Challenge the Horse to Find Better Balance

Heather Blitz critiques Nuala Galbari at Intro Level.

This is Nuala Galbari and her 6-year-old Thoroughbred gelding, Captain Jack Sparrow of Skibbereen. He is an ex-racehorse who, after a long break from the track, is working at Introductory Level dressage. She is also new to dressage and hasn’t ridden for the past 40 years leading up to having Jack Sparrow. She says that he can have some head-tossing issues and has tantrums on the longe line, but he’s settling down. 

In the photo below you can see that Jack Sparrow has not yet had enough training to have developed the correct muscles to carry himself in an athletic balance. His lower back is a bit weak and drooping, he is not engaging his abdominal muscles and he is putting a lot of weight into his chest, which lowers his withers and thus flattens his neck. He looks happy and unrestricted, but I am wondering how much he respects Nuala and whether he’s listening to her enough. Her tack and equipment are appropriate, but the noseband is adjusted too low, which can result in a pinch between it and the bit when pressure is applied to the rein. It’s possible this is a reason for his head-tossing. Some horses prefer a drop noseband if they are particularly sensitive.

Credit: Courtesy, Nuala Galbari Nuala Galbari and Captain Jack Sparrow of Skibbereen, a 6-year-old Thoroughbred gelding, ride at Introductory Level.

Assuming Jack Sparrow has gotten his tantrums out of the way with an appropriate amount of ground work, Nuala needs to start asking her horse more questions that challenge him in a way that makes him concentrate on her. Those questions can be as simple as halt–walk transitions, but they need to be prompt and crisp and with the intention of getting his attention. Prompt transitions not only work extremely well to get the horse’s attention, but they also start the subject of teaching him to find his balance. The way Jack Sparrow carries his back and abdominal muscles makes me think he doesn’t know much about his center of gravity or his torso in general. If Nuala asks him to make simple transitions more prompt, he will naturally start to learn about core strength and balance.

When I teach promptness in transitions, I ask my students to imagine what the horse would be saying in words in response to their requests. The ideal response to a request to go is “Yes ma’am!” with a happy, obedient tone. I imagine Jack might say something like: “What? Go again? OK, OK … I’ll do it.” You don’t want, “Yikes! OK!” but just a cheery “Yes ma’am.” If he doesn’t stop promptly, I imagine his head might goup more and his topline might hollow more when she asks. Most riders will do whatever they can to prevent this and keep the head down during a transition like that. But that may have to move down the priority list until the halt first happens promptly. It takes more balance and readiness for a horse to “Yes ma’am” transitions, making it a natural way to teach him to engage his core. With some further walk work, I would expect to see Jack Sparrow’s stride longer and more energetic. This will encourage him to track up as much as possible so his hind hoof steps into or in front of his front hoof print. This will create a correct working walk.

Nuala has a fairly good position on her horse, but I would tweak a few things. Her thigh is slightly too horizontal, although that may be the all-purpose saddle she’s sitting in. I like that her knee is well bent, but her toe is pointing a bit outward. She needs to keep an equal amount of weight across her foot instead of what I think is more pressure on her big toe than pinky toe. That adjustment would need to come from more inward rotation of her thigh.

Her elbow could be more confirmed by her side and less compensating to her horse’s wish to not really accept the bit. Nuala has quite a project here but I think she is up to the challenge.

Heather Blitz is a Grand Prix competitor and trainer. She is the United States alternate for the 2012 Olympic Games with her gelding, Paragon. Just last year the pair won team gold and individual silver medals at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico.
No stranger to the international arena, Blitz joined the U.S. Equestrian Federation Long List while working as head trainer at Oak Hill Ranch in Louisiana, where she rode its DanishWarmblood stallion Rambo DVE 373. In 2006, she piloted the stallion’s daughter, Arabella, to the reserve spot on the World Equestrian Games team.


During her seven years at Oak Hill Ranch, Blitz rode a broodmare she loved so much that she decided to breed her, producing a horse by Blue Hors Don Schufro out of Pari Lord by Loran. The result was her Pan American partner, Paragon. After their success in 2011, the pair moved up to the Grand Prix during the winter season in Florida. They qualified for the World Dressage Masters 5* during Paragon’s CDI debut at that level, earning impressive scores.

Blitz holds a B.S. in equine science from Colorado State University. She credits her biomechanics coach, Mary Wanless, as the biggest influence on her development as a rider and instructor. They have been working together since 1993. Blitz is based in Wellington, Florida (

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