Observing & Developing your eye

When I started out teaching I often didn’t know what to say, because I didn’t know how to observe and respond accordingly. This post was inspired by a handout I came across a while ago and a recent book I’ve been reading that would have helped me back then! Enjoy!


ob·ser·va·tion – noun

: a statement about something you have noticed : a comment or remark

: the act of careful watching and listening : the activity of paying close attention to someone or something in order to get information

: something you notice by watching and listening

(merriam-webster dictionary)

Observing is fundamental to teaching because it allows you to give helpful feedback of corrections or praise regarding what the rider is doing. You should be constantly observing, evaluating, and giving feedback.


Observing to give feedback involves developing your eye to notice certain things in both the horse and rider. In general, the instructor can look for the following.

Observe the Rider

  • Lines of position
    • From side
      • Pelvis: neutral
      • Eyes: looking forward
      • Vertical: straight line through head, hip, and heel
      • Horizontal: straight line from bit to hand to elbow
    • From back
      • Vertical: Spine centered above horse’s spine
      • Horizontals: shoulders, hips, heels –even or parallel
    • Energy flow
      • Chest/shoulders: open, relaxed, chest lifted (vs. rounded, stiff, etc.)
      • Seat: follows horse’s energy, as seen through hip movement
      • Weight: drops from head, down core, splits down insides of legs (thighs relaxed), and out the heel
      • Shock absorbers: hip, knee, ankle – absorb impact like springs, strong, supple
      • Joints: elastic, open
    • Mind
      • Communication (if less verbal, give opportunities for self expression, make adaptations, etc.)
      • Decision making (if indecisive, give choices, give opportunities to make small easy successful decisions, etc.)
      • Planning (if difficulties, work together to plan, give prompts etc.)
      • Positivity (if negative, redirect, be positive, interject positive self talk, etc.)
      • Focus (if distracted, redirect, refocus, ignore, etc)
      • Confidence (if lacking, horse may be hesitant, etc.)

Observe the Horse

(Examples given of negative reactions and possible causes).

  • Body
    • Ears – forward, relaxed (vs pinned, flicking = poor tack fit, rider tense or crooked, horse is sore, etc.)
    • Mouth – quiet, accepts bit (vs grinding = rider tense or stiff, horse is sore or has poor training, etc.)
    • Jaw – soft (vs locked = rider tight in hands, elbows and shoulders, etc.)
    • Neck – relaxed (vs stiff = rider has tight upper body and hands, etc.)
    • Tail – quiet, swinging (vs pinned, swishing = poor tack fit, rider is tense or stiff or crooked, horse is sore, etc.)
  • Gaits
    • Calm, free, pure, even (vs uneven, choppy, jigging = poor tack fit, rider is tense or stiff, rider’s seat is tight or uneven, horse is sore or had poor training, etc.)
    • Energetic: back to front, from pushing hind end, though relaxed back, to neck, back through reins to rider’s fingers (vs. unengaged, lazy, hollow = uneducated rider, poor leader, etc.)
  • Bit contact
    • Quiet, elastic, self carriage (vs pulls on reins, leans on bit = rider lacks independent hands or is stiff, horse does not accept bit or is stiff, etc.)
  • Direction
    • On track (vs wandering = rider not focused or giving clear directions, horse is stiff, etc.)
  • Transitions
    • Straight, relaxed (vs crooked, stiff = rider is uneducated or stiff, horse is stiff or sore or poorly trained, etc.)

Remember that riding, balance and symmetry involve both the horse and the rider, so although I listed them separately, the instructor must observe them as a whole.


Observation involves noticing the pieces of the whole, because it’s the pieces that allow you to give more specific feedback to help the rider improve. This is where task analysis comes in. When you explain a skill, you break it down into parts. These parts are what you look for when you observe the rider, and you can use them to identify what corrections and praises to give. It also might help to compare the rider to a picture in your head of what the ideal skill execution should look like, and notice the differences to figure out what the problem might be.

For example, if the skill is the sitting trot and the rider is bouncing, a new instructor might say, “Don’t bounce.” But this won’t help because they aren’t identifying the specific part of the whole that is causing issues, or how to help it. Specific parts, discovered through task analysis, might include:

  • Alignment
  • Pelvis alignment and relaxation or tension
  • Legs relaxed or bracing against the stirrups
  • Heels down, level, or up
  • Horse’s gait is bouncy
  • Leader is or is not helping the horse maintain a good pace
  • Rider’s physical disability interferes


Learning what to observe and how to respond takes practice and education. You can develop your eye through the following.

  • Experience (= practice + time)
  • Reflection
  • Ask your students about their experience, and compare it to your observations
  • Educate yourself. You can only notice what you know, so continued education is key to improving your observing and feedback skills.

I hope that helps! Have a great weekend!


  • “Equestrian Instruction: An Integrated Approach to Teaching & Learning” by Jill K. Hassler-Scoop
  • Notes from handout of which I didn’t record the name/author


Note: This is not professional advice, this is a blog. I am not liable for what you do with or how you use this information. The activities explained in this blog may not be fit for every rider, riding instructor, or riding center depending on their current condition and resources. Use your best personal judgement!

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