Bucking and bolting are always unwanted horse behaviors. No matter the reason, it’s not pretty when your horse pitches a fit or streaks off at warp nine. Speed control is a beautiful thing. Horses have to learn it. Which means you have to teach your horse how to slow down.
This article explains how to teach, not how to rehabilitate horses with deeply ingrained bad habits. That’s an entirely different topic.
Live the Dream
No one enjoys riding a loose cannon. You want to feel in control when you take the reins. In addition to Go, Whoa, Right and Left, you need the ability to rate your horse’s speed.
There’s nothing more thrilling than riding with abandon, the wind whipping your hair behind you. It’s something little girls dream of when they think about getting their first horse.
Riding a runaway isn’t part of anyone’s dream. Teaching your horse to rate his speed will bless you in more ways than just keeping your knickers untwisted.
Why Horses Speed Up
Most horses go faster to maintain balance. Think of a baby learning to walk. The instant she gets off balance she begins leaning forward, tottering faster and faster until PLOP, down she goes. Horses also use momentum to stay on their feet. When asked for more than it can easily balance, the horse has to speed up or PLOP!
Imbalance and insecurity cause 85% of speed issues. Put on one six-inch spiked heel pump and a flip flop — now, move sweetly from a walk to a jog to a run and back to a walk. Pretty ugly, isn’t it?
Riders Ask – Whether or not they meant to
There are other reasons horses move faster than you want. Horses often speed up because you asked – you just didn’t know that you asked. Horses naturally respond to changes in weight, intent, and energy. It’s one of the most delightful (and frustrating) things about the little hairy darlings.
Insecurity or Strategy
Spooked horses bolt, because horses survive by running first and asking questions later. The fix for this is earning your horses’s trust.
Smart, calculating horses may speed up in a bid for control. Cunning horses learn that if they run off they get to stop working. If they scare you, they win. If your horse thinks a lot, he may also plot.
The Two Reasons Horses Go Too Fast
- Your horse is UNABLE to respond correctly due to imbalance or poor communication, or
- Your horse is UNWILLING to be obedient.
In simple terms, what’s the message your horse sends you? “I CAN’T do as you ask” or ” I DON’T WANT to do as you ask?” After thirty-plus years as a trainer I’ll testify that most horses are willing but unable. It blows folks’s minds when they figure out the problem isn’t the horse.
The solution for both is the same – leadership. When you talk about horses, that means controlling their feet. Your horse should willingly move where, when, and how you ask him to.
This isn’t high-level stuff, this is foundational.
Easy Exercise to Slow Your Horse Down
Use this simple exercise to slow your horse’s speed at the walk, trot, or canter. Speed control, or ‘rate’, is within the grasp of any horse owner willing to consistently work toward a more rewarding and enjoyable relationship with his or her horse.
Begin by walking along the fence of a big round pen, arena, or pasture. Using a fence as a guide minimizes the need to control your horse’s direction. You’re working on how fast your horse moves, not where he goes. When in doubt, don’t fix his direction unless it’s dangerous not to.
If no fence is available, begin the exercise by riding a sixty foot circle. This is big enough to work at the walk and trot. Make sure your horse understands where the circle is before beginning your transition work. Remember, you’re working on rate, not steering.
Once you have good speed control at the trot it will be a fairly simple matter to advance to the lope or canter. To work at a faster speed you need to ride a much larger circle.
Transitions Are Key to Teaching Speed Control
This exercise to slow your horse down is built upon repetitive transitions from one gait to another, and limiting the opportunity your horse has to lose control in the first place. It’s far easier to train a calm horse than an emotional wreck. Simply put, you will teach your horse to move up one gait (walk to trot, or trot to canter) and down one gait (trot to walk, or canter to trot.)
Controlled transitions teaches your horse focus, balance, and to wait for your next cue. The result will be a horse that is always ready to quietly slow down or obediently gear up. The delightful result is patient consistency.
Exercise to Slow the Trot
The exercise is taught the same way regardless of which gait needs attention. You must have control at the walk before advancing to the trot, and control at the trot before moving to the canter.
If your horse is inconsistent at the walk, use the same exercise concept here, but transition from whoa to walk to whoa. “Whoa” is always the lesson before “rate.”
Be patient. Be light-handed. Give your horse time to figure out what you expect.
Teach one lesson at a time. If you’re teaching “rate” you can’t teach “steer.”
Decide in advance how many trot strides you’ll allow before asking your horse to return to the walk. Begin with three trot strides. If your horse is responsive, try five.
Once your horse walks quietly and obediently, ask him to trot using the slightest possible cue. After three trot strides calmly ask him to relax back down to a walk. Even though you ask for the walk after three strides, you may not get it for twenty more! That’s okay. Expect your horse to resist you at first. After all, his habit is to race to the next county.
How to Ask for “Slower”
In the beginning you’ll use a combination of energy, breathing, seat, and reins to ask your horse to slow down. If you’re in need of a huge change, teach a new set of cues by moving from halt to walk to halt.
- Think stop (or walk, whichever is appropriate.)
- Exhale so your horse can hear you.
- Engage your seat.
- Use whatever voice cue you prefer.
- Keep you eyes on where you’re going. Looking down will lift your full weight out of the saddle.
- Apply light pressure to both reins using a noseband or snaffle bit. Apply a tiny bit more pressure to the outside rein than the inside.
- Use an easy rhythm to apply a recognizable pressure to the reins, lighten a bit, apply the slightly greater pressure, lighten a bit.
- Repeat the voice cue in the same rhythm; easy and confidently.
Mix It Up
The best rhythm to teach something to a horse or person is to introduce the concept then give them time to soak; to think and process the experience. Mix up your exercises. Change directions. Work on your speed rating skills for a bit, then do something else for a few minutes. Come back and try again.
When your horse begins to make transitions willingly, mix up the number of strides at the walk and trot. Instead of three trot strides do seven; then nine; then three; then five; then nine again. But if you have to battle to get to first base, accept ANY progress gracefully and quit for the moment or the day.
Pat your horse and let him know you appreciate his effort. If you’re up to another short session, take time to air up and relax before returning to the fence to try again.
Remember to breathe.
Relax, Be Patient, and Never Punish Your Horse
Never punish your horse and don’t get tense. I know, that’s easy to say and hard to do. Training is just one part of relationship. You not “fixing” your bad horse; you’re improving your partnership with your cherished equine.
When you give the cue to transition from trot to walk, take your time and expect (he CAN read your mind) your horse to walk along the fence calmly. Exhale. Relax your body, but not to limp noodle status.
When it doesn’t work
If he totally ignores your cue to walk after twenty trot strides, rein him to a stop. If your “whoa” isn’t working or your horse ignores you, use the fence or a corner to stop his forward movement. Don’t get excited, reverse directions, line him back out along the fence, and walk off.
Walk until your horse is quiet and soft again, then ask for three trot strides again. Once you have three strides, bring your horse back to a walk. Repeat the simple transition as many times as necessary until your horse seems to be getting the message and is consistently making quiet walk-trot transitions.
If this is a totally new concept for your horse, don’t overdo. Look for the glimmer than he’s beginning to get it and quit on a high note. When your horse downshifts to the walk, tell him what a great pony he is! Let him know he made the right choice.
Make the Right Choice Obvious
Make the right thing obvious. Sometimes getting a reasonable downward transition the first time is a major accomplishment. If that describes your horse, clearly reward his first big win. Once he transitions to walk, go a few strides to firmly establish the walk – the stop, rest, and pet him.
The goal is light responsive transitions. That means with soft hands and light aids. You may not begin there – but that’s the end game. Light hands, light response, pretty balanced transitions.
Every horse is different. You may get total control of your horse’s speed in one lesson. It may take many lessons. Just be sure to work in both directions and stop each lesson on a high note, so you can praise your horse and mean it.
Exercise to Slow the Canter
Use the same exercise to get your horse to canter calmly at a speed you enjoy. Refresh the walk-trot transition exercise. Once you’re doing that transition well, continue to trot forward at a speed that is comfortable for both you and your horse.
Ask your horse to pick up the canter using the smallest possible cue. Keep in mind that you only want him to canter three strides before downshifting to the trot. Again, it will probably take far more than three strides before he slows to the trot, but you have to begin somewhere.
Repeat all the steps and concepts outlined in the trot section.
Don’t Get Emotional
Don’t get frustrated. Smart horses recognize your frustration as a win in their column, and horses who don’t understand what you want are doing the best they can.
The light and easy responsiveness you want from your horse comes from trust. Nothing blows faith up faster than punishing honest effort.
Overdoing drills is counter-productive. If your horse worked really hard to finally give the right response, walk him out and tell him what a good boy he is! End the lesson on that very high note!
Perfecting Speed Control
Once your horse understands what you want, and is both willing and able to continue, begin working on making your transitions pretty and soft. As your horse begins to listen for your cue to downshift, you can trot longer and longer distances. If your horse starts to speed up again drop to a walk, organize, and go back to the exercise.
Routine maintenance keeps horses tuned and responsive. Speed control works the same way. Any time your horse even thinks about hitting the gas without permission, go back and practice your transition exercise again.
Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing
Reins, seat, legs, and relationship provide your horse with support and guidance. You have to train his brain and emotions as much as his body. Be thoughtful about balance, know what you ask, and always give your beloved horse the benefit of your doubt.
Simply put, your horse improves when you do.
- Leadership – Horsemanship – Discipleship
- 10 Benefits of Using Walk Poles with Horses – #1 is to Slow Down
- Communication Snafus with Your Horse
- 7 Rules for Success with a Horse
The Gospel Horse Series of books provides detailed instruction on how to understand what your horse is trying to tell you and how to respond correctly.
Click on the book covers to preview or for information.