Slowing Down Fast Horse Tips
Hello Just wondering if you could give me some advice. My horse, a six year old mustang had been trained for about ten months. He stops, turns fine, but I cannot get him to slow down. Of course then I get nervous and then he gets nervous and we end up a mess, any advice? I would love to work it out with him, but cannot figure him out.
Kellie, Sounds like you’ve got yourself a pretty forward Mustang and I have trained a few Mustangs myself that fall into this category. There are basically two types of horses: one with too much go and one with too much whoa. I just finished a Q&A to someone that has a great Western Pleasure horse, but now she wants to ride English and is frustrated over trying to make her horse move forward. Your horse has the opposite problem and although both are frustrating (for both you and your horse) in my opinion the forward horse is a little more challenging to deal with. We get a lot of forward horses in training, because they are more challenging, so I’ll share with you some of the techniques that we use to get horses slowed down a little and to get them steady in their gaits. You’ll never make a Western Pleasure horse out of him, but you should be able to get him to hold a steady pace and slow down and relax. First let me tell you what definitely will NOT work. It will not work to use a harsher bit or to constantly pull back on the reins to slow your horse down. Any pressure on a horse’s mouth makes him more anxious. Forward horses tend to be more anxious to begin with and they also tend to be very sensitive. More pressure on their mouths almost always makes them faster. The classic scenario with a forward horse is that the rider is constantly pulling on both reins and the rider’s horse is getting more and more tense and starts to jig and speed up. What we want to do with a forward horse is anything that will make him relax, put his head down and slow down. We want him to learn to make an association between relaxing and getting a loose rein, which is what all horses want. Since we cannot slow him down by pulling back on the reins, the best option is to work on changing directions. Often people talk about using the circle to slow a horse down, but I find reverses to be much more effective. For one thing, often when people use a circle to slow a horse down, they pull your horse into a sharp sudden fast circle, which tends to excite and irritate your horse rather than slow him down. Every time your horse changes direction, he has to slow down as he turns back the other way. For changes of direction, ride two-handed in a snaffle with both hands well in front of the pommel and with a reasonably loose rein. In slow motion, move both hands to the side (in the direction you want to turn) so that the inside rein is a leading rein and the outside rein is a neck rein (see the Q&A about rein-aids). Move your hands as a unit like they are connected; there’s NO BACKWARD PULL ON THE REINS. Do not pull back on the reins and do not try to slow your horse down. Just turn to the left for a moment, and then slowly and gently change your turn to the right, then left, then right, etc. It’s critical that you’re moving your hands in slow motion and that you’re not pulling back on the reins as you do. Your turns should be totally random, half turn, quarter turn, full turn, etc.; don’t let yourself fall into a pattern. Gradually (it may take minutes, hours or days) your horse will begin to slow his trot every time he changes direction. Once this starts happening, let him go straight between turns and then slowly and gently bring him into a turn when you feel him first begin to speed up. Ultimately, you should be going straight between every turn, and then you will let your horse stay straight as long as he is relaxed until he is maintaining a steady relaxed trot without turning. Make sure your hands are moving together and there’s very little or no pressure on your horse’s mouth. Whenever you need to correct your horse’s nose to bring it into the turn, pick up (not back or down) slowly on the inside rein and immediately release it when your horse gives his nose. Eventually, you should be able to make these turns and straightness with just the slow movement of your hands on a totally loose rein and without actual contact on your horse’s mouth. Another thing it would be very useful for your horse to learn is a drop-your-head cue. With nervous horses, this is a very important step. A horse’s head comes up as he tenses and it drops as he relaxes. If you can cue your horse to drop his head, you have succeeded in teaching him a cue to relax, since it’s not physically possible for him to drop his head and stay tense. Start from the ground with a rope halter and training lead. Apply gentle steady pressure down on the halter by pulling on the lead and watch your horse VERY carefully for his head dropping. At the very first fraction of an inch, release the halter and praise your horse. Then ask again, watching very closely for any movement in the right direction, then release and apply copious praise. It’s better to err on the side of the release being sooner rather than later. Timing is everything in horse training. The optimal timing for a release is half a second after the desired response. The first few inches down will be a challenge, but the next foot is easy. Once your horse figures it out he will gladly drop his head all the way to the ground every time you ask. Once he can do this reliably from the ground, it’s time to teach the same cue from the saddle. Standing still, you will use one rein, shorten it up to apply light pressure to your horse’s mouth and wait until the head drops the smallest fraction of an inch then drop the rein entirely and give copious praise. Don’t worry if your horse begins to move about, just focus on the head dropping and release whenever it does. In the same process your horse will gradually figure out that when you apply pressure with one rein and he drops his head, the pressure will go away. Again, the first few inches are very hard to get and will require a great deal of patience and concentration on your part, but the next couple feet to the ground will come much more quickly. What ever you do, don’t succumb to applying more pressure if your horse does not respond. Apply just enough pressure that your horse begins to look for a way out of the pressure. He will guess what to do to find the release. He may put his head up, to the side, etc., but eventually he will try moving his head down and that is the instant he must find the release so that he makes an association between the cue and the right answer. This is a general concept in training that applies to almost anything that you do. More pressure is never the answer; you just need enough pressure that your horse begins to look for a way out of it. Oddly enough, sometimes a very nervous horse can actually become addicted to lowering his heads and relaxing. He doesn’t really want to be nervous and frightened all the time and when he finds the peace by putting his head down, he comes to like it. This can actually become a little bit of a problem in some horses (they want to put their head way down all the time) but that is not very common and it’s a far better problem to have than the original one. I would not expect your horse to become a Western Pleasure horse, but he is capable of slowing down, relaxing and getting steady. Try these exercises, be patient, always move your hands in slow motion and give the exercises considerable time to work. Good luck and let me know how it goes.
Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician
Question Category: Issues from the Saddle
Question: I have 3 horses, all of which do the same thing. They walk and trot quietly, but when you cue for lope, they will kick up in the back. I know it’s probably a training issue, but I don’t know what to do next to try to get them into a canter without the kick up. I am a senior and have been riding all my life and showed for years, so it’s not lack of riding ability, but may be related to not riding often enough. I’m sure I could carry on once I got them started loping without getting bucked off.
Answer: Since all three horses are exhibiting the same behavior, you have to consider the common denominator, which is the rider. While you should always rule out a physical problem first, the fact that all three horses are exhibiting the same behavior tends to point to the rider. But don’t feel badly, most “horse problems” are actually rider induced and you’ll be way ahead of the curve just knowing this, because before you can solve a problem, you must identify it.
Without actually seeing you and your horses in action, I cannot really diagnose the problem, but I can tell you that this is a very common problem and I see it all the time in clinics. In fact, we have an upcoming episode of Horse Master on this very problem: over-cueing for canter.
Generally speaking, when you cue a horse for trot or canter and he launches into the gait like he was shot out of a cannon, you over-cued him. In the case of the canter cue, there are compounding issues related to the flight response. When the horse is cued to canter, in a way, you are cueing for the flight response; so if you over-cue him you may get more than you bargained for. It is not uncommon for horses to have an outburst of emotion when cued for canter and kicking out the heels is one such example.
To resolve this issue and get a smooth, relaxed canter departure, you’ll need to get more systematic in your canter cue and tone down the signal, adjusting to each horse’s level of sensitivity. While you are working to improve the canter departure, you’ll want o cue from the slow sitting trot. This gives the horses fewer options to get the right answer; but don’t cue from the long-trot. At the slow collected trot his legs are close enough together to reorganize easily into the canter but as he moves into extended trot and his legs spread farther apart, the canter is more difficult to pick up. If he misses the canter cue and goes into long-trot, bring him back immediately to slow trot by using your seat and reins to check him back. As soon as he comes back to slow trot, you’ll cue him again for the canter right away.
Before you give any cue, always prepare the horse that a cue is coming by shortening the reins slightly and closing your legs on his sides. You’ll know he is ready for a cue and listening to you when his head comes up a little and his ears come back on you; that is your horse’s way of saying, “what do you want me to do?” If you develop a consistent and systematic cue for canter, the horse will understand better and he’ll know what is coming next.
Once he’s ready and listening, you’ll give a cue using all your primary aids in sequence: legs, hands, and then seat. First, use outside leg, slightly back; this sets the horse up for the correct lead and also helps him differentiate from the trot cue, where you use two legs at the same time. Next you’ll slightly lift the inside rein; this is less of a rein cue and more of a repositioning of your body into the canter position for the inside lead, with your inside shoulder lifted and your weight in the outside stirrup. The last part of the cue is a push with your seat in the rhythm of the canter motion—like you are pushing a swing. Leg-rein-seat; in a 1-2-3 rhythm.
If your horse is eager to canter or exuberant in the departure, you’ll want to keep the focus on your seat aid, rather than on your legs. There are many horses that cue to canter just by a simple rocking of the seat in the canter motion. If the horse is over-reactive to the cue, use less and less pressure each time until he accepts the cue quietly.
By sequencing your aids and getting more systematic in your cue, your horse will learn what you want and will not stress over the cue. As you practice your transitions, you should be able to make your cues more and more subtle, using less and less pressure. Start by slowing the rhythm of the cue down so that you are taking longer to cue the horse. This helps him think through what is coming next so he is not surprised. Practice many trot-canter-trot transitions. Each time you make a transition, it should be a little smoother as the horse learns the cue better, thus reducing his anxiety.
When horses kick out at the canter departure, often it is because it seems to him as if you are yelling at him when a whisper would work. As you get more systematic with your cue and your horse comes to understand, you can use less pressure. If he is ready for the cue when it comes and you use less pressure, the kicking should go away.
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