Relaxation and Energy…Finding the Right amount

A great principle for the entire conduct of dressage is to have the right dose, first of relaxation and second, of the necessary energy. In fact, the horse is not a machine, but a living being. Therefore, riders must know what dose of relaxation and degree of vigour to employ with each horse.
What we often see is a rider who is asking for more impulsion WITHOUT first establishing relaxation and instead of watching an artful dressage test, we see a boxing match as the rider attempts to bang and crash their way through a test aboard a stiff plank.
We cannot ask a horse for more expression until it is relaxed and the most obvious sign that a rider is asking for expression without relaxation is that the horse becomes tense in the neck, comes back off the contact, and the rider then begins to pull on the horse’s mouth and push with the legs in unison, generating more and more tension, and a less and less happy horse.
Often we see riders pushing the horse forward in the walk by thrusting the torso. I don’t like this, and I find that riders who do this actually override the walk. A rider with feel should go with the horses walk, and allow the horse to walk out by thinking of relaxing the hips and taking the thighs off the horse.
The rider can then use flexion to the inside, with a relaxed inside leg to help the horse engage and become more loose through the body.
The signs that the horse is relaxed can be seen in transitions. A horse that is released will come easily to the halt, just off the riders seat aids, without the rider needing to pull the reins…The horse will then remain at halt until the rider asks him to move off!
Then if you feel that you can do relaxed and forward transtions, you can start to add collection, but not keeping the horse in collection for too long.
It is not enough to get a relaxed trot and then think “Oh great, well that’s done now I can do all collected work,” as a good rider will constantly adjust the horse, maintaining the relaxation throughout the session by adjusting the position of the neck, the degree of impulsion, the tempo, the rhythm, asking the horse to engage both mentally and physically in order to employ all its muscle at different stages and at different degrees.
So, how to first get the relaxation and recognise that the horse is relaxed?
Carl Hester spoke at the Dressage Convention about first getting the horse relaxed at the walk. This is a crucial part of training and a rider should not begin to trot until the horse will stretch out in a relaxed, rhythmic, walk.
However, if your horse begins the lesson a little spooky, it is often best to do a little trot first and then come back to get the horse relaxed at the walk.
A relaxed horse will allow his rider to let his frame come out and open, without rushing or charging forward and without falling forward on the shoulders.
If a horse can walk out in a longer frame and maintain the swing and push from the back to the front, the horse is relaxed and you can begin the trot work in the same relaxed attitude.
If the horse can not walk with his neck stretched out into the contact, I would start with a nice contact, elastic to the horses mouth, even if he is a little behind, and then use a little leg until you can ease the rein out and he understands that you are asking him to take the rein out. This takes time, and gentle aids, and must encourage the horse to find the stretch.
Nuno Oliviera used to stress the point that a rider should not work physically hard on the horse and so the key to a good riding technique, is to engage the horse, and create impulsion, without looking like you are running a marathon uphill.
“The criteria of a good rider is a rider that we cease to notice, and we only watch the horse.”
So how then does a rider employ the necessary energy, without increasing their force or physically work load employed on top of the horse?
By using the aids effectively and at the right moment, so that the horse will learn to carry himself.
My trainer often tells me not to be afraid to let the mistake happen, meaning that I sometimes need to let Batialo loose his impulsion for a second and then touch him up, in order to prevent my pushing him all the time.
Sometimes a rider needs to test the limits so that they can push forward that bit further each time, allowing the horse to grow strong without the constant push from the rider.
A rider that we cease to watch, is one that can touch the horse at the exact right moment, and then release the aid immediately, so the horse learns to keep his own momentum and engagement without the constant “crutch” of his rider’s aids.

“Dressage consists of finding a way to get the horse to employ itself to the maximum in the chosen exercise and then maintain the work without the help of the aids.
A trained horse is a supple horse, pleasant to ride, happy and not a horse that gesticulates.” (Nuno Oliveira)

A rider with effective aids, does not necessarily need to be strong physically, but must have the timing, and accuracy of mind, that sends a clear message to the horse.
“The best judge to appreciate the quality of the rider’s aids is the horse. Look at his attitude, his ears, his eye, that tell the truth by their expression.” (Nuno Oliveira)
To achieve a horse that can go along alone and a rider that we cannot see because their aids are subtle and efficient, we first need to relax ourselves, so we can feel what our horse is doing. And to relax effectively you need a balanced position yourself.
Then, when we can feel that our horse is relaxed, and we can give him a touch to say “come on, a bit more please”.
This is not the important part. The important part is after the touch and too many riders then touch again, and again, and again, until their touch is just one giant pronounced constant push, that tells the horse he does not need to respond to a light aid because the aid will just stay on all the time.
If your horse doesn’t respond to a light touch, touch again a little firmer, and release when you get a response.
If your horse stops when you release your aids, something is not right, as you cannot increase the impulsion or engagement if your horse cannot first keep himself in a forward movement when his rider is relaxed.
The degree of vigour we must employ on each horse does vary, as some horses are naturally more sensitive than others, but the golden rule is, first relax, both horse and rider, then ask once and collect information.

Sometimes the most important thing to remember for both rider and horse relaxation, is to focus on breathing. You can do this at home when you start the lesson, big breathe in, and big breathe out, and try to feel the horse underneath you. Another good relaxation exercise is to ask for shoulder-in or shoulder-fore on a small circle, as this engages the horse, and helps him to listen to you, and thus relax in the process.

Classical Training- Putting Your Stretch to the Test…

Stretching is a vital element to the training of dressage. It is the reward to the horse, it loosens the horse’s body and it allows the energy to flow naturally through the horse, while confirming and testing every aspect of the training.
However, there is often big confusion between a beneficial, positive, rewarding, engaged, elastic, “through” stretch; as opposed to a long, flat, out-the-back, running, “drink of water” stretch.
The focus falls on the horse’s ability to stretch out his neck and while this is a key element, it is just ONE of many key elements inherent in an effective stretch!

The most important thing to remember as we let the horse stretch, is not to loose the roundness and engagement of the gait, and while length in the neck is important, the stretch is actually a test of whether the horse’s energy is being driven by the hindlegs, through the horse and into an elastic contact.

“It is important to remember not to let the horse get long through the body in the stretch. Length in the neck is not length in the body and we must think that the horse stays round through the stretchvand that the power is driven from the back to the front.
If we simply let the reins out long, the horse might open his neck angle, but without engagement and the energy channeling through from behind, we will loose the power out the back and the horse will become longer (his hindlegs going further out behind him.)”

Nuno Oliviera used to say that “relaxation is not lack of energy”, meaning that when we relax our horse, we must ensure that we maintain the activity and impulsion so that we can test if our horse is working correctly over his back.

How many times have we seen a rider that is holding the horse up in a collected frame and because they have not established correct impulsion and lightness, when they let the reins out to stretch the horse, the horse goes “plop” on the forehand, his hind legs go out behind him like a duck, his back gets flat and long, and his trot goes, “piddle piddle piddle, run run run!”
His neck is longer, sure, but what else has the rider missed in the mean time?
If a rider has their horse engaged into the contact, “through”, with the energy coming from the back of the horse, when they gently let the reins out, they will at the same time lift and engage the horse so that as his neck lengthens, he will lift slightly across his top line, creating a lovely curve up over his back and the length will thus be seen only in his top line and not in the flat pancake across his back.
I call it the “bold” stretch, as it feels as if my horse is on a gliding mission!
Nuno said that in the entire work (that is all of it,) that it is “important that the rider gets the feeling that the haunches are pushing the body of the horse, not that they are following it.” (Nuno Oliveira)
If you let the energy go and the horse falls forward and lets his neck out, all the energy will escape and the horse will chase his front end around the arena.
If a rider lifts and allows gently, until the horse can balance and stretch without losing his energy flow, the stretch becomes an effective tool in the rider’s ability to engage, relax, strengthen, and elasticise the horse.
Then, just as the stretch can test if you have the horse’s weight on the hindlegs and the energy flowing “up and out the front door”, you can use the work to test your stretch.
This means that once you have established a working, active engaged stretch, where the back of the horse lifts and he becomes rounder, “bolder”, in his work, you can gently retake the reins, shift your weight back and ask the horse to come back into a more collected frame.
Can you do this without hauling him up off the floor of the arena?
Can you do this with the use of seat and leg?
Do you feel the power lift him up, or do you?
The transition to and from the stretch, should be executed with ease, balance, flow, and should seem as the rider merely shifts the energy a little, embraces the horse, boosts the cadence and re-establishes a rounded neck, elastic contact and collected position both in terms of rider and horse; posture and outline.
Active stretch or long, flat running: put your stretch to the test!

Classical Training- Into the Outside Rein…

We have all heard that before…”I now have my horse on the outside rein”.

Many instructors use this term as a means for the rider to stop the horse falling out through the outside shoulder, and early on in my own dressage training I even wrote an article about the inside leg/outside rein connection.

But since then, and having seen 100’s of lessons and ridden a range of different horses, I no longer use this term in teaching inexperienced riders , because they often get the wrong concept and apply it incorrectly.

We see riders who then fix the outside rein as if that will control the shoulder of the horse…But does it?

The answer is no. A fixed outside rein may give the rider the impression they have a contact but it actually just blocks the horse from being able to bend and step through with the inside hind leg . The outside rein must have a connection but it must also ALLOW the horse to bend. It will not straighten the horse unless it is properly applied, in conjunction with all the other things that need to happen at the same time.

i have found that using the word “connection” as opposed to “contact” works well, as often we see riders who think that “contact” means you pull the horses head in so the reins have weight in them…That is not contact.

In addition, taking the outside rein to correct and straighten the horse should be done for one stride, and then the outside rein must allow, and then correct again if needed, while those 100 other things are still happening.

One of the best ways to learn the concept of Inside leg to outside rein is to learn to ride a ‘correct” s/in.

Many riders ride a shoulder-in by pulling the inside rein to get the bend. Incorrect. And if they then hang on to the outside rein without allowing the horse to bend , they just end up with a blocked horse which physically cannot step under with the inside hind leg.

A correctly ridden shoulder-in enables the rider to learn how to bend the horse through the body.

Once a rider can understand and feel this concept, of bending the horse through the body, they will better understand how the inside leg and outside rein act in unison to channel the energy

In addition to the “hold the outside rein” term, riders are also often told that the inside leg must remain on, to push the horse into the outside rein…Also wrong.

The inside leg should be like a post, that the horse bends around, but if you don’t know how to establish the correct bend then putting your inside leg on and holding on the outside will only serve to block the horse, and your body, and typically then your inside leg will draw up and your outside rein will pull back, and ye ha you are a cowboy.

Plus, your inside leg can only work well, and remain long, and be applied in the correct way, if your position is correct.

Nothing in dressage, should be held for long periods of time…The outside rein should not be fixed, but act more like a faucet, letting a little bit of water out at a time. The inside leg must ask and then release.

No it’s not easy.

Nuno Oliveira used to say…

“To straighten the horse

1. By acting on the forehand through using the outside rein toward the neck when the horse is falling outward or away from the neck if the horse is falling inward.

2. Later when the horse is trained and collected, we straighten him using our leg aids.

NOTE: We must never hold the leg tight against the side. We must never use continuous aids, but rather, momentary aids.”

So how then can riders help to keep control of the shoulders without simply thinking inside leg into outside rein?

I have found that to straighten the horse, it is better to think about the position of the shoulders, both his and yours, so not to get stuck with a strong contact on the outside, but a crooked horse.

Secondly, you must think that whenever your shoulder is open, your hip on the same side must open also, as often we turn our shoulders and block with our hip which makes the open shoulder ineffective.

A great way to help you determine where the horse is putting weight (on which shoulder) is to take the centreline. Often we get lost on the wall of the arena as it provides us with a security, but it also hides where the horse is falling out.

Take the centreline and with an even connection on both reins try to feel into which shoulder the horse is putting more weight . Video it if you cannot decide if the horse is straight or not. Think of your two hands as being in line with each shoulder, and then adjust accordingly…

Take your two hands out (when horse falls in) or towards the neck (when horse falls out) depending on where the weight is going, all the while keeping your inside leg down and long, and applying it when you feel the horse losing the forward energy into the outside rein, and then releasing when you feel him respond.

The outside rein must keep a connection ,but also allow, in correspondence and unison with an elastic inside rein that asks the flexion, while your upper body and hip enable the horse to bend, and your legs keep the forward momentum and ask the inside hind of the horse to step under his centre of balance.


Mare for sale…Lusitano…write to me at for more information…

Classical Training-Walk Before You Run!!

Walk before you Run!

I often have people contacting me in search of their dream horse, and I love to help, but sometimes I get frustrated for a simple reason.

I will show a nice 6 year old, and they will ask is he doing flying changes or passage, and I think “I hope not”.

It’s common in the dressage world these days to see horses at 6 already performing exercises that require high levels of collection, and this is not good for the physical nor mental maturity of the horse.

I would prefer 1000 times over a 6 year old that can walk, trot and canter on a straight line , and that bends evenly to both sides, than a 6 year old who can do all the tricks, because a 6 year old that is doing all the tricks for me just means that it will take 12 to 18 months to undo what has been done.
Nuno Oliveira used to say that “No complicated riding before the horses are going truly forward. In dressage, the difficulties are often created by a lack of good basic work (which is the foundation of the house).”

He is right of course, and yet people underestimate the value of waiting until the horse is ready, or are not aware of what “ready” means in terms of dressage training.

Does the horse move easily off the leg. Is the horse light on the contact? Is the horse straight? Does the horse bend to the left and right evenly? Is the horse moving forward alone or is the rider pushing every step?

Can the horse bend correctly on a 20, 15, and 10 metre circle, at walk trot and canter? Can the horse stretch out the contact without losing the rhythm, balance and engagement of the gait, in all three paces?

If the answer was no to any of these then the horse should not be advancing to any collected exercises until the above is achieved and consolidated.

And yet time and time again we hear people who want to learn the flying changes, and when they are asked to do a canter to walk transition, it is a complete mess with little or no engagement, and the horse falls on the forehand, and without this transition the hope of the horse learning to change correctly will be limited at best, and still people want to just get on with it.

It’s as if they want to get to the end of the story before they have even come to introduce the characters, and that may be all well and good if you don’t really care if you get it right or not, but in terms of the health of the horse, this is like putting a toddler on a high beam and asking him to cartwheel.

If you want to teach your horse the flying change, great! Work patiently and with commitment every day, on getting the horse straight, and even, and engaged, and with transitions from walk to canter, canter to walk, and then one day you will ask for the change and the horse will have everything in place to give it to you.

I hear people tell me that their horse doesn’t do flying changes, or that their horse loses rhythm in the passage, or that when they ask the piaffe he just stops, and I find it hard not to ask them if they know how to ride a circle.

The simple things take time, the tricks are the icing on the cake. If you get all the other elements in place, the rest will be easy.
If you have a 6 year old, he is 6, he should be learning to mentally and physically cope with the demands of training, not the demands of collected exercises on top of all that.
Go slowly, be kind, reward the smallest improvement, and let your horse grow up!

Mare for sale…write to for information

Classical Training- What Are You Acheiving?

What Are You Achieving?

Sometimes we finish a ride, and the horse is tired, and we are tired, and yet nothing was actually worked on.

This can happen for a range of different reasons, some of them legitimate, and others not.

I sometimes can have weeks where I achieve very little in terms of training because of either my own physical restrictions (i.e. pain or injury), or because the rider that is going through a phase or isn’t tuned in enough to listen to the horse, or a lack of confidence means you tend to just try to “get through the ride” without getting hurt.

A lack of confidence can often result in this sort of mentality, where a rider merely gets on and off and tries do a bit in between, praying all the while that nothing will happen, no dogs will run out, or trees will make a noise, or a gust of wind will come up at the wrong time.

Been there.14237725_1061921613843019_4060016455013526172_n

The other reasons might be a lack of focus or goal. i find that even if your goal is to ride a preliminary test and gain a certain percentage, then that in itself gives you more direction in training. This goal should be given with a date, which of course can be extended, but at least it’s there, so you don’t keep putting it off.

We might go out to ride, and feel the trot so great we just sort of float around enjoying it, and forget to actually better it by using transitions, and suppling exercises.

How many times have we seen videos of a horse and rider going all the way around the arena in a fancy trot, and I think, that’s great, but is there a purpose to that? Are you making the trot better? Are you making the horse more supple? Or are you just tiring the horse out until you can finish the training?

“Many riders are happy to get their horses tired by running around in the arena in trot or canter. This gets the horse tired. “Working a horse” is something else altogether.” “( Nuno Oliveira)

So you need to ask yourself, do you want to train the horse, do you want to establish a connection with him based on trust, respect, and communication, or do you want to sit there and look pretty, or get a work out and go home?

If you prefer the first scenario, then as I said you need to set goals, and not just goals to aim toward, but every day goals.

What am I trying to achieve today?

And more importantly, when you finish riding, don’t just rush off to your life, reflect!

Reflect, reflect, reflect!!

Ask yourself, how was that ride, how does my body feel, did I achieve what I set out to?

If you need to, keep a journal of what worked, and why.

You will quickly find that it’s in the reflection that you learn the most about your journey on your horse. Talk to him. Ask him how he felt. He isn’t going to answer you, but in the process you will establish a greater connection with him and you yourself will begin the reflection process.

The two elements of dressage that I find are most easily forgotten are reflection and breathing.

So…Incorporate this into every single training….

Think, what am I setting out to do…Breath while you are doing it…Reflect on how you did it, and whether or not you are on the way to your goal…
Think, Breathe, Reflect!!15515835_10209375636019689_649566707_o

Classical Training-My Horse is Not Straight!

My horse is not straight!

No he isn’t! This is one of the most common things I hear in teaching…My horse has one side more difficult…I prefer the left rein to the right because my horse feels different…Why does my horse only bend left…

Then, even worse, we see riders in top level competition and they do a lovely half pass to the left, and then a leg yield to the right! Why?

Because the rider has not addressed the fundamental part of dressage which is that the horse has both a concave and a convex side, and so yes, your horse is not straight!

Concave: having an outline or surface that curves inwards like the interior of a circle or sphere.

Convex: means curving out or extending outward

Nuno Oliveira wrote a lot on this topic, and it is something that you really need to think about, draw a picture if you have to, figure it out, and trust me if you can nut this one out the rest of dressage training is much easier!

A horse that is straight moves completely differently, and once you have felt it, well, you will understand why there is so much written about it.

“Example of a horse that is convex on the left side; he naturally bends right. When going on the left rein, his tendency will be to have too much weight on the left side and to resist on that side.

11144950_10205995678002851_6937707197164708269_nREMEDY: left rein lighter than the right, the left side will always be the difficult side, but without forgetting to keep the contact with the right rein. Use continuous vibration upwards on the left rein the entire life of the horse. To bend him left, replace the action of the left rein by the action of the left leg near the girth. Use the calf, not the spur. This will correct the problem at its source which is the deviation of the rib cage to the left.” (Nuno Oliveira)

“Example of a horse that is convex on the right side; he naturally bends left. When going on the right rein, his tendency will be to have too much weight on the right side and to resist on that side.

REMEDY: right rein lighter than the left, the right side will always be the difficult side, but without forgetting to keep the contact with the left rein. Use continuous vibration upwards on the right rein the entire life of the horse. To bend him right, replace the action of the right rein by the action of the right leg near the girth. Use the calf, not the spur. This will correct the problem at its source which is the deviation of the rib cage to the right.” (Nuno Oliveira)

Read this…Re read it…Go out and feel it, and then read it again!

It is not something that you correct in one lesson, but something as Nuno points out that you work on for the entire life of the horse.

Next time you watch a test, ask yourself…Does the horse bend more one way than the other? Or does it not bend at all to one side?15419411_10209340190173565_405376900_o

It is not just incorrect, it also adds strain on the horses muscles, ligaments and joints, as the horse is constantly putting more weight into one shoulder.

As a rider we often have a side that is more relaxed that the other too, and this can be made more difficult by the fact that our horse is built with a convex and concave side.

However, as riders it is our job to, with the use of exercises, correct this imbalance, and create a supple forward moving horse.

“It is by working the horse through different exercises in the same bend that we can often supple up the horse on the difficult side.” (Nuno Oliveira)

This is why it often helps to have eyes on the ground and if not a video camera so you can see for yourself if you and your horse are even.

You must ask…”Is my horse with the same amount of bend on the left and right rein.”

“Am I sitting in the middle of the horse”, because often because of this lack of symmetry in horses, riders tend to sit more to one side than the other.

Then gradually over time you can create a horse with even bend, who is supple even on a straight line.
But it has to be thought about and worked on, every single day.

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That’s Horses!!…

The first lesson I learnt in life was when you fell off the horse, you had to get straight back on. There was no time to lie there pathetically, if you could walk, you rode, and you had about 20 minutes before the horse realised that you were off, and he got to relax, and that throwing you on the ground was a good idea, and one worth trying again.

The second lesson I learnt was a tougher one…I walked out to ride my horse one day and he was dead in the paddock. Mum said “that is horses, and if you want to ride, you have to know, and be able to cope, with all the elements of horse riding, and this, my dear, is one of them”.15515835_10209375636019689_649566707_o

I decided that it as worth it anyway. Nothing good is forever, people come and go, and each horse teaches us something new, as a rider, and if we are lucky, as a person. Best is to enjoy it while it lasts.

I think though that these lessons give you good tools to use in life…If things don’t turn out like you wanted them to, you have to theoretically get back on the horse, and keep going, whether it be relationships, friendships, family…sometimes, no matter how we wish it, we can’t fix everything.

Horses teach us so much, they can be our partner, our best friend, our reason to get up when everything else is falling apart.

People say when you become a mother you learn to put someone else before yourself, but I leant that very early…We would leave christmas lunch early because the horses had to be fed, and it didn’t matter how starving I was, I had to wait until we had done the horses. Or lying awake at night age 9, wondering if I’d done the back legs straps up!

People often ask why I live alone in Portugal, but I never felt alone. My horses had a lot to do with that.

But like all great things, it comes with a downside…

Recently my pilates trainer said to me, that the majority of top level sport revolves around teaching your body to relax in a state of strength. Whether it be endurance or speed or power, we can’t sustain it under pressure, so we have to teach our body to be at it’s peak, but without any strain.

Keeping ourselves fit enough is one thing, but horse riding relies on a dual package, and so the odds of both members of said package staying sound and fit are greatly reduced.

Beijo...NAILED IT!!

This week was one of those weeks. Batialo has ring bone, and while it’s not the end of the world, it sure felt like it for me. I have since spoken more to my vet and my mum, and my trainer, and they all agree that we will try and manage it…But well, it’s not great :(.

My little horse, who is quickly becoming my very close second great love (sorry Batialo) has to have surgery :(. It is a simple operation and he will recover but of course he will need time off at least 6 weeks.

Mum always said one horse isn’t enough because you lose them so quickly, and sometimes it feels like you might need ten just to have the odds of riding one.

Unfortunately, aside from the riding factor, we also fall in love with them…I read recently that you only get 3 great loves, but I’ve had like 5, (Kaptain, bobby, Zen, Batialo, Iota), each who taught me so much, but who of course can’t stay for very long.

But, like all things in things in life, if it was easy, well it wouldn’t be so damn rewarding when it does fall into place.