head a little too much but is otherwise soft and relaxed. For the ridden flexion this would be done to much lesser degree.

Stand by your horse’s side like you would when preparing to put a bridle on. Place your inside hand (decide which way you will flex first and that will be your inside hand) on the horse’s nose and outside hand on his neck just behind the atlas bone. You will be gently stabilising the horse’s neck with this hand to make sure he is not bringing it to the inside but that it stays straight.
Now with your inside hand move the horse’s nose towards you until you see the muscles in front of your outside hand becoming concave (the other side of the top of the neck will become convex)

Don’t pull hard if you feel resistance from the horse. Try to move his nose slowly as if you wanted to do so by millimetres. Then release the nose to straight position and repeat until the movement feels soft and easy (might take many days of patient repetition with very stiff horses).
You will very likely notice that one side is much easier for your horse to flex to than the other…

Some trainers call the change from convex to concave arrangement of the neck muscles a nuchal ligament flip, some question this. Whatever the anatomical correctness – when changing from left to right flexion it does indeed look like the top line of the neck “flips” from left to right.

The lower the horse’s neck, the easier it is to achieve soft, pliable flexion and that’s because in the upright and tense neck posture with head held high, the bones which constitute the poll (atlas and axis) are in a “locked” position. The lower the neck and more relaxed the surrounding muscles, the more open the joint is.

Poll flexions, when done from the ground slowly without rushing or force, and then applied from the saddle, can revolutionise the way the horse moves on circles and in turns.

Done consequently for a few weeks, these 2 exercises coupled with their incorporation into ridden work can help break the cycle of hollowness and stiffness in the horse in the warm up phase and allow the rider to develop further training exercises that are based on relaxation rather than tension.

If you try or have already tried these or similar exercises with good results please share your experiences in the comments 🙂 Until next time!


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Part 1 of this little series can be found here: The All-Rounder Training Series: Relax, Supple Up, Collect. Part 1 – The forgotten “light seat” ?

The All-Rounder Training Series: Relax, Supple Up, Collect. Part 1 – The forgotten “light seat” ?

Laura 7608
Aspire training session June 2014. Photo by Magda Mucha

This post starts a new mini summer series. I am not sure how many parts it will have yet, I will let it flow organically (hopefully I won’t waffle too much!) so if you would like to add suggestions or questions please feel free to leave them in the comments section below the post. 

The series will discuss some elements in training process of an all-round, grassroots riding horse and an improvement driven rider i.e. the type of riders and horses we teach on Aspire programmes.

I should add that all input in comments is welcome, there are many ways of doing the same thing, we always learn with horses and the thoughts written in this series are just one of those ways…

Please, grab a cup of tea or coffee or whatever else you fancy and let’s chat 🙂 


This little series is here as a consequence of questions I receive from riders which makes me think that perhaps more general chat about training horses and riders at grassroots level (lower to medium level) might be of use. Questions that come up most often are focused on the following 3 elements of training a horse: suppleness (“how can I make her more supple?”), relaxation (“how can I can get him to relax?”), collection (“how can I ask him to collect ‘better’ ?” ). In many cases the riders are perfectly able to recognise the issue(s) when they watch their lessons on a video. They can often tell me with great attention to detail when and what is happening but the struggle lies in corrections. Therefore, I would like to chat about the tools that a grassroots rider (an average, amateur rider who doesn’t ride many horses a day for a living) can develop in order to achieve training results and help their horses develop athletically as riding horses.

In Part 1 and 2 I will focus on ways of achieving “[bright] relaxation” as that is to me the element that comes before any other. Just to be clear as to the “bright” side – I don’t mean sofa-popcorn-TV type of relaxation but a state of body and mind that is ready for learning…An athletically relaxed horse should still have a spark about him 🙂

magda on black mare
Magda Mucha, one of instructors who worked with me – here riding for a client on a young mare in a fairly good, basic stretchy trot. The horse could have her nose out a little more and be softer through lower neck muscles but she is only just learning more athletic way of going so is very much a work in progress

PART 1: The forgotten “light seat”? 

One fabulous key to this bright and focused relaxation that seems to be very much a struggle for many riders is work in light seat. The Army used it, Reiner Klimke used it, the classical trainers have used it – the benefits are many both for the horse and for the rider. First of all, light seat is most natural of all seats for any horse whose back and neck muscles are not yet in a good “riding horse” condition. This might mean a young horse as well as one that had worked under the saddle for years but was never ridden in a way that helped him build the muscles that carry the rider.

The light seat as a training tool for the rider fabulously improves feel for balance, movement synchronisation, joint suppleness, core strength and leg and hand stability. When practised correctly it shouldn’t cause joint pain in the rider.

Below is a short clip of a rider on Aspire Development Programme having her lesson on a stiff backed riding school horse and using light seat in warm phase of her lesson: 

Light seat is a great tool for the rider to “relax” the horse in trot and canter. Relaxation we are after manifests itself in regular, repetitive length of steps, desire to move forwards, “neutral”, relaxed posture i.e. usually fairly horizontal neck position (depending on conformation), neutral position of the back (neither hollow nor overly round), loose throat area with open angle between jowls and neck and ground covering movement that looks purposeful and quietly active. As the horse in this posture will almost always be naturally front heavy (on the forehand to some degree), it’s important for the rider to develop good, supporting balance. I generally love light seat work as part of a warm up for most horses, as a re-training tool for horses with back issues or contact issues, older horses, hollow moving horses, nervous and/or anxious horses to name just some examples. On negative side I personally don’t like to use it for long periods of time for months on end as the only way of riding (especially for heavier breeds) precisely because it can encourage front heavy way of going but I will get back to this in further parts of this little series.

As far as riders who practice light seat go, I see improvement in seat balance (ability to remain in balanced posture regardless of horse’s issues) and effectiveness (ability to achieve more functional posture in the horse) in both beginner and advanced riders…

Below you can see a still frame of a rider who came to me for lessons when Aspire programme were just starting out (in 2010) 🙂 The still frame at the top shows her in rising trot…She is a beginner rider but many much more advanced riders have very similar problem. As you can see, she is losing her balance at the top of the rise which will cause the horse to contract the back muscles and remain hollow. I used variation of light seat work (including standing in the stirrups in trot shown on the frame at the bottom – this was her first ever try) to improve her perception of “staying in own balance” which in turn improved her overall balance, leg position and horse’s way of going.


Most horses will relax into forward-down posture when ridden in a well balanced light seat. If this is what many of us want in the warm phase of our schooling sessions, why is light seat not utilised on larger scale as a routine exercise? Large amount of horses work with tense backs and blocked necks – another very good reason for warming such horses up without full weight in the saddle.

The beauty of this exercise is that it allows almost any rider with even relatively no experience in schooling a horse, to feel the benefit of forward down posture and relaxed back. Danger starts when riders get stuck with always riding for relaxation and stretch and never sympathetically teach the horse to use his body in various degrees of collection as well. We shall get back to this some posts later!

Over to you 🙂 Do you use light seat in your regular schooling sessions in the arena? Do you think it’s beneficial? Have you noticed how it can promote athletic relaxation in your horse?


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