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 may have to teach it.
This article explains how to teach, not how to rehabilitate horses with deeply ingrained bad habits. That’s an entirely different topic.
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.
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 starts leaning forward, tottering and tripping faster and faster until PLOP, down she goes. Like babies, 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!
There are other reasons horses get faster without being asked. It’s common for horses to speed up because the rider did ask – she just didn’t know she asked. Spooked horses bolt, and the smart, calculating type may speed up in a bid for control.
Two Reasons Horses Go Too Fast
- The horse is UNABLE to respond correctly due to imbalance or poor communication with the rider, or
- The horse is UNWILLING to be obedient.
The solution for both is the same – leadership. You must establish yourself as the leader. When you talk about horses, that means controlling their feet. You horse should willingly move where, when, and how you ask him to.
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.
Easy Exercise to Slow Your Horse
Whether you ride in an arena or pasture, begin by using the fence as a guide. 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. 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 larger circle. Make sure your horse understands where the circle is before beginning your transition work.
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 slow down or quietly prepared to 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.
Begin by walking along the fence. 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.
Since you know your horse will trot too fast, decide in advance how many trot strides you will allow before asking it to return to the walk. The less control you have, the fewer steps you will allow. 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.
Be patient. Be light-handed. Give your horse time to figure out what you expect.
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. Pat your horse and let him know you appreciate his effort. Once you’ve both aired up a little, return to the fence and try again.
Remember to breathe.
Never punish your horse and don’t get tense. Just take your time and expect (he can read your mind) your horse walk along the fence calmly. If your horse totally ignores your cue to walk after twenty trot strides, rein him to a stop. If the stop isn’t working or your horse ignores you, use the fence or a corner. 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 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.
Remember to warm up adequately at walk and trot before starting working on the canter.
Circle Drill to Slow Your Horse or Get His Attention
Horses able to work in small circles without dropping their shoulders or “falling in” often respond well to circle drills. They’re especially helpful if your horse knows better, but ignores your small cue to downshift.
Place a few cones or barrels about fifteen feet off the fence, strategically spaced. Time your request to trot so your cue to slow down will happen with a barrel or cone close by. If your horse doesn’t lightly downshift, guide him into a circle around the cone or barrel. If you’re riding clockwise, make a right circle. Counterclockwise, a left circle.
Depending on your horse’s stride and speed, the circle will vary from twenty to forty feet in diameter. Using your inside leg and inside rein, establish a circle at the gait you were riding when he blew off your request to slow down. Sit correctly and breathe. Let your horse continue to trot (lope) around the cone ten to twenty times. You’ll know when he figures out he’s working harder than he intended.
Give your cue to slow down. Release any tension on the inside rein (the outside rein is always there to balance) by moving your hand forward. Give your horse the opportunity to transition downwards. If he doesn’t, encourage him to keep working at the trot (lope.)
Ride a few more circles, then ask for the transition again. It won’t take long and you’ll get it as soon as you ask. Don’t quit there. Stay in the circle. Ask for the trot again (using the smallest cue possible) and repeat until you get three to five immediate transitions when you ask quietly.
Don’t stop. Send him right back down the rail. Try your transition request again, making sure there’s a cone or barrel close. If you get it – great! Reward your horse and continue. If you don’t, play circle the cone again. Repeat. Make sure to go both ways!
Don’t get frustrated. Smart horses recognize your frustration as a win in their column, and horses who don’t understand what you wanted are trying.
Never punish a horse who tries.
Don’t over drill. 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.
The circle drill is suitable for horses with good basics and self-carriage. Pulling a green horse into a tight circle can cause a fall. Remember, safety is more important than any drill and you’re the one in charge.
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.
Reins, seat, legs, and relationship provide support to your horse. You are responsible to train your horse’s body as much as his brain. Be thoughtful about balance and always give your horse the benefit of your doubt.
“When you first start to learn about how to teach horses to be soft, balanced, relaxed and forward you will feel a little overwhelmed at what it takes.
Your friends might be out on their young or green horse or older horse with history charging about in groups. You will be walking squares and side passing and getting that back up just a little better. You will be helping your horse to better understand that accepting the bit and following a soft feel is much better than avoiding it or leaning on it to protect himself.
Riders you know, might be trying to make their horse go near something they are worried about and you will be busy teaching yours that something is ok. They will be focussed on blaming the environment or the horses past for their failings. You will be busy working on what needs working on with the horse you have in front of you.
One day you will see them running the energy off their rushy, braced, confused , tolerant horse so they can ride it, from the back of your, soft, relaxed, confident, brave, balanced, energetic sound amazing horse. And you will know how to improve on that not make it worse.
There is no magic training, or magic equipment.
That is all.
Ok that is not all. Those others that I talked about will probably tell you how fortunate you are to have lucked upon a horse with such a great temperament or that you would find things different if he were a hotter breed. Chances are most of them wont even know enough to recognise the way your horse carries himself or moves as an improvement.
Don’t expect any praise. Your enjoyment should come from your own sense of achievement and the fact that riding horses that operate like the one you trained is addictive.”