Master the "Slow Down" Cue

In order to master the art of the slow down cue for your horse, a rider must be very aware of the signals being sent to the horse. John Lyons helps riders develop these subtle cues so they can communicate effectively well with their horse.

When most people think of stopping or slowing their horse, they think in terms of “putting on the brakes.” The problem is that applying a mechanical solution to a thinking, breathing animal usually doesn’t work. So what are your options if your horse doesn’t whoa when you want him to?

Clarify the Cue

Whenever our horse isn’t doing what we want, John Lyons says that our first question should be, “What cue do we want the horse to obey?” In the case of slowing or stopping, riders use lots of different cues intentionally. But they also use mixed signals, and unintentionally program the horse to ignore their rein cues.

Let’s take a traffic example. When you learn to drive, you become conditioned to a stoplight cue. You know that when the light turns yellow, you should clear the intersection because, in a few seconds, the light will turn red. Red means stop now.

But what if a policeman happens to be directing traffic? You’d obey the cop’s signals, despite the stoplight color. If a cop was in that intersection every time you came to it, you’d pretty soon disregard the stoplight.

That’s what sometimes happens with riders and horses. When a rider uses her reins or voice to tell the horse to stop, but then also gives her horse a signal to keep going, the horse learns to disregard the stop signal. John says there are many ways that happens.

Some riders keep their reins tight, thinking that they’re holding the horse back. Instead of the reins restraining the horse, the horse learns to live with the pain of bit pressure. Because there’s no “off” – no release of pressure – the reins are always “on.”

So what if you make them a little tighter, more “on” than before? That would be like making the stoplight a little redder while the cop was directing traffic. The signal has lost its meaning, just as your reins would have lost the ability to communicate your wishes to your horse. A stronger bit causes more pain and so works for a while, until the horse learns to deal with that, too.

Other riders use their reins indiscriminately. They make random movements with the reins, as if they have to have something to do with their hands.

Watch the next time someone stops her horse to chat with a friend. Even if the horse stands like a statue, the rider may mess around with the reins. Look at the horse’s face. Is he listening for each rein signal or has he mentally checked out, realizing that his rider isn’t talking to him? Is it any wonder that he also disregards the rein signals when he’s in motion?

Another rider may frequently “tap the brakes.” He pulls back on the reins when he thinks the horse may be going too fast or thinking of going too fast. Then, before there’s any change in the horse’s speed or head position, the rider releases the rein. The horse may have held a consistent speed, so the rider may have assumed that the restraint worked, if he even thought about it at all.

This tapping of the brakes may have notified the horse that the rider was aware of his speed. But it didn’t work as a cue to slow down. Consequently, when the rider pulls back on the reins to say, “slow down,” the horse won’t know this particular time that’s what the rider wants.

For a signal to be a cue, the horse has to be conditioned to it. If the traffic department put a fourth light bulb on the stoplight – a blue light – drivers wouldn’t know what it meant. (For all we know, it might mean that there’s a yard sale ahead.) But if the drivers saw a radar car with other cars pulled off to the side a thousand feet beyond the blue light, they’d figure out that the blue light meant a radar trap was ahead. No one would have to put it in print for them. The blue light would become a cue, but only after the drivers know what’s going on.

So what does that have to do with horse training?

It means we have to get the horse to slow or stop and then we can teach him the cue, the code word for what we want. The signal doesn’t make the horse stop, any more than the blue light slowed traffic. The cue is like a secret password – it only has meaning when both the rider and horse understand it.

Let’s look at this picture. Imagine yourself at the blue light. You tense a bit as you realize there’s a radar trap ahead. Nonetheless, you proceed at a reasonable speed. When you pass the radar trap and you don’t see red lights in your rear-view mirror, you breathe a sigh of relief. That’s the release.

The next time you approach a blue light, you’re less anxious because you know that there’s a release beyond the radar trap if you maintain the correct speed. So it’s not the blue light (the cue) that caused you to regulate your speed. It’s the promise of a release 1,001 feet ahead.

In this same way, you have to get the horse to slow down before you can teach him the “slow down” cue. When he slows and we release the rein, he’ll have an “aha” moment. That’s the beginning of recognizing a cue. So our first job is to brainstorm ways to get the horse to slow his feet.

But it’s not the horse’s nose that turned him. The nose isn’t like a wheel touching the ground. It gets carried where the hindquarters push it. If the horse’s nose turns but his hindquarters keep going forward, then the horse will continue to go forward.

Because the hindquarters provide the impulsion for a horse’s movement, we want to actually use the hindquarters to control, or slow, the horse’s forward push. When you pulled that right rein, eventually you also felt the horse’s hip move over, and that’s what slowed the horse. We sometimes refer to that as “disengaging the hip” or “connecting the reins to the hip.”

You don’t have to fully change directions to disengage the horse’s hip and slow the horse.

Let’s say you’re on a trail that’s wide enough to maneuver, but not wide enough to turn right and have anywhere to go. In this case, only perform one part of the direction change – move the hip, and then release the rein, of course. The horse will turn, but then reposition himself facing the original way down the trail. You’ll have had a momentary stop, and he’s likely to be a little slower than before. Walk a few steps forward and use the other rein to disengage the other hip, and release the rein.

Each time you release the rein, the horse will relax, at least for a split second. You’ll have the advantage of slowing his forward speed and getting him to relax. This series of little stops is a good way to gain control. But you’ll need to practice so you can coordinate that maneuver when you need it.

Practice the following exercise in a safe, relaxed setting. Sit straight in the saddle and ride the horse forward at the walk. Pick up the right rein and pull it back toward your body (not out to the side or down by your hip). The moment you feel the horse take a big step over with his hindquarters, let go of the rein. Most people think they know what that feels like, but they’re surprised when they actually feel it. It’s a big shift.

Here’s a way to think about it. Imagine that you are getting ready for a ride. You have one rein in your hand and you’re leading your horse toward the arena. Suddenly you remember something you left in the barn. Without looking at your horse, you do an “about face,” and, of course, your horse follows you.

When you turned, you’d have pulled the rein, without even thinking about it. When the horse felt the pull and realized you were turning, he turned, too, probably pivoting on his hindquarters in order to make the tight turn. Naturally, the rein drooped as he completed the turn. And it all happened without you even thinking about it.

Next, do the same maneuver from the horse’s back, except that you have to be intentional about releasing the rein. We’re not talking about relaxing your fingers. We’re saying to drop the rein. You can pick it up in a moment, but you have to condition yourself to give a total release – and that doesn’t come naturally.

You might have someone actually lead your horse from point A to B, then turn as if they forgot something at A. Do that three or four times (maybe even with your eyes closed) until your seat learns what that turn feels like. That will make it easier for you to know when to release the rein.

Shoulder Control

We know that when a horse is straight, like in the starting gate of a race, he can go faster than when he’s crooked. So one of the ways that we can slow the horse is to make him less straight, which is what we did when we disengaged his hip.

Another way is to move his shoulders. The horse can’t both zoom ahead and sidepass at the same time. In a future article, we’ll show you how to control your horse’s shoulders and all the benefits of teaching a horse to move diagonally. But when you’re thinking, “slow down,” remember that sideways steps are usually slower than forward ones.

A Push from Behind

John frequently uses a “people demonstration” to show how pushy the hip can be. Imagine that the woman in front is the horse’s head and neck. The person in the middle is the horse’s body, and John’s the hindquarters. In the photo on the left, he’s moved to the side, which allows the middle and hindquarters to follow the turn. But in the photo on the right, John’s pushing straight ahead. Even though the horse would like to turn, he’s getting shoved forward.

Why One Rein?

The more out of control a horse is, the more important it is to use one rein at a time to control him, because that’s the best way to gain control of his hindquarters. When you pull back with two reins at once, the horse can brace against you and continue his forward motion. You can’t disengage his hindquarters using both reins as easily as you can with one.

Also, by the time you’ve taught these lessons well with each rein separately, it’s as if you have power steering and stopping when you do use both reins. That’s because your horse is that much better trained. You also have a one-rein cue to fall back on, should you need it.

Change of Direction

Let’s say that your horse is heading north. In order to head south, he has to shift his weight to his hindquarters and slow down to balance himself for the change. In most cases, he actually stops momentarily.

Our goal in training is always to get the movement we want – even for a split second – and then build on that. We know that if we can get a “mini stop,” we can get him to stop for a longer period, too.

Here’s how it works: Imagine that you’re heading north at 8 mph – a nice trot. You pick up the right rein and pull it back until the horse isn’t heading north anymore. You’d have felt his hindquarters swing to your left as his nose came around to the right. He’d have made a 90-degree turn, and you’d be heading east. But he won’t be still going 8 mph; he’ll be going about 6. Ask for another 90-degree turn and he’ll only be going 4 mph.

In addition to slowing down, the horse would have discovered that you’ll release the rein because you’d have released it the moment you felt his hindquarters swing over. In other words, you’re slowing him down in order for him to have that “aha” moment we talked about.

Imagine that you did this exercise for a few minutes: Trot forward, pick up the rein, move the hip to change direction, release the rein. Pretty soon, when you reach for the rein, the horse would rebalance himself so he could easily turn. He’d be willing to do that because he knows that a release is in his future, and he knows the quicker he responds, the less time you’ll be pulling on his mouth.

By the way, if you use an opening or leading rein instead of pulling the rein toward your body, you’ll “lead” your horse’s nose and the front feet will turn, but the horse won’t have to adjust his weight or disengage his hindquarters. And he won’t get a release, which means he won’t be learning to respond to your “slow down” cue. He’d just be turning. While you can change direction that way, it’s not as effective for slowing the horse as disengaging his hip, as we’ll see in a minute.

With practice, when you begin to take slack out of one rein, that becomes a cue – a signal that he understands – to slow down. If he doesn’t slow down, your signal hasn’t become his cue yet. Either he hasn’t practiced the exercise enough or you haven’t released the rein quickly enough when you practiced. In that case, you have to keep teaching him. Follow through and ask him to change direction.

The one rein becomes like the blue light. If you got caught for speeding a time or two, you’d learn to recognize the blue light cue. If the horse doesn’t slow when you take the slack out of one rein, actually having to do the work of turning is like getting caught in the speed trap. It’s something he’d rather avoid, if he can.

Just like the blue light, though, you have to allow the horse time to respond. You can’t jerk him around. Reach for the rein, pull it steadily back, but be willing to release tension the moment you sense the horse working with you.

Riders are often taught to circle as a means of slowing a horse. That usually doesn’t work, and it doesn’t teach him a “slow down” cue. A horse doesn’t have to adjust speed much to make a circle, and he never gets a release of the rein. It’s the release – not the signal – that teaches the horse what you want.

Disengage the Hip

Now let’s take a close-up look at one part of the change-direction exercise we just did.

When you pulled that right rein, you pulled the horse’s mouth, pointing his nose where you wanted it to go. So when you were headed north and wanted to make a 90-degree turn, you pulled the rein back toward your body until the horse’s nose was heading east.

Changes of Speed

One of the best ways to teach the horse to slow down is to make frequent changes of speed. This exercise will give you a chance to work on both the “speed up” and “slow down” cues.

First, though, it’s important to remember that if your horse never goes fast, he won’t have a chance to learn to slow down. Of course, we’re going to teach him to slow down from a walk before we can tell him to slow down from a gallop. But here’s where a lot of people get into difficulty. They try to keep the horse slow, so that they’ll never have to deal with him going too fast.

Let’s say that they’re comfortable riding at the trot, but they don’t want to canter. That’s OK. But when something startles the horse and he breaks into a canter, the rider doesn’t have a stop-from-canter cue. With this exercise, though, you can solve that problem.

Ask your horse to walk. After about 10 steps, ask him to walk faster. Be sure to do this with leg cues, not just by leaning forward or kissing to your horse. That will give you a chance to train him to leg cues because kissing won’t work when he doesn’t already want to go forward. After 10 steps, slow back to the first speed. After 10 more steps, speed up again, and so forth.

When you can make that definite increase and decrease in speed, then you can add a third speed, maybe a slow jog and then back to a fast walk. Mix up the speeds so that you’re not riding more than 30 feet at any one speed. That will have your horse listening for your directions.

When you ask for these changes in speed, what cue will you use to tell him to slow down? Our objective is to get him better trained to the reins, so we have to use a rein cue for training. If he goes back into the slow walk when you say whoa, that’s great. But it won’t help him obey your rein signal when you’re cantering, or when a deer jumps out of the forest and scares him.

Here’s where the exercise we first did comes into play. Teach him the one-rein “slow down” cue. Ride at a fast walk and after about five steps, reach for the right rein. Slowly bring it back to your body so that by the time you’re at 10 steps, the horse is turning. As soon as he moves his hip over, release the rein. He’ll have slowed as he slightly changed direction.

After he slows and changes direction slightly, allow him to walk at the slower speed for about 10 steps, and then use both of your legs to tell him to speed up at the walk. Repeat the exercise, using the left rein this time.

When you play around with this, really work at noticing when he begins to slow down and releasing the rein as soon as that happens. You don’t have to get him to move his hip. Your goal is to teach that rein cue as the “slow down” cue.

Because of when you release, the horse will figure out when you want him to turn and when you just want a slow down. He’ll also learn to “read your mind” as he feels your body naturally position itself for whatever you have in your mind. Don’t make any conscious body position changes, though. Just be yourself, and the horse will figure it out.

Work the lesson until you can vary speeds and directions. Trot slowly for 10 steps, speed up the trot for 20 steps, slow to the walk for 20 steps, trot again and so forth. The more times you speed up and slow down, the more your horse will be tuned into the cues that you’re using.

Eventually, you’ll be stretching out the trot, then adjusting back to a medium trot, then faster trot, then less-fast trot and so forth, until the horse slips into a canter. It won’t be a zooming-off canter, but just an extension of the exercise you’re been practicing, After about five strides, bring him back to a fast trot, then a slow trot. Then come to a walk and finally a stop. Pet the horse and congratulate yourself.

Ride More Specifically

Once you’ve taught the cues, then you and the horse need practice with them. The most important thing you can do to improve his training is to be specific in your riding. You’ve seen pool players call which ball they’re going to send into which pocket. Do the same thing with your horse. Tell yourself that you want your horse going faster when his shoulder is even with a certain fence post.

At the beginning, you may have to start your signal five posts early, just as you began to pick up your rein after the horse had made five steps, even though you wanted him to slow down in 10. But with practice, your horse can respond in a two-post distance. Or you can put cones or buckets in your work area, and ride “in and out the windows.” The key is to be consistent with your cues, and to be specific.

To get your horse to respond better, you have to train more, and release consistently. Don’t get more intense with the cue. Don’t jerk the rein to get him to stop. If you use the signal to punish your horse, you’ll undo the training and create tension.

Imagine if sometimes the blue light was a signal and sometimes it zapped your car like a lightning bolt. You’d get scared of blue lights.

Most horses who don’t respond to rein cues are afraid of the rider’s use of the rein. There’s no such thing as a hard-mouth horse. Even horses with a history of abuse can learn the “slow down” cue when you take the time to teach it. It just takes education and practice to convince them that the rein is a signal.

Once the horse responds to your signals well in a quiet, familiar environment, then you can introduce some distractions. You’ll find that he doesn’t do as well with these distractions. You may lose 30% of his performance the moment another horse enters the arena, and another 30% the moment that other horse begins to trot. That’s OK. Review these exercises until he can respond just as well with another horse trotting around as when you were in a quiet environment.

Then introduce another distraction or perhaps take him to a new location. Make it fun, though. As a team, see how well you can do. Don’t punish your horse when he gets upset, but build his confidence and your skill by seeing how precisely you can do the lessons.

Now that you have a game plan and a variety of exercises to work with, you’ll have your horse stopping and slowing on cue so well that someone will ask what trainer you took him to. You can just smile and say, “I taught him myself.”

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