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Test Your Jumping Position: An Excerpt from Wendy Murdoch’s ’40 5-Minute Jumping Fixes’

This excerpt from Wendy Murdoch’s 40 5-Minute Jumping Fixes: Simple Solutions for Better Jumping Performance – In No Time has been published with permission from Trafalgar Square Books.

Photo courtesy of Wendy Murdoch.

Many riders love to jump but feel insecure in the saddle. Learning to jump or improving your current position by developing a more functional seat is more effective, safer, and allows your horse to perform his best. 

When jumping do you:

  • Jump “up” at your horse?
  • Get left behind?
  • Get pulled out of the saddle?
  • Lose  your stirrups?
  • Land hard on your horse’s back? 
  • Become fearful? 

With a secure seat you adhere to the horse and become unified with him as one body. When this happens, the horse can rely on you to remain with him over a jump, which makes him feel more confident and secure.

A good rider adheres to the saddle—therefore to the horse, too—because her seat, hips, and knees are supple, allowing her to absorb the horse’s movement. In order to jump a fence, the ridden horse must raise both his own weight and that of the rider. When the rider stiffens, braces against the stirrups, and bounces on the horse’s back upon landing, she exerts an external force that can greatly interfere with the horse’s performance–and attitude toward work. A seat that is unified with the horse’s movements not only diminishes those external forces, but also provides reassurance to the horse through consistency of action that will develop confidence in his rider and in his own ability to jump.

This 5-Minute Fix can help you find out if your jumping position is safe, secure, and functional.


Many riders love to jump but feel insecure in the saddle. Learning to jump or improving your current position by developing a more functional seat is more effective, safer, and allows your horse to perform his best.

When jumping do you:

  • Jump “up” at your horse?
  • Get left behind?
  • Get pulled out of the saddle?
  • Lose  your stirrups?
  • Land hard on your horse’s back? 
  • Become fearful? 

With a secure seat you adhere to the horse and become unified with him as one body. When this happens, the horse can rely on you to remain with him over a jump, which makes him feel more confident and secure.

A good rider adheres to the saddle—therefore to the horse, too—because her seat, hips, and knees are supple, allowing her to absorb the horse’s movement. In order to jump a fence, the ridden horse must raise both his own weight and that of the rider. When the rider stiffens, braces against the stirrups, and bounces on the horse’s back upon landing, she exerts an external force that can greatly interfere with the horse’s performance–and attitude toward work. A seat that is unified with the horse’s movements not only diminishes those external forces, but also provides reassurance to the horse through consistency of action that will develop confidence in his rider and in his own ability to jump.

This 5-Minute Fix can help you find out if your jumping position is safe, secure, and functional.

EXERCISE On the Horse

  1. Have an assistant stand in front of your horse and pull on the reins. Make sure she is slightly off to one side in case the horse tosses his head.
    Caution: Some horses can be very reactive. For safety, the assistant should stand to the side of the horse’s head. Stop if the horse gets upset.
  2. Assume your current jumping position. Once there, have the assistant steadily pull on the reins (not jerking or pulsing). She should pull hard enough to challenge you and give you time to feel what is happening, but not too hard or too quickly. The intent of the exercise is to see if your position is secure, not to rip you out of the saddle! Are you easily pulled forward? Can she pull on one rein more than the other? Do you pivot over your shoulders, knees, or feet? How difficult is it to stay in position? What happens to your breathing? Do you grip with your inner thighs or brace against your stirrups? When your position is secure, the assistant will pull you into the saddle, not out of it. Your upper body and arms stay in place without shoulder tension, while your hips are free of tension and sink slightly into the saddle. This unifies you with the horse so that as the assistant pulls, the force goes through you to him, allowing her to move him forward instead of you. You will feel like you are not “working” to hold your position. It is a good idea to rest your knuckles on the neck when being tested. This way you can feel how the pull goes through your body into the horse.
  3. Observe how your horse reacts. Does he toss his head in the air, pin his ears, or drop his back? If so, ask your assistant to pull slower and with less force to see if his agitation is reduced. Maybe it is a saddle issue: if the horse is distressed he may be getting hit in the withers as your weight comes forward. When this happens while he is just standing still, it is most likely happening when he lands after a jump! (It is very important to have this checked and resolved.)
  4. Experiment with your assistant. Intentionally tense your shoulders, brace against a stirrup, or hollow your back as she keeps a steady pressure. What happens? Try different variations like holding your breath, looking down, or turning your knees out. Feel how each variation affects your overall stability. 

As a secure position becomes clearer in your mind and body, you will find more ease and confidence in your riding and in your horse. Once you have determined that you would benefit from some changes to your position, work through the various Fixes in 40 5-Minute Jumping Fixes, then return to this test to see how you progressed.

For more information or to order this book visit the Trafalgar Square Books website at


7 Reasons Our Brains Put on the Brakes When We Ride: An Excerpt from Neuroathletics for Riders

Welcome to EN’s 2023 rewind! We’ll be resharing some of our most popular stories from the year throughout the last few days of 2023. This article first appeared on EN in May.

In this excerpt from his book Neuroathletics for Riders, Olympic coach Marc Nölke explains the common causes of the brain’s failure to produce the output (performance) we want in the saddle.

Photo courtesy of Horse & Rider Books.


The brain’s most important job is to keep us alive. There’s nothing more important to the brain than ensuring our survival! Isn’t that nice? But this also means survival matters more to the brain than jumping your horse over a log or riding elegantly in the dressage arena. These neuronal games aren’t systemically relevant.

We have all kinds of survival reflexes, but no reflex to help us ride a piaffe. A piaffe is of absolutely no importance to the brain. It might be important to your ego—the frontal lobes, the area of conscious thought—but as far as the rest of the brain is concerned, it’s just messing around.

Reflexes are reserved for actions that can keep us alive.

Now we’re getting to the point: The brain lets us perform any movement, without any problems and with maximum strength, if it thinks that movement is safe. And for the brain, whether an activity is assessed as “safe” depends on the quality of the input, its interpretation of the input, and the predictions it models based on that input and that interpretation. The brain is constantly making predictions about the immediate future. To guarantee safety and survival, it isn’t enough just to work purely “descriptively”—that is, to work by describing the current situation. Makes sense, doesn’t it? If your brain only warned you about danger when you were already in the middle of receiving an impact to your head after falling off your horse, it would be too late to do anything about it. Now we come to the next important point: The better the signals your brain gets from all its receptors, the easier it will find processing and prediction.

Safe or Unsafe?

The brain takes this giant dataset and compares it with information saved from previous experiences. Then it decides whether you are SAFE or UNSAFE. If your brain assesses the coming situation to be SAFE, it will relax your muscles, reduce your respiratory rate, keep your heart rate steady, and allow your joints to move through their full range of motion.

However, if it assesses the coming situation to be UNSAFE, it will increase muscular tension, respiratory rate, and pulse rate, and you might also experience pain or shortness of breath. Many people experience back pain. What’s more, your mental state is instantly influenced by your brain, so you feel anxious. And if your brain keeps detecting UNSAFE situations, you might even become depressed, which serves to avoid threats and keep you safe.

All this means we need to find stimuli that increase our perception of our safety. I’d like to use an example to explain what that means in practical terms: imagine you tear a ligament in your ankle and rest your ankle for a long time. Your brain hardly receives any signals from the motion sensors in your ankle while you’re resting it. The neurons that transfer information from your ankle to your brain are “asleep” and may be asleep for weeks.

When neurons stop firing, their connections to each other become weaker. Prior to your injury, the “map” of your ankle in your brain was precise but now, after weeks without any activity, it isn’t precise anymore. That means your brain no longer knows exactly what position your foot is in; as a result, it can’t accurately predict how the foot can bear weight. Is this a good starting point for your brain to ensure your “survival”? Nope! Your brain thinks: “I have no idea what the foot’s doing, so I can’t guarantee anything.” In this context, riding your horse at canter over a log is immediately categorized as UNSAFE, and full power to your body and riding position will not be made available. But that obviously applies to all movements, not just jumping a log.

And if you nevertheless decide to jump the log, despite your brain’s hesitation, your stubborn frontal lobe will go on an ego trip. It can work, but only because people are incredibly good at compensating. You can expect your brain to reach for its ultimate emergency brake: pain. But you shouldn’t resent it, because it’s just trying to protect you. Your brain produces pain because it believes there are too many threatening signals and too few safe signals (G. Lorimer Moseley 2017).

If we want to improve our performance or our movements, or reduce pain, we need to increase the brain’s perception of safety and reduce its perception of danger. First, we need to find and release the threats or “brakes.” How do we find these blocking obstacles? Which input do we need to change? There’s no standard solution or training plan for this; it’s a question that must be answered on a case-by-case basis. But I’ll be happy to help you figure out how to narrow it down. First, let’s look for obvious potential for “brakes.”


Blood sugar levels like a rollercoaster aren’t something brains find cool. Blood sugar levels that are too high or too low make movements uneven, unsteady, and even dangerous (Serra et al. 2009; Khan, Barlow, and Weinstock 2011). When the tank is empty, the brain quickly starts to panic.

Along with glucose, oxygen is the most important fuel for our brain. Injuries like bruised or broken ribs, illnesses such as asthma or COPD, or even bad habits caused by stress can severely impair the supply of oxygen to the brain. If this happens, neuroplastic change—long-term learning—becomes very difficult. This affects a good two-thirds of my clients, including Olympic athletes.

It’s important for the brain that our two eyes give it a clear picture of the environment we are in. Slow or inaccurate eye movements slow down perception of our environment. Interpreting visual data requires more calories—takes more effort—when there are too many differences between the images from the right and left eye. If our eyes and visual processing aren’t in good shape, the brain steps on the brake.

You’d do that, too, if your windshield wipers stopped working in the rain, wouldn’t you? Have you experienced one or more concussions? Are you sensitive to bright light or noise? Does reading make you tired quickly? Do you have to wear glasses or contact lenses? Are you unable to stand packed concert halls, supermarkets, or anywhere busy with crowds of people? Then the cause of your problems could be here.

Firstly, breaks, torn ligaments, and the like leave behind damaged receptors at the site of injury. Secondly, the reduced flow of information during the period of injury can alter the “maps” in our brain and make them “blurry.” Even when the injury has long since healed, it can take a long time for the neuronal representation of the once-injured tissue to be restored in the brain.

If joints don’t move through their entire range of movement over a longer period, the mechanoreceptors typically found in the joints suffer an activation deficit that also has a negative effect on the quality of the associated “maps.” Would you take your chances in an unknown and dangerous area with a blurry or inaccurate map?

We’ll talk about the balance system in our inner ears in more detail later. But for now, what matters is that the brain clearly doesn’t like not knowing exactly where gravitational force is coming from and how quickly we’re moving. Anybody who’s ever been unseated by a bucking horse will know what I’m talking about.

People are herd animals. Problems at work and with friends, family, partners, or children are a source of emotional and psychological stress. Stress causes changes to hormone excretions, blood sugar levels, and breathing patterns—which brings us back to our first two brake boosters.

Too little sleep is bad—very bad. Not getting enough sleep makes everything worse: mood, libido, vision, balance, sense of movement, reactions, attention, and much more. Important repair and waste disposal measures take place in the brain as we sleep. Sleep is king. So go on, off to bed. Close your eyes. Sleep!

When your brain puts on the brakes when you’re riding, you should find and eliminate the factors boosting the brakes. You can find the right stimuli to counter your personal set of brakes with neuroathletics.

This excerpt from Neuroathletics for Riders by Marc Nölke is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (

What Is “Suppleness,” Anyway?

In this excerpt from The Horse in Positive Tension, movement analysis specialist Stefan Stammer takes a close look at the term “supple,” what it is and what it is not, and how it all applies to the horse’s performance.

“Supple” Does Not Mean “Light”

We all want to make our horses supple—riders of all kinds of different disciplines have this much in common. And they all experience the same truth over the course of their careers: riding with suppleness is anything but light. But if supple is not light, what does riding theory mean by the terms suppling, lowering the neck, relaxation, light hands, and lightness? The basic problem is that the definitions and meanings of these terms are often taken out of the context of riding theory, and so they drift through indoor arenas as empty buzzwords.

“Supple” Does Not Mean “Relaxed”

The meaning of “supple” in equestrian sports has been influenced by its use in other athletic environments. In addition, relaxation is only one part of the movement cycle. A 100-meter sprinter has to stay supple over the last 30 meters of an Olympic final to win. Once this sprinter
“clenches up,” she loses. But if her body tension is too low, she also loses. She is only truly relaxed 20 minutes later, sitting in a chair with a glass of champagne.

A soccer player before the decisive penalty shot has to be supple to score safely. If she’s relaxed, she’ll fail, just as much as she’ll fail if she is mentally or physically tense. This is what inner and outer suppleness means in equestrian lingo—developing positive body tension and concentration.

Developing this kind of suppleness is not easy, but it’s at the core of any good or very good athletic movement. The most important goal of any gymnast, skier, or track-and-field athlete is to embark on their performance in a state of suppleness. Only then can that performance be considered optimal.

This brings us back to the deep, wide rift in equestrianism. Today’s equestrian magazines and books are very often characterized by the depiction of extremes. If you believe these publications, there are mainly two types of riders.

“Formula 1” Riders

The attitude of these riders is that if suppleness cannot be achieved through lightness, that might mean it’s necessary to “take a good grip” now and then. Horses aren’t made of glass, after all, and those who expect performance have to occasionally train past the limit—with predictable results.

Chronic overload clinical signs (“symptoms” are what the horse feels and “clinical signs” are what we see, although I’ll stick with the term “symptoms” for the most part in reference to both) can be expected from this kind of attitude, an attitude that makes medication to treat the back, hoof joints, and stifle joints an accepted part of a sport horse’s health management.

If this is the case, it can then be assumed that the training and showing of a horse in competition is, at least potentially, connected to wear and tear as well as pain. Neither the equestrian world nor the rest of society should accept such an assumption in the long run.

This places the fascinating living being that is the “horse” on the same level as a Formula 1 engine, which can be expected to fail after a certain number of laps. The effort of engineers is
only to delay this failure for as long as possible, until the finish line has been crossed.

The Other Side: “Light” Riders

Meanwhile, another group, which we’ll call “light” riders, has begun to design their own training philosophies. Particularly relaxed horses that are never ever pushed to or past their limits, and a mindset that everything can be learned easily are what these riders have in common. Their horses live their lives mainly falling from one front leg onto the other, with a low head and a long neck—to the applause of so-called “trainers,” whose most important character trait is that they “love” horses. Afterward, these horses are treated to a wellness massage, because they worked so incredibly hard. Completely lacking here is a serious approach to the horse’s nature as an animal of movement, full of pride and natural dignity.

It is, of course, by no means a disadvantage if a trainer loves horses. However, her professional competence is much more important, including her regard for the animal entrusted to her care and her respect for his nature. The outer effortlessness with which a well-ridden horse moves in the end is the result of skillful and experienced training within his first few years of being started. And this is certainly not a “light” task!

You can tell I’m ready to elbow my way into the middle of this! Not so much because I have masochistic tendencies, but because I firmly believe this is the best position for building bridges between the divergent viewpoints in the riding world.

What Happens in the Middle?

There are still many riders and trainers who do not settle for empty words and quick “wannabe” success. They value their profession and the horses and students entrusted to their care more than themselves, and give it their best every single day. They do not feature monthly in magazines because they have just reinvented equestrianism. They have equestrian skills, sound knowledge, and experience. That is nothing spectacular, but rather the only option in order to
build the movement patterns that horses and riders need to stay healthy long-term and reach their goals, over months and years. Whether this takes place in the competition arena or out on the trails, it is always carried out with joy and respect for the wonderful creature that is the horse.

Photo by Ricarda Mertens.

This excerpt from The Horse in Positive Tension by Stefan Stammer is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (

The 9 Principles of the “Dialogue of Motion”

In this excerpt from Ridden: Dressage from the Horse’s Point of View, dressage judge and classical trainer Ulrike Thiel gives us nine principles we must understand to communicate efficiently, fluidly, and understandably with our horses.

Image by Horst Streitferdt.

The fundamental mind-body principles of the dialogue of motion between horse and rider are implicitly incorporated in the classical dressage teachings, though not with any such terminology or labels attached. Therefore, I have given these principles names that have helped my students understand them.

1: The Arch Principle
As horizontally oriented beings, horses lift their backs when ridden correctly, and it is the curve of the arched back that lets us sit comfortably. As vertically moving beings, we humans must arch forward our chest-stomach-hip regions. The arch in horse and rider allows more to be accomplished with less (unnecessary and perhaps disruptive) movement. When horse and rider succeed in “tuning” their respective arch to the other’s, little movements can have a large effect.

2: The Independence Principle
The rider must be able to move all her body parts and muscles independently from one another, without losing balance, blocking the dialogue of motion, or disturbing the horse’s movement. Many body movements are naturally connected in our coordination system. We have to learn to first separate them in order to be able to intentionally employ them as individual elements. In addition, we must be able to tighten and relax specific areas of the body, either simultaneously or sequentially.

Appropriate exercises on the longe line can help riders learn how to do this, but there are also some that can be practiced in everyday life. The development of the rider’s independent coordination is comparable to the regular daily exercises required of a ballet dancer.

3: The Scales Principle
This principle is seen most clearly in the “relative elevation” that is characteristic of collection—the horse is beyond his natural horizontal balance and in an uphill balance, with his hindquarters a little lower and deeper (further beneath the horse’s torso) than the forehand, as seen when one side of a pair of scales is weighted.

The Scales Principle begins with engaged, forward-downward riding while stretching, and it ends with the levade. The scales are weighted by little more than a half-halt. The rider “holds” the horse with her seat and under her weight, the “rear scale” (hindquarters) automatically stays down while the “front scale” (forehand) lifts a little without the horse having to push harder off the ground with his front legs.

4: The Balance Principle
The horse can only balance the rider while staying true to his path of travel when the rider sits vertically in the saddle. If the rider cocks one hip or pulls one leg up, then the horse must step under the displaced weight. On a circle the horse will drift in, while on a straight line, he will have to change direction.

The horse doesn’t naturally turn while making good use of his hind end as we want him to in a change of direction. His weight tends to fall on the forehand. This causes many riders to ride turns using undesirable “secondary aids,” sometimes without even knowing it. Here again, lessons on the longe line can be of benefit as the horse teaches us to feel his movement on the turn, and the rider learns to correct herself in response to the horse.

5: The Anticipation Principle
The rider must look forward, think in advance, and give the horse enough time to incorporate her signals into his own movement plan. She must allow time for her movement impulses to be expressed through the horse’s.

When the rider just “goes along” with the movement of the horse, we miss a certain dynamic. It isn’t clear to the horse what should actually be happening and consequently he can’t prepare himself properly. When the rider thinks far enough ahead, her anticipation is translated through her body, and there is the feeling that she gives the horse a subtle suggestion, and then rider and horse complete the movement together.

6: The “Plug” Principle
Our two seat bones are the two prongs of the “plug” of communication. Only when they are in direct contact with the horse can the most important connection occur. The seat bones can only stay in contact with the horse when the rider sits straight with her vertebral column in a natural, neutral, S-shape. A helpful image is to imagine the rider as Donald Duck, with his tail stuck out behind him. (This position should not be confused with riding with a hollow back.)

The lower back musculature must be well trained to be able to sit the canter (for example) while keeping the “plug” plugged in.

7: The Dialogue Principle
Horse and rider both have their part to play in their dialogue of motion. Both are involved in the decision regarding what will be done next. Horse and rider listen to each other and adjust to each other. Every new individual movement is the result of a conversation.

8: The Concentration Principle
Only when the rider fully concentrates on her horse and her task can she expect the same focus on her from her horse.

On the one hand, this principle is simply a matter of courtesy. On the other, the complex mind-body activity of riding can only be mastered when energy is not lost or wasted on other, unrelated tasks. This goes for both the rider and the horse. When one of the two is distracted, the dialogue of motion suffers considerably. For example, shying horses are frequently the result of riders who aren’t concentrating.

9: The “Here-and-Now” Principle
When riding, the only thing that matters is the moment of moving together and what we want to achieve in that motion. Stresses, worries, and problems disturb this process and have no place in the saddle. Negative feelings and experiences should not be taken with us to the barn; they cause us to react unfairly to the horse, our partner.

Even when something goes wrong while riding, the rider shouldn’t brood over it while in the saddle. That goes for during competition as well as in daily practice. You can think about what went awry later. The next movement, and your horse, deserve your full concentration.

Image courtesy of Horse & Rider Books.

This excerpt from Ridden: Dressage from the Horse’s Point of View by Ulrike Thiel is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (

Ariel Grald’s Gymnastic for Small Spaces and Limited Jumps: An Excerpt from ‘Grid Pro Quo’

In this excerpt from Margaret Rizzo McKelvy’s popular book Grid Pro Quo: 52 Powerful Jumping Exercises from the World’s Top Riders, we hear from 5* eventer Ariel Grald about the gymnastic exercise she likes to use to improve rider responsibility in the saddle.

Diagram courtesy of Onawa Rock/Horse and Rider Books.

This is a great exercise for riders who have limited jumps to work with, and perhaps limited space. The setup is easy, and the distances are versatile for horses of varying abilities.


  • 4 jump poles
  • 4 set of jump standards
  • Flower boxes or other filler (optional)
  • Extra ground poles for warm-up


  • You can place this exercise most anywhere in your arena, as long as you can approach it from both directions.
  • Place a few ground poles randomly around your arena for warm-up.


Throughout my everyday training, I try to keep a big focus on rider responsibility versus horse responsibility. To keep it very simple, the preparation for any jumping exercise—namely creating a good, balanced canter to jump from—is completely the rider’s responsibility. Once you get on your line for the exercise, it’s the rider’s job to stay balanced in the middle and out of the horse’s way, as the responsibility is transferred to the horse.

The purpose of this exercise is to combine footwork with coursework. The 21-foot, one-stride distance is your footwork piece, and the 45-foot, three-stride distance is your coursework piece. The challenge is maintaining three strides of even length to your last vertical, and for the horse to remain careful for the last vertical.

Regardless of the level you’re competing, your horse is more likely to get flat and unbalanced the longer you have between fences. This is why practicing how to develop and maintain that perfect show jumping canter is so important. Three strides is the perfect distance to set yourself up for success.


Before you even jump the first jump, be sure your horse is sufficiently warmed up through his body. Try to start with a walk hack whenever possible, then ask him to lengthen and come back within each gait, along with some low-stress lateral work. While your expectations of the horse will change depending on his level of training, he needs to listen to all of your aids, regardless of whether you’re flatting or jumping.

Once you’re confident your horse is properly warmed up on the flat, start trotting and cantering over the ground poles that you have scattered around the arena. This is the time for you to help create the shape and balance to the canter that is appropriate for jumping. Remember, at all times, the horse needs to be responsible for his own feet.

From here, simply start with the whole line of jumps (Jumps A, B, and C) set quite low for your level of jumping. This setup is not intimidating, so for a horse that knows how to jump, it shouldn’t be too difficult to start with all the jumps in place. Of course, if you have a green horse, you can start with the poles on the ground and build it up jump by jump.

As you work through this line of three jumps, you want to keep a few things in mind before you raise the jumps. The biggest thing is to analyze your three-stride combination between Jumps B and C and make sure your horse is taking three even strides. If your horse is landing and rushing a little bit, add a landing pole after Jump B, and, perhaps, add another one in front of Jump C.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, when you have a horse that is a little lazy and behind your leg, add in a canter circle before Jump A. Practice going forward and collecting back on this circle, making sure you can go beyond your perfect canter and come back to a canter that’s a little smaller than perfect, and finally settle in the middle on that perfect canter before heading to Jump A.

Another thing to consider is whether your horse is truly straight through the entire exercise, which includes the few strides before and after the entry and exit. If you have a horse or rider really struggling with straightness, add guide poles on the ground next to the jumps to help them out.

It’s important to keep riding after Jump C, so give yourself something to ride toward. You can get creative with this, and it can be anything from a set of cones to ride through to a cavalletti set on a bending line. Remember your transition back down to the walk between jumping rounds is also part of your exercise. Make every transition count, rather than celebrating after the last vertical and letting your horse fall on his forehand or get crooked.

As you work through the exercise, there are two ways of making it more challenging. You can build up the jumps gradually until they are at your competition height. Or, you can make the jumps more visually interesting by adding or changing the fillers throughout your jump school. And for more advanced horses, use the distance to challenge them a bit by shortening the distances a little to teach them to compress and move their feet faster. In addition, as a way to help work on finding that perfect distance while on course, you can add a ground pole two strides away from Jump A to help practice finding that distance. Just remember that the more poles you put on the ground, the more your horse has to think. I tend to either add poles or raise the jumps, but rarely both at the same time.

I often find that working through this exercise is enough for one jump school. But as your horse becomes more familiar with it, you can always use this as a warm-up as preparation for coursework.

This excerpt from Grid Pro Quo by Margaret Rizzo McKelvy is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (

Two Easy-to-Use Exercises to Improve Canter Rhythm: An Excerpt from ‘Arena Tracks’

In this excerpt from his book Arena Tracks, Christian Baier of Southern Blues Equestrian Center gives us two foundational exercises that help teach horse and rider to adjust stride length and balance and find the ideal approach to an obstacle or combination.

Photo courtesy of Christian Baier.

Exercise 1: Canter Poles to Support Rhythm in the Approach

This setup of poles and obstacles builds on the basic exercise with canter poles on the long sides and diagonals. Utilizing the canter poles helps the horse and rider not only determine suitable rhythm for the situation, but also maintain a suitable and steady rhythm in the approach to the obstacle. The canter poles provide the rider with valuable feedback to determine if the strides are too long and fast, just right, too short and slow, or if the rhythm is changing within the canter poles themselves.

The circles on the short ends can, if needed, be very helpful for horse and rider to make necessary adjustments to the canter stride length and balance to achieve a more ideal approach and rhythm to the next obstacle.

The tracks by themselves are very basic so when the understanding for these are established in dressage work as well as over ground poles, they should not cause any difficulties. When difficulties are present, the solution is generally to go back and review the dressage tracks again and practice them over poles to determine where the source of the problem is. Ideally, the horse should not have to change length of canter stride or speed over the canter poles, assuming the rider established an ideal rhythm for the measured distance between the poles.

When the canter strides are a bit short, the horse will have to lengthen them to reach across the poles, and if the canter strides are a bit long, the horse will have to shorten them to fit the strides in before the obstacle.

• Purpose: Training rhythm in the approach to the obstacle while using canter poles for feedback regarding stride length and speed.

This course can be set in most arena sizes. Setting the poles and obstacles in a way that allows for circles to be ridden on the short ends (as illustrated) can be very helpful for horse and rider in establishing or reestablishing suitable rhythm. The distances used here and in Exercise 2 are generally suitable for the typical Warmblood horse. Distances between the canter poles and the poles and obstacles are 3 meters (9.8 feet). Note: Different types of footing, different arena sizes, and different heights of obstacles require adjustments to the measured distances.


Graphic courtesy of Christian Baier.

Exercise 2: Awareness of Rhythm and Track

This setup of obstacles is a good checkup regarding how rhythm is maintained throughout the course without the help of canter poles as in the previous exercise. Here, instead, the related distance will be a gauge and source of feedback for how the rhythm and length of stride is managed by the rider. Good tracks are important for the course to ride in a harmonious way, while the placement of the obstacles in this course will help the rider in making appropriate choices in regards to the track without the use of cones.

Thinking of this course in three sections, with each section teaching a different set of skills, will help with both warm-up jumping and the later work with the complete course. The first of the three sections of the course is basic level with two single obstacles on the long side, Obstacles 1 and 5, both of which should be built in a way that they are able to be jumped from either direction. The next section is the obstacle in the center that can be ridden on the circle and as change of direction out of the circle. The last described section is the related distance on the opposite long side from the two single obstacles, these are Obstacles 3 and 4, which also should be built in a way that they safely can be jumped from either direction. The three sections can be used in any order, depending what is most suitable for horse and rider. The course itself can also be divided into two sections: Obstacles 1 through 5, and Obstacles 6 through 10. Dividing the course into sections as described can be very helpful for both the trainer teaching the course and the rider learning the course.

• Purpose: To demonstrate awareness of rhythm and basic tracks.

This course can be set in most arena sizes with only minor modifications. For a longer arena, lengthening the related distance and spreading obstacles 1 and 5 farther apart is recommended. The related distance as illustrated here measures 20 meters (65.6 feet) and is suitable for five strides if ridden with normal-sized Warmbloods over low obstacle height.


Graphic courtesy of Christian Baier.

This excerpt from Arena Tracks by Christian Baier is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (

Excerpt: Jack Le Goff’s 7 Rules for Conditioning the Event Horse

In this excerpt from his book “Horses Came First, Second, and Last,” the late great Olympic event coach Jack Le Goff gives us his seven tried-and-true rules for mentally and physically preparing the horse for competition.

Jack Le Goff riding Laurier to third place at Burghley in 1963. Photo courtesy of Jack
Le Goff.

The mental attitude of the horse is of equal importance as the physical conditioning. A relaxed, happy horse will not only compete better but will have far less chance of injury. If a horse is happy in his work, then competing at an event will take less out of him. A calm horse has a longer stride. Take one extra foot on a stride, and multiply that by the number of strides on a cross-country course and you will see a big difference. The horse will be faster on the course with no increase in speed because he is taking fewer strides to do it. The development of your conditioning program should include both the body and the mind and will help the horse do his job at maximum efficiency.

Conversely, if the horse is unhappy, he may not make the extra effort. You can pretty much get the horse up to the Preliminary level whether he enjoys it or not. But when it comes to the big fences, you cannot force him. It is all down to the mental attitude; many horses are physically capable of jumping the heights and widths, but they just will not do it. Horses have to like you and be happy in their work to put out that kind of effort. I see some people who do not ride so well, but horses go for them. I believe someone like that must be a good horseman or horsewoman because the horse wants to work for him or her.

Injuries are often related to the horse’s mental condition. If a horse is relaxed, he is not going to get into half the trouble he will if he is fighting the rider all through the course. Not only is the unhappy horse going to knock himself, he is also going to have problems in his back, muscle soreness, and problems in the shoulders, all because he is mentally unhappy and tense. He is going to run around with his head in the air, unresponsive to his rider, who will then head to the hardware store for a solution instead of the drawing board!

The happy horse will use his body properly. He will be able to make the time between jumps; he will seem like he is flowing, coming back smoothly for turns and flowing forward. His muscles will work freely. The tendons will slide inside the tendon sheath, and they will seldom be injured. The articulated joints will work fluidly. There will be no rubbing or grating because the horse is relaxed. His muscles are relaxed and he is supple, listening, obediently responding to the rider’s aids, and he is covering the ground with relaxed, efficient strides, not wasting an ounce of his energy. This is the epitome of our goal in our training and conditioning program. And again, it all comes down to going forward, coming back, and turning smoothly like a well-oiled machine.

Although there are basic principles to conditioning horses, I never trained two teams the same way and have always adjusted the conditioning of event horses according to specific factors, such as:

1. The distances and speed required and the nature of the terrain of the target competition.

2. The length of time since the horse’s last competition. A horse that has not been competing for several months will need more conditioning than one who is competing regularly.

3. The facilities available for conditioning. Gently rolling open fields are ideal, some hills would be an asset, but you must make the best of what you have nearby.

4. The temperament of the horse. With a hot horse, you must use a lot of long distances at slower speeds. With a more easygoing horse, you will use shorter distances at faster speeds.

5. The age and soundness of the horse. With a horse whose soundness is delicate, you must replace the speed work on the flat with slower work uphill and possibly swimming.

6. The upcoming competitions. When conditioning for a three-day event, the horse trials leading up to it will be a critical part of the horse’s fitness preparation and nothing can replace competition.

7. The rule of three. Three weeks prior to a major competition I always sharpen up the horses with a competition. If you have to travel a long distance to the final competition, then the trial can move to four weeks prior. Racehorse trainers would not conceive running the Kentucky Derby without prep races. Finally, let me say that it is essential that a horse get a rest period after a hard season. They should be turned out for 10 hours a day in a safe pasture whenever possible and for at least three weeks. Young horses at the Preliminary and Intermediate levels don’t need any riding during this decompression period, but an older horse may need a gentle hack to keep his joints loose and his back muscles in decent shape. A rest of less than three weeks simply will not do. Also, a midseason break just doesn’t work as the horse simply won’t let down during that short length of time, but you can give him what I call an “active rest.” This means taking him for hacks with no work as such. It is better to let the groom do it if possible as you would be tempted to do something instead of leaving him alone. Horses can go sour more quickly than people. Treat them like people because they think and react to their conditions and they have feelings; they also need a vacation!

This excerpt from Horses Come First, Second, and Last by Jack Le Goff is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (

Book Excerpt: Managing Conformational Abnormalities Through Hoof Care

In this excerpt from Shoeing the Modern Horse by Steven Kraus, CJF, with Katie Navarra, the head of farrier services at Cornell University explains the importance of understanding conformational defects and how they can be managed with trimming and shoeing for performance longevity.

A shoe with a lateral extension on the heel helps to support a horse with base-narrow conformation.

When it comes to buying property, all you hear is “location, location, location.” When horse shopping all you should listen to is “conformation, conformation, conformation.” Eye appeal, bloodlines, and color dominate the conversation, but how a horse is put together is more important to predict his future performance than any other criteria.

A horse’s build is often discussed in terms of how it enables him to succeed in a given discipline. For example, does the horse have a shoulder tying in too low so that he cannot elevate his front end in quick turns? Can he gather his hindquarters to perform a piaffe? Just as a house needs a sturdy foundation, a working horse needs a correct base. That starts at the bottom of the horse at his hooves and legs. Deciding which horse to buy or how he must be trimmed or shod always starts with conformation.

Now, let us get to the actual details.

Where Do Conformation Defects Start?

Conformation starts in the breeding shed. Focusing on single traits like coat color, competition accomplishments, or show-ring fads emphasizes a “desired look” over functionality. Line-breeding limits genetic diversity, which can bring out hidden conformation defects in subsequent generations. An unsound horse often becomes breeding stock because he can’t perform. Unfortunately, he is likely to produce unsound offspring with the same conformation that predisposed him to lameness or underperformance.

Think of having a basic understanding of equine conformation as being similar to having a crystal ball—it offers a chance at predicting the future. For example, a large horse with small hooves is predisposed to lameness issues more than a horse with appropriate-sized hooves.

The good news is that many conformation abnormalities are manageable through hoof care. Regardless of the discipline or work a horse does, his body structures follow the basic laws of physics: force always equals mass times acceleration. Without reasonably correct conformation, the abnormal forces produced during performance work will cause lameness in predictable ways.

Farriers and veterinarians are in the business of managing the results of unsuitable conformation to enable horses to keep working. When this skilled assistance contributes to a successful career there is a tendency to worry less about conformational defects, especially when the horse does well competitively. The real trouble begins when a talented performer, with undesirable conformation, is selected as a breeding prospect. By selecting horses for breeding based solely on performance, the resulting cross usually reproduces the same defects. As a foal is the only time defects can be corrected, either with trimming, shoeing, or surgery.

Flaws in the mature horse can only be managed, not reversed, with detailed trimming and horseshoe modifications. The visible features in a horse’s body characteristics, like size, color, and conformation, are phenotypes, whereas the genotype is a horse’s genetic constitution.

When the phenotype is altered with interventions like corrective shoeing or surgery, the genotype does not change. So, when foals with crooked legs have been corrected in these ways, they still have the predisposition to reproduce future offspring with the same defects.

In worst-case scenarios, a horse is only pasture-sound. In less severe cases, the horse may not be performing to his fullest potential. As the horse ages, naturally weaker areas are susceptible to tendon and ligament injuries, and arthritis. Specialized shoeing and additional veterinary treatments may be necessary, both of which can significantly increase the cost of ownership—all as a result of not considering conformation in the breeding or selection process.

The tricky part is that there is no “perfect” horse. If you wait for a horse with ideal conformation, you will have an empty stable. It’s unrealistic to think you will find a horse without some conformational aspect that could be improved. That being said, learning the basics of equine conformation remains a guide to good buying and breeding decisions.

Defining the Level of Conformational Issues

Understanding the severity of the defect and management options can be used to support a decision to buy or walk away from a horse. For this reason, it’s helpful to classify conformational defects as mild, moderate, or severe.

 Mild defects are quite common and are not easily recognized. Some can even be considered “normal” when they fall within certain limits. For example, horses can tolerate a slightly crooked leg or pastern angle. A slight misalignment of the fetlocks or knees can also be tolerable. Regular trimming that makes slight adjustments to align the foot with any minor imbalances serves these horses well. A horseshoe that is appropriate for the horse’s work is shaped and further modified to adapt it to any misalignments that the trim could not achieve.

Moderate defects require extra attention, often through shoes specially designed to add support in specific areas of the horse’s foot. For example, a shoe that is shaped to reduce leverage and correct gait faults can keep the horse sound and comfortable. Here is where attention to detail matters. Generic horseshoes without specific modifications will not help a horse with moderate conformation defects.

 Severe defects require critical management decisions. These abnormalities are obvious—there is a noticeable crookedness to the leg or a twist at the joints. Often there are multiple severe defects on the same leg. A high-maintenance individual may not hold up under hard work regardless of the care he receives. Surgery and specialty shoes may be the only options. Caring for a horse with severe defects requires teamwork between a farrier, a veterinarian, and the horse owner to provide the level of trimming and shoeing to compensate for the issue.

Another thing to consider is that the taller and heavier a horse, the more likely he is to have soundness issues from conformational abnormalities. Taller horses produce more leverage on crooked legs or joints that can have negative consequences for bones, joints, and soft tissue.

This excerpt from Shoeing the Modern Horse by Steven Kraus, CJF, with Katie Navarra, is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (



Solving Two Common Problems with the Leg-Yield with Eric Smiley


The leg yield is an essential tool, whether your tests require it or not. Photo by Kris Waldo

In this excerpt from his new book The Sport Horse Problem Solver, former international eventer Eric Smiley uses his easy 5-point system to solve two issues we often run into with the fundamental lateral movement.

The leg-yield is a forward-and-sideways movement, as much forward as it is sideways, with the horse perfectly straight, and an imperceptible bend away from the direction of movement at the poll. This is a great exercise and has many uses.

In a leg-yield to the right, the left rein creates a slight bend to the left. The right rein allows the bend and controls the forwardness. The rider’s left leg goes slightly behind the girth to ask the horse to go sideways. The rider’s right leg is on the girth to “receive” the horse and limit the amount of movement sideways, while at the same time ensuring a forward and connected pace or gait.

Benefits of the exercise include:

• Improvement of the coordination of the rider’s aids.

• Improvement of the horse’s understanding of the rider’s aids.

• Improved balance and connection.

Illustration by Emily Secrett-Hill.

Now let’s talk about two common problems we have with the leg-yield.

Problem: Horse stops going forward in leg-yield. 

Why is the problem there? This occurs because the horse has dropped the connection.

Why does it need solving? It’s a prerequisite of being correct that the horse goes forward in all movements.

How do you solve the problem? Think of traveling from one parallel line to another. As already directed, in a leg-yield to the right, the rider’s left leg is slightly behind the girth, asking for the sideways movement. The right leg (on the girth) is the aid that ensures the forward (as much forward as it is sideways), so use it actively and send the horse straight for a few steps to reconnect the push from the hind legs. Then go sideways again. Get a few more steps sideways and then go straight again to ensure you reconfirm the connection.

As this exercise becomes more refined and the conversation between the horse and the aids is better understood, you’ll be able to accomplish both sideways and forward in the moment. It is as if your sideways aid “gives” the horse to the forward aid, which says, “thank you” and ensures connection at every step. The aid becomes unobtrusive. It’s a physical exercise that depends on a mental understanding. Balance improves through the physical control, and thus the quality of the gait can be maintained. Now the “7” or “8” mark that you achieve while going straight in the dressage arena will stay a “7” or “8” when going sideways as well.

When your horse tries to convince you that it is enough just to go sideways without also going forward, you may need to alter your priorities. Reduce the amount of sideways in favor of going forward, and be quick to remind the horse of the importance of this connection. Often you will feel a lovely, lively trot when going in a straight line suddenly disappear when the horse is asked to go sideways. It’s difficult to maintain forward and regular when the connection has been dropped. Your score of “7” or “8” going straight suddenly gets reduced to a “5” or “6.” Riders must be very alert to feel when the connection gets dropped and reconnect with the help of the forward aids as quickly as possible. Either abort the movement to ensure connection remains, as that is the priority, or if the horse allows, continue the movement with regained connection.

The horse must never be allowed to develop the mindset that, “I’ll drop the connection at the hint of lateral work.”

Problem: The horse’s hindquarters lead. 

Why is the problem there? In this instance, the act of asking for the slight left bend will automatically block the natural drift of the left shoulder. The horse then becomes too responsive to the left leg. The issue will now be ensuring that the hindquarters don’t lead and that the horse brings the shoulder in line with the hindquarters.

Why does it need solving? Remaining parallel to the direction of movement is always difficult, but it’s necessary to properly execute the leg-yield.

How do you solve the problem? The rider’s aids must be coordinated to communicate what is desired. Each aid has a role—to ask and correct. The horse must pay attention to the correction the rider seeks to maintain the right position. Bending left will most likely be harder to encourage than bending right. Work in hand can help this. The hindquarters will be inclined to drift to the right, so the use of the rider’s left leg has to be subtle and the positioning not too far back from the girth. The forehand will be the reluctant part to move over, so the rider’s left leg may actually need to come forward closer to the girth area as the right hand gently leads the forehand to the right. Too much use of the right hand and the bend to the left—part of the leg-yield to the right—may disappear.

Throughout the movement to the right the horse mustn’t try to move the hindquarters more than the forehand. The forehand is the part of “this” horse that will tend to get left behind, so we must be constantly aware of that likelihood.

This excerpt from The Sport Horse Problem Solver by Eric Smiley is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books ( To order your copy, click here.

Rein-Back the Right Way: An Excerpt from ‘The Principles of Riding’

In this excerpt from “The Principles of Riding,” the classic book from the German Equestrian Federation (FN), we learn what makes for a correct rein-back and how to correct common rider mistakes that lead to issues in the movement.

Photo courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books

When performing rein-back, the horse moves backwards with each diagonal pair of legs in unison. The diagonal steps are in the same sequence of leg as in trot, but without the moment of suspension. Therefore, as with trot, the footfall of rein-back is referred to as steps. The horse should step back willingly, markedly and on a straight line, with even steps. The horse’s feet should be lifted actively off the ground and set down backwards. This can only be achieved when the rider manages to have a controlled driving influence, even when going backwards. The rider’s aids are comparable to riding half-halts, which means that the horse is ridden into the sustaining or lightly asking hand, from back to front, with weight and leg aids. This is then followed by a giving rein aid.

Specifically, rein-back is ridden with the following aids, with the precondition that the horse is in a square halt on a straight line.

  • The rider needs to have the horse on the driving aids so that she would be able to ride off at any time without any delay.
  • By tilting the pelvis backward, a weight aid on both sides carefully gives a forward impulse without placing any more weight on the horse’s back (the upper body remains erect).
  • The rider’s lower legs both provide a forward-driving impulse to enable an active lifting and, subsequently, stepping back of the horse’s legs.
  • Both reins work briefly in a retaining or slightly asking manner and then immediately yield again. The diagonal pair of feet lifted off the ground through the driving aids steps back; the movement impulse being diverted in a backward direction.
  • This giving of aids as an interplay of driving, regulating and then once again giving aids is continued step by step until the horse is brought to a halt by the last half-halt.
  • Any sideways stepping of the horse is countered by the rider bringing the forehand onto the same track as the hindquarters, but not by pushing over the hindquarters.
  • Rein-back is completed when the rider rides the horse clearly forward using the leg and weight aids and gives with the hands without giving up the connection.

 Typical seat-and-aid mistakes/possible reactions of the horse:

  • If the rider uses the rein aids in a dominant or exaggerated way, she makes it very difficult for the horse to step backwards. If the contact becomes tight and stiff, or if the neck is too “short,” and the support from the driving aids is lacking, the horse will not go backwards with clear two-beat steps. The feet are instead dragged backwards (for example, dragging forehand). If resistance also emerges, the horse will tense up in the back. The horse is then no longer able to step backwards with a pure rhythm.
  • If the rider reacts incorrectly to the horse escaping sideways, owing to natural crookedness, for example by positioning a leg slightly too far back or by a rein that is directing minimally sideways, the horse might step backwards in an entirely crooked way. However, crooked steps can also be caused by an uneven use of leg and rein aids.
  • If the rider leans the upper body forward and at the same time, places the lower leg too far back, she no longer has the horse “in front” of her. The aids are then reduced to the rein aids only. In this case, horses frequently tend to drag their feet backwards in an irregular sequence, or they become too rushed.
  • Excessive forward-driving aids cannot be understood by the horse if it is meant to step backwards. In this instance the rider works against the forward tendency with distinct rein aids. The horse will react with resistance.

Photo courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books

This excerpt from The Principles of Riding from the German Equestrian Federation is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (

What Does the Perfect Half-Halt Actually Feel Like?

In this excerpt from Rider + Horse = 1, leading expert in movement and riding Eckart Meyners is joined by Hannes Müller and Kerstin Niemann in explaining how half of anything can make the whole difference.

Photo by Horst Streitferdt.

It is always a risky undertaking to try to describe “feel.” Just as it is impossible to dispute matters of taste, each rider would probably describe her riding “feel” a bit differently when she applies a half-halt. An attempt to describe the feel could be something like this: The horse determines the right moment, which is when all the horse’s joints are flexing during movement. This is when the rider “gathers” the horse’s impulsion into a slightly more closed body frame (shape).

To explain further, the horse flexes his large joints from the hip through the stifle to the hock, and farther on down. Thus, his pelvis is tilted, his croup lowers, and his muscles cause his back to arch slightly upward. As a prerequisite, the rider needs to be very supple on the horse’s back since her pelvis must “receive” the movement of the horse’s arching back and follow it, meaning she slightly tilts backward and her pelvis gets “sucked” into the horse’s back movement. As a result, she will feel how her lower leg softly and automatically “clings” to the horse’s body, since her backward-tilted pelvis initiates the driving impulse in her lower leg. At the same time, her hands follow the movement of her pelvis.

During the moment of suspension in the horse’s trot or canter, the rider’s pelvis tilts slightly forward again, and as a result, her lower leg somewhat disconnects from the horse’s body and her hands move slightly and elastically forward. This is the moment when the rider “lets the horse’s forward impulsion out.” When the horse’s hooves make contact with the ground and the joints flex once more, the rider can utilize the next half-halt in the rhythm that is predetermined by the horse. This way, the rider can influence the horse with many consecutive half-halts that accompany the horse’s every movement—sometimes more, sometimes less pronounced. The functional principle is similar to a perpetual motion machine, since all the horse’s movements, whether at the walk, trot, or canter, give the rider the recurring opportunity to use the half-halt technique to influence the horse.

Since describing how and to what extent half-halts are applied is so complex, consider this thought: “The horse ‘collects’ the half-halt from the rider.” This means that through the rhythm and sequence of his movement, the horse determines how and to what extent the rider applies the half-halt; however, this should not mean that the half-halt is ridden in a reactive manner: Being able to actively utilize the half-halt requires a great deal of coordination on the part of the rider.

The following example is a fitting comparison: Take a ball and keep bouncing it on the floor with one hand. When the ball jumps up toward your hand, you first receive the ball’s movement, meaning you act reactively. Then, however, you can influence the ball’s direction and dynamics by lifting and lowering your wrist. You are, therefore using your own activity to bring energy into the “conversation” between a human hand and the ball. Just like when bouncing a ball, the rider must use her proprioception and skills in order to find the correct moment for the half-halt. Those who have developed proprioception during their riding education can “feel” the point in time when they must collect the horse’s impulsion, retain it, then with a yielding rein aid, immediately allow the horse to swing forward.

Coordination of Aids

The rider must be prepared to coordinate her aids during the half-halt, a big test of her riding skills and coordination. But she cannot learn this simply by “being moved” passively (“reacting” rather than “acting”) on a schoolmaster. Furthermore, since there are no comparable skills that a rider can fall back on that would allow her to transfer the skill to riding, this transfer must occur by using a rider’s various abilities.

Just as it is part of training for other sports, the rider should be able to fulfill intricate, complex tasks, which must occur simultaneously, consecutively, and under time pressure. As a consequence the rider becomes more sensitive to her coordination abilities. She can then act and react during situational changes without any difficulty.

Cross-coordination exercises turning around the rider’s longitudinal axis provide the best preparation since they involve using both sides of the body via the brain … these exercises assist with the interplay of aids—especially across the diagonals of your body.

Suggested Exercises

These exercises can help the rider increasingly become better able to fine-tune her aids and her influence while applying the half-halt.

  • Walking and circling one arm.
  • Walking and circling both arms consecutively—like a windmill—from front
    to back, and vice versa.
  • Walking and circling both arms at the same time from front to back, and vice
  • Skipping and circling both arms from back to front, and vice versa.
  • Stand on balance trainer on both legs and throw a ball from left hand to right
  • Stand on balance trainer on one leg and throw a ball up in the air.

The goal is for the rider to not only reactively experience the half-halt, but to be able to actively use it in order to change the horse’s gait, movement, and posture. Nowhere does the conversation between rider and horse become more clearly apparent than in the skillful application of half-halts.

This excerpt from Rider + Horse = 1 by Eckart Meyners, Hannes Müller, and Kerstin Niemann, is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (

Jack Le Goff: The Need for ‘Eye Control’

In this excerpt from his book Horses Came First, Second, and Last, legendary coach Jack Le Goff talks about the importance of using your eyes properly on course.

Jack Le Goff and Image on their way to a team bronze medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960. Photo courtesy of Jack Le Goff.

Whether it is on the flat in a dressage ring, in a show-jumping ring, or on a cross-country course, the eyes are the first and most important tool that a rider has. Most of my life, I have heard instructors yelling, “Keep your eyes up.” Of course, that is true, but do their students know why they are being asked to do this? There is more to it than just saying the words. The eyes should anticipate the track you are following for jumping fences, just enough to make sure you are on the track you walked for riding your course. In dressage, your eyes should be only a few strides ahead as the speed is slow and you know the geometry of the figures in the dressage arena. If you turn your head too much to one side, you are likely to get your horse off the track that you are supposed to follow. One word of caution: your head weighs between 20 and 30 pounds. If you move your head over to one side or the other, you will totally alter the balance, the direction, and the straightness. So if you have a bad habit of tilting your head, then I say, “get rid of it!” The habit, that is.

I have said for years that horses will follow your eyes. Nothing is truer because your eyes dictate the desired position needed to make a turn to the rest of your body. Consequently, it has a significant influence on your weight and balance. I have repeatedly used the example of a racecar going downhill as fast as possible and asked students to think what would happen if the driver took his eyes off the road ahead.

There is also one other imperative factor that is related to the use of the eyes and that is the sense of balance. Without getting too involved in physics, let’s accept that the center of gravity is directly under our feet. When moving forward on a horse, the balance is obviously always moving forward directly under you at a 90-degree angle. So if you keep your eyes on that 90-degree angle relative to the ground (center of gravity), you are in the best place to detect if your horse is speeding up, slowing down, or changing his balance or direction. Please experiment. Look down first and see where the center of gravity is, then raise your eyes directly in front of you and look straight ahead so your line of sight is parallel to the ground. This line will always put you at a 90-degree angle from your center of gravity and down to the ground. I would be surprised if you could not feel a remarkable difference. It is like riding a bicycle or driving a car: you will be able to feel, as well as see, whether the horse is staying on a straight line and whether he increases his speed or slows down. I guarantee you will feel it.

Observing horses teaches you a lot of things. When a horse is jumping please concentrate on his eyes and you will be able to tell at which precise moment he sees the jump. You will then see him react to that jump: he will run to it, slow down, or avoid it. The sooner the horse sees the fence, the sooner he will react to it and the more time the rider has to adjust his riding to the horse’s reaction and make the necessary corrections for a successful jump. So get his eyes on the fence as soon as you can…. People have often heard me shout, “Get his eyes on the jump!” The best way to do this is to get him straight in his neck between the reins. 

This excerpt from Horses Came First, Second, and Last by Jack Le Goff is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (