30-minute flatwork lesson

Use dressage trainer Vikki Hayton’s advice to combine three easy exercises and make a handy 30-minute lesson. The beauty of this particular lesson is that it will engage your horse and lift his forehand. Here we go...

Your horse naturally carries more weight on his shoulders, but having a rider on his back increases the pressure on his front, causing him to fall onto his forehand.

Lifting from this requires your horse to re-establish the balance and move his weight onto his hindquarters.

While this move would win you extra points in a dressage test, it can also improve your horse’s jump, as he’ll use more power from his rear legs to propel higher in the air.

Combine these three exercises to create a 30-minute workout that balances your horse and lifts his forehand.

Exercise 1: Half-halts

Riding a half-halt engages your horse and rebalances him. This exercise will help you to bring your horse to balance on his hindquarters, rather than his forehand.

How to ride it

Establish a good trot before transitioning to walk

Establish a good trot before transitioning to walk

Begin with an active walk, maintaining an equal and soft contact down the rein to ensure that your horse is straight and start to transition between walk and trot to get him moving.

Once you feel happy that your transitions are fluid and balanced, you can focus on your half-halt.

Establish a good trot and then transition smoothly down into walk, applying pressure to the reins without pulling.

Walk for four paces before trotting again. Repeat this until you achieve four clear paces of walk and then reduce the number of walking paces to three, two and then one.

The final part of the exercise needs you to imagine that your horse will take only a half step of walk from the trot.

Prepare to transition down into walk, again without pulling on the reins. Maintain a light leg aid and as soon as you feel that your horse is about to walk, ride forward back up into trot.

This is where you achieve your half-halt, with the horse’s hindquarters coming underneath him, lifting him off his forehand.

After perfecting this, you can up the pace and try the same in canter. 

Exercise 2: Transitions

Ride smooth transitions into canter

Ride smooth transitions into canter

Direct transitions in your schooling will engage your horse and get him moving forward and uphill.

Working on this exercise for 10 minutes is also a great way to begin working towards a flying change.

How to ride it

Start on a circle and ask your horse to halt. Keep your hands light, as too much pressure will make him fall onto the forehand. Halt for four seconds and then ask for an upward transition into trot. Repeat this several times until you feel happy with the response.

Next, try the same with walk to canter transitions. Walk for four paces on a 20m circle and then transition up into canter. Repeat this until you achieve four clear paces of walk and a smooth upward transition to canter. Mistakes can be made when the walk isn’t established, so ensure you keep a good rhythm. Counting is key to this exercise.

As you and your horse progress, try reducing the paces of walk down to three, two and then one. You can also try moving the exercise off the circle and onto a straight line.

Exercise 3: Rein back

A rein-back – a move where the horse steps backwards – will make your horse think and help him to lighten his canter, as he puts more weight onto his hindquarters and lifts off of his forehand. While it’s not recommended for youngsters, this exercise helps to engage established horses and get them going uphill.

How to ride it

Begin by using your leg contact to ask your horse to move, but maintain the pressure on the reins, squeezing gently on each rein alternately. This pressure will prevent the horse releasing energy forwards, and instead make him step back.

In the rein-back, you want the horse to step back in clear diagonal pairs. It’s important not to pull on your horse’s mouth as he’ll pull back and you’ll end up in a fight. Instead, maintain a clear aid that keeps energy on the reins, as this encourages your horse to step under and back.

Take three to four steps back, release the hand aids and transition upwards to trot.

When you feel comfortable with this, try the same in canter.

This is a useful exercise for lifting off the forehand, but it’s important to include halts in your schooling without reining-back, otherwise he’ll get into the habit of travelling backwards.

Improve your core for riding

The key to feeling safe and in control, whatever your pace or discipline, lies in your core strength. Improve this and you’ll become a better, more effective rider in an instant. Want to know what sports or exercise will help you to improve your core for riding? Read on....

Straightforward Pilates offers a great way to work on your strength and flexibility, but Lindsay Wilcox-Reid has developed her own version, entirely dedicated to riders. Through Equipilates Lindsay teaches riders to control their core in order to find the best possible position. She also gives one-on-one tuition to help riders apply what they’ve learnt to their riding, in the saddle.

Here she suggests some easy-to-do-at-home exercises*.

“The core stability muscles (transversus abdominis, obliques and mid/lower trapezius) are all used to keep the body in correct alignment once established. These are particularly necessary when your horse (or you) is likely to lose balance, such as during transitions or changes of rein,” says Lindsay. “If you’re correctly aligned and balanced you’re easier for your horse to carry. So by working on the following exercises you can strengthen your core and become more aware of what your body is doing when you ride.”

First, find your neutral spine

Neutral spine, or more specifically in relation to the upcoming exercises ‘neutral pelvis’ describes the correct alignment of your body and should be the basis for every exercise you do. To achieve neutral pelvis, your pubic bone and hip bones must be on the same horizontal plane:

finding neutral spine
  • Lie flat on the floor with your knees bent and your feet flat to the ground (this is your start position).
  • Place the heels of your hands on your hips bones while extending your index fingers to your pubic bone and flattening your thumbs to your stomach to create a triangle shape.
  • Imagine that a bowl of water rests on the triangle and by tilting your pelvis back (so your spine flattens to the floor) the water would spill onto your stomach. The water will spill onto your legs when you tilt your pelvis forwards.
  • Try to tilt the imaginary bowl in each direction a few times until your hip bones and pubic bone are on the same horizontal plane. In this position no water would spill form the bowl and you’re in neutral.

Ex 1. The pelvic tilt

This exercise will help to strengthen your core in a way that will improve your ability to control the position and alignment of your pelvis in the saddle.

·      Adopt your start position and find your neutral pelvis.

  • Take a breath, then as you exhale tilt your pelvis back (spilling the water from the bowl onto your stomach).
  • Breathe in once more and as you exhale return your pelvis to neutral.

Tip: Keep your tummy very hollow – if you find that it bulges out you’re using the wrong muscles.

Ex 2. Leg float

leg float.jpg

This exercise will challenge your abdominal (transversus abdominis) and pelvic floor muscles.

  • Adopt your start position and find your neutral pelvis.
  • Breathe in, then as you breathe out, gently bring your left leg up into the air, with your knee bent at a 90 degree angle. Stop when your lower leg is parallel to the ground.
  • Breathe in then slowly bring your foot slowly back down to the floor as you breathe out.
  • Change legs and repeat.

*To increase the difficulty, lift both legs simultaneously while in a pelvic tilt.

Tip: There should be no movement of the pelvis whatsoever so to feel for any unwanted movement keep your fingers on your hips throughout.

Ex 3. Arm float

arm float exercise

The arm float strengthens you upper abdominal muscles helping to straighten out a hollow back.

  • Adopt your start position and find your neutral pelvis.
  • Breathe in, then as you breathe out, gently bring your arms up into the air.
  • Breathe in again then slowly bring your arms back down to the floor as you breathe out.

*To increase the difficulty, lift both arms simultaneously then lift your head up and forward.

Ex 4. Spine twist

To be able to effectively ride your horse on circles, in the correct position, you need to be able to rotate your upper body independently from your pelvis. The ‘spine twist’ can be used to strengthen and stretch your oblique muscles making this easier to do.

  • Establish your start position and neutral pelvis.
  • Bring your palms together as if you’re about to pray and your thumbs towards your body, pressing them to your sternum.
  • Gently squeeze your shoulder blades together at the back to open your chest.
  • Keeping your eyes forward and your nose in line with your thumbs, turn your upper body, as far as it will go, to the left then to the right without moving the ball.

*As seen in Your Horse magazine.

Give belly dancing a go!

Some of the skills used in pilates such as muscle rotation, flexibility and use of all the different abdominal and back muscles are also used in belly dance. So, if you’re looking for a fun alternative to pilates or the gym, find a class in your local area and give it a go.

Lindsay Wilcox-Reid

Lindsay Wilcox-Reid

Find out more about Lindsay Wilcox-Reid

To find out more about Lindsay and her work, visit her website www.equipilates.com. there you'll also find information on her three great books: Pilates For Riders, Core Connection For Horse and Rider and Improve Your Position: The rider's ABC

Fitness programme for event horses

Ensure that you’re ready for to get this season off to a flying start with our specially designed fitness programme for event horses.

To compete in eventing, your horse needs to be fit enough for the job

To compete in eventing, your horse needs to be fit enough for the job

If you compete in eventing your horse will need to be fit enough to do the job. With this in mind, he’ll need plenty of road work at the start of the season. This might state with road work, for example, horses might be ridden in walk on the roads for one hour a day, for a total of four weeks. Walking is really good for your horse’s heart, lungs and for hardening his tendons and it doesn’t have to be dull. While you’re in this roadwork only stage, use the time you spend on board to ride suppling exercises such as shoulder-in. You can also work on riding transitions from medium walk to free walk on a long rein and back to medium walk.

If bad weather makes it hard for you to get out on the roads, you can work in an arena. Do lots of stretch work, ride lots of big circles and plenty of changes of rein. Use this time to get your horse soft and swinging through his back.

Hill work

Use hills to your advantage when building your horse's fitness

Use hills to your advantage when building your horse's fitness

With four weeks of roadwork under your belt, gradually introduce hill work and light schooling once or twice a week. Alternate the days spent hacking, schooling or doing hill work with sessions on the lunge – you might like to lunge your horse, perhaps even in a pessoa or bungee. It’s important to work your horse without any weight on his back – this also gives you a good opportunity to see how they’re working from the ground.

Interval training

Interval training is a great way to build up your horse’s heart rate. Use ‘Set 1’, below, for one or two weeks in the earlier stages of your fitness plan before your horse is ready for some more intense work. Then move on to SET 2.


Ride in a brisk trot, on good ground in three intervals of six minutes with a walk break in-between. As your horse’s fitness and consequent recovery rate improves, up your intervals to four minutes. Make sure your horse is working in a good, forward rhythm and that he’s straight. Change the diagonal every so often too.


When your horse is ready to work that little bit harder, try using this second set, maintaining a good rhythm in each pace:

  • 20 minutes: Walk
  • 10 minutes: Brisk trot
  • 5 minutes: Walk
  • 2 sets of 3 minutes (3 minutes of walk in-between): Forward canter
Grid work will help to improve your horse's balance

Grid work will help to improve your horse's balance

Some horses respond better to sprint work that opens their pipes rather than long intervals of strong and steady canter. On these horses, ride short bursts of fast canter instead.

Grid work

When you begin your canter work you can introduce some grid work. Start with a placing pole followed by a cross pole and build up your grid with bounces and doubles. Concentrate on jumping straight and in a good rhythm to improve your horse’s balance. When your horse reaches the desired fitness level, maintain it with canter work (interval training/sprint work) every four days, regular roadwork (and time spent on a walker if you have access to one), grid work and regular schooling.

Feeding for fitness

Expert advice to keep your horse fit from the inside out:

  • Pick the right feed for your horse’s job
  • Only feed for the work your horse does – don’t increase feed unnecessarily
  • Always introduce new feeds gradually
  • Consider supplements, such as electrolytes, when your horse’s is working hard and competing
  • Speak to an equine nutritionist if you’re in doubt about your horse’s diet