Tag Archives: warm up

Side Reins and how they can work against your best intentions (as seen at British Eventing Dauntsey Park Horse Trials)

I get it. We all want the best for our horses and sometimes we use different training methods. What works for one horse, doesn’t work for another and all that.

However, with all the world wide web education, with coaching becoming more and more professional, with training becoming more and more focused on equine soundness and longevity – why do we still see things like this at an affiliated British Eventing event…?

side reins main pic

I thought I would just jot a few points as shown by the bay horse on photos for those of you who perhaps do use side reins with best intentions but would like some help in knowing whether they really work for your horse or not.


side reins 3

Notice that even though the lunger is lunging the horse to the right, his whole body is inverted and twisted. I do have a video of this horse but I chose not to post it since it shows the lunger and it is not my intention to shame anyone. Suffice to say, the bay sustained this posture for most of the time he was lunged. This is not beneficial for the riding horse and in fact, can cause plethora of issues when ridden: poll discomfort/locking, avoidance of the contact, tight shoulder muscles, choppy stride upon rein contact to name just a few.

It also “teaches” the horse a very dysfunctional posture on a circle.


side reins 4

The same horse a few circles later, still going to the right…Notice how his wither is tilted to the inside, how he commits his weight to his inside shoulder and then rescues his balance by moving his neck out. Now imagine sitting on this horse…You would feel as if you were “falling in” and motorbiking around the corner/circle. You would feel as if you were sliding to the inside with more weight on your inside seat bone. The horse might feel as if he is “pulling” on your inside rein and you “have nothing” in your outside rein.

A lesson from Photo 1 and 2: a very unnecessary “training” is going on that teaches the horse to look after oneself in a way that is bound to make him load his limbs unevenly and potentially make him unsound long term.


side reins 5

Notice: the horse looks fairly upright through the wither (no more motorbiking) but notice an odd buldge/broken line at the base of his neck on the outside followed by a tilt at the poll to the outside. The horse is trying his best to mould himself into the contraption of the side reins and creates an unhealthy posture once again. Instead of curving the neck very gently to the inside and flexing at the poll to the inside, his neck takes a shape of an “S” letter and that is neither promoting soundness nor better marks in dressage.

Lesson from Photo 3: Look after your horse’s neck, once the horse learnt to be afraid of the bit and squashed himself into dysfunctional, ugly looking broken neck line, it is not easy to gain his trust again and re-train those “bonsai-ed” muscles.


side reins 2

At first glance you might say that from the wither on, the neck line doesn’t look too contorted but how much this is wrong and how constricted the horse really is you can see in the action, or lack of it, of his hind legs and in the stiff line of his back. The neck, that is an important balance tool for the horse, is blocked. His balance is non existent – he is forehand heavy and avoids adding any more push from behind so he doesn’t cartwheel over his head…His handles are “behind him” rather than “underneath him”.

The lunger is determined for him to go forward but he can’t having been restricted so much in front. The lunger chases him and an awful, disjointed, unbalanced, angry and inverted to the outside trot follows (Photo 5 below).


side reins main pic


side reins 6

Behind the light bay horse (who on Photo 6 is testing another option – tensing the muscles on both sides of the neck and leaning onto the bit and side reins) is a dark bay horse that is also being lunged in side reins. His are adjusted at the length that allows for natural neck carriage and they only come into action when he puts his head well above the bit or drops it well down/left or right. His whole biomechanics is much healthier, relaxed and his body (from poll to tail) follows the line of the circle fairly accurately.


side reins 1

Both horses undergo a training session but whilst the dark bay is potentially learning how to enjoy school or at least, just get his muscles warmed up well before the rider gets on board, the light bay is learning how to skive it and how to hate the subject of this lesson…

PHOTO 7 shows this lovely, athletic horse in a nice, forward, uphill stride which might fool you into thinking it’s all good and he just needs to learn to repeat that stride over and over.

The problem here is he isn’t learning how to move better but how to avoid discomfort in a more clever way. Sadly for him, he finds ways that potentially will cause him neck pain, poll pain, limb issues, pelvis and back issues etc etc

Side reins have been around for many years. They are used by many trainers from classical school to plain abuse. Used in an intelligent way, they help the horse understand the concept of straightness and relaxed reach towards the rider’s hand.

Those aims can never be reached by attaching the side reins very low, very short and then chasing the horse around a “circle” – those would only teach the horse evasive, ill techniques that damage his body with micro injuries.

side reins end pic

P.S. If you saw a horse being lunged in such a way at an affiliated event (or any event) – would you report this as a misuse of equipment? If yes, who would you report this to? BE after the event? Stewards during the event? If not, why not? 


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!


Aspire 2014 Coaching microsite


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” ?

VIDEO: Dressage Warm Up at Windsor Horse Show – Carl Hester on Nip Tuck and Charlotte Dujardin on Uthopia

For all those of you who like to watch the warm ups, here are some clips from Carl’s and Charlotte’s preparation minutes before the FEI Grand Prix Freestyle to Music on Friday 16th May 2014 (full results – click HERE

Using Equine Simulators in all-round rider development

15th September: using Ithacus to help the rider achieve more confident, effective jumping technique. Emma’s comment after training day: “Definitely feeling the muscles today The practice on the mechanical horse before getting on the horses is great for a workout and getting in the practice without worrying about what the horse is doing. Thank you for a wonderful training day!!”

It’s been crazy two weeks with an especially busy last weekend so it’s now back to the blogging board with updates 🙂 On Saturday 14th I had a pleasure to run a training day at Milton Keyens Eventing Centre for a fantastic group of riders whose horses underwent rehabilitation at Rockley Farm. I will write a longer blog about this tomorrow as it deserves a proper write up on its own.

Today, I will chat a little about the Sunday 15th training day during which I used a Racewood equine simulator again. I am becoming increasingly fond of Ithacus, the mechanical horse, because he is showing me his fantastic value in training of amateur riders. As I am sure you can gather from this blog, my particular coaching interest lies in training a kind of “in between” type of rider…The clients who tend to find their way to Aspire are not professionals but neither they are average recreational riders per se (even though many would be classified as such in theory).

Over time I realised that the riders who enjoy Aspire ethos are those who, like me, love exploring their own abilities, knowledge and skills. They are seeking riders with inquisitive minds. They work hard to both understand and help their horses develop physically and mentally, to help the animal be in best shape for carrying a rider.

Teaching riders like this makes me too feel challenged and encouraged to enjoy learning everyday.

Mechanical Powers

Ithacus is a many riders’ dream horse. He never colics, he never has back issues, his legs and feet are never a problem. He doesn’t buck, rear or bolts. He is a perfect body awareness schoolmaster…

Continue reading Using Equine Simulators in all-round rider development