Speed Demon: Teach your horse to slow down on command
My 12-year-old Appendix Quarter Horse is always in a hurry—even to get around the arena! I’m always pulling back on her mouth to slow her down, but she speeds up again right away. We’re in a constant battle. My friend suggested I use a stronger bit, but I hate the thought of putting even more pressure on her mouth. What can I do to help her slow down so we can both have a relaxed and peaceful ride?
Searching for Slow
Sometimes it seems like there are only two kinds of horses in this world: horses with too much go and horses with too much whoa. In the overall scheme of things, a slow horse is easier to fix than a fast one, but there are some important things to know about slowing down your fast horse.
Since speediness is related to the horse’s flight response, it’s safe to assume that the speed demons are sensitive horses; they’re often anxious. They just have that wound up temperament—just like a person who’s prone to worrying. If you can show your horse a better way to be—he’ll gladly relax and slow down.
Because being speedy has to do with his overall temperament, a stronger bit probably won’t help and may make matters worse. When your horse feels the increased pressure on his mouth, he may become even more anxious. And guess what horses do when they become anxious? Speed up! That’s the flight response by definition. In the wild, a horse would flee the scene if he felt insecure or worried. Under saddle, your horse speeds up and attempts to avoid the worrisome experience.
Many riders don’t know what to do with their speed demons—so they pull back on their horses’ mouths. It sounds like this is the frustration you’re explaining. When your horse is speedy, you ride with the reins tight all of the time—never giving your horse slack. In essence, it’s like driving with one foot on the accelerator and one on the brakes. Your horse is already to accelerate and—although you think you’re telling him to slow down—he hasn’t felt a release (what he needs to experience in order to learn another way) to tell him to do anything but keep going at his current speed. If the release never comes (even if it’s only momentary when he slows down at the tiniest of increments), he’ll never learn the right response. This fear-causing scenario may cause you to pull back more and your horse to speed up even more. You may also be inadvertently cueing your horse to go faster if your body becomes tense and you lean forward to pull harder on the reins. Your body tells your horse to go-go-go while you think you’re telling him to stop. Volume two in my Goodnight’s Principles of Riding DVD series explains how your weight/center of gravity cues your horse and rates your speed.
And let’s think about the mechanics of what happens in your horse’s mouth when you get into this pulling fest. Even with no pressure on the reins, it’s not pleasant for your horse to have a metal bar in his mouth. Any pull on the reins brings uncomfortable pressure. I like to empathize with the horse by thinking what it’s like to have x-rays of my teeth taken at the dentist. The slightest pressure on my gums or roof of my mouth with that little cardboard piece of film makes me cringe. Keep in mind that horses have nerves in their lips, gums and palate just like we do and the pressure can be sharp and may come without any warning. Some horses tolerate pressure on their mouths better than others. For a sensitive, anxious horse, more pressure on the mouth makes him more anxious and therefore faster.
The correction: When I work with “speed demon” horses, I start by placing a milder bit in his mouth and riding with a loose rein. You’d be surprised how many horses will be cured—slowing down immediately—with those two simple steps. If you’ve become fearful of your horse and going fast, you may ask an experienced horse person or local trainer for help during this initial step.
If a horse is still speedy, I teach him that slow is good. When he slows down, he’ll get the release he’s looking for. Here’s how:
1. For this exercise, work in an enclosed arena and outfit your horse in a mild snaffle with a nice long rein (a single-loop rope rein works well for this exercise, see www.juliegoodnight.com for the recreational rein I designed). Keep in mind that the worst thing you can do is pull back with two reins at the same time. That makes a speedy horse brace his neck, lean into the pressure and go faster.
2. Start by walking your horse on a totally loose rein. There should be a huge loop in the reins and your knuckles should be down on the horse’s neck (there must be a dramatic difference between contact and loose rein so he can figure it out). If he won’t walk with his head down on a loose rein, continue to practice the rest of the exercise at the walk until he lowers his head and shows you that he understands that he’ll get a release when he’s slow and relaxed.
When your knuckles are in contact with the horse’s neck, he’ll always relax because he knows you can’t pull on his mouth as long as your hands are on his neck. He’ll learn to modify his behavior in any way if it makes you put your knuckles on his neck and give him a loose rein.
3. Give your horse a gentle, soft cue to trot (some speedy horses you don’t have to cue to trot, but just think trot). If your horse lurches into the trot like he was shot out of a cannon, you’re probably over-cueing him.
4. Out of habit, he’ll start going too fast. Instead of hauling back on two reins and falling into your same old trap, slowly slide your hand down one rein (either one), then slowly lift that hand up and in just a little, asking the horse to flex his neck to that side. You aren’t trying to slow him down with your hand, just asking him to flex his nose around toward your foot.
Over-flex his neck, allowing him to turn with the outside rein totally slack. Keep him over-flexed on the turn until you feel him slow a little, then immediately drop that rein dramatically, and put your knuckles on his neck with a totally slack rein. He’ll probably speed up again. Slowly and gently pick up the other rein and over-flex him in the opposite direction, giving him a giant release (allowing slack in the rein) as soon as you feel his rhythm slow. Whenever he speeds up, pick up one rein and flex him (always alternate reins); whenever he slows, give the giant release. You’ll teach him to hold himself in a steady speed, without your constant nagging.
The outcome: Since going in a small circle with his neck over-flexed is really hard and going straight slowly is really easy, he’ll figure out how to move ahead easily at a slow and rhythmic pace. It’s not the turn that slows him down so much as the flexing his neck from one side to the other.
Depending on how good your timing is and how quickly your horse learns (those two things are directly related) it may take him a few repetitions or a few weeks to learn. With consistency, your horse will learn that all he has to do is go slowly and he can go straight on a loose rein.
Good luck with your horse and with a little work, you can teach your horse a better way so that you’re both happier! There’s lots of information on my website, www.juliegoodnight.com that can help you along the way.
Enjoy the ride!
Question Category: Riding Skills
Question: How do you teach riders to use all the natural aids together–leg and rein aids?
Answer: The natural aids are the best tools the rider has to communicate with the horse. Traditionally, there are four natural aids, the seat (weight), the legs, the hands and the voice of the rider. I prefer to teach seven natural aids, which in addition to the traditional four aids includes the rider’s eyes, the rider’s breathing and the rider’s brain. When all of these aids are used together, it gives a clear and consistent communication to the horse of what you want him to do and sets your body up to naturally give the correct cue. All of the natural aids should be used in unison and should always originate, or be connected to, the use of the seat. No one aid gives a cue to the horse (you do not stop by pulling on the reins or go by kicking), but all the aids working together will guide the horse toward the appropriate response.
For instance, asking the horse to stop or slow down is not simply a matter of pulling back on the reins. To ask the horse to stop using all of the aids in a connected fashion, first the rider must drop her weight onto the horse’s back by opening and relaxing the pelvis and plugging her seatbones into the saddle. As the seat of the rider drops down on the horse’s back, a connection is made between the rider’s elbows and hip, thus the shift of the rider’s weight and opening of the rider’s pelvis will cause an increase on the pressure of the horse’s mouth through the rider’s arms, hands and reins. In other words, the pressure the horse feels on his mouth is connected to the increased weight on his back and the pull comes from the rider’s entire body, not just from the hands.
You can see how this feels by sitting in a chair pulled up to a table. With both feet flat on the floor and sitting up straight, put both hands on the edge of the table. As you exhale and rotate the seatbones forward (opening the pelvis and plugging the seatbones into the chair), pull on the edge of the table so that your seatbones get even heavier on the chair. This is how you cue the horse for a stop or to slow down by using your weight aid first. You should feel a connection from your arms to your seat bones, as they press into the chair. If your seat bones lighten and your upper body moves forward when you pull back on the reins, your aids are not connected. Practice this exercise until you feel the connection between your seat and hands, and then try to feel the connection on a horse.
To use all of the aids in a connected fashion to ask the horse to turn, the rider must first look in the direction of the turn and use her eyes and body to initiate the turn. As the rider’s head turns slightly in the direction of the turn, the body will follow, swiveling slightly in the saddle and shifting the rider’s weight to her outside seat bone. Again, the legs and hands will follow the movement of the rider’s seat and not act independently. The outside leg will sink down and close on the horse’s side, shutting the door to the outside. Conversely, the rider’s inside leg will lift up slightly as the inside seatbone lightens, opening the door to the inside and keeping the horse’s inside shoulder elevated in an arcing turn. As the seat swivels slightly on the horse’s back, the elbows, arms and shoulders of the rider will follow (make sure your upper arms are in contact with your ribcage), giving a release with the outside rein and increased pressure to the inside rein, thus supporting the horse’s head, neck and shoulders in the turn.
Using your whole body to communicate with the horse and having all of the aids give the same signal to the horse, is a very effective way to communicate with the horse and results in invisible cues and seamless transitions.
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