Speed Control: Tortoise and the Hare

If riding your horse seems like molasses in January or life in the fast lane, here are other options.

Frustration and fear can go hand-in-hand when we are talking about control issues with an animal who weighs half a ton. Unfortunately, neither emotion contributes to the calm leadership that horses both need and want.

Ol’ Molasses: “My buddies are back at the barn. You say we have to go for a ride, but I can walk really, really slow.”
His Rider: Thump. Thump. Thump. “#$%^&*!”
Ol’ Molasses: “Great! We’re heading back!”
His Rider: “Whoa! Whoa!!! @#$%^&*!”
Shezapartygirl: “Oh, Boy! There go my buddies! Wheee!”
Her Rider: Pull. Pull. Pull. “Ohmigosh! Omigosh!”

For both these horses, “go” and “whoa” have very little meaning. They’re taking their cues from outside stimuli or their own emotions, not from their riders. And neither rider is making things better by the way they’re handling the situation. Whether hauling on the reins or thumping on the horse’s sides, they are, in fact, making things worse by burning up the cues they thought they had.

Shezapartygirl’s rider has quit thinking and has gone straight to self-preservation mode. While understandable, grabbing for the brakes (although she might call it “taking a firm hold of the reins”) while clamping her legs to the horse’s sides in a death grip are contradictory cues. They tell the horse, “Don’t move, but go fast!” Chances are the mare is going to pick one-and if she’s the energetic sort with a strong desire to stay with her buddies, it’s not likely to be “Don’t move.”

In contrast, Ol’ Molasses is going to ignore the side-thumping because, to him, it’s just background noise. He’s generally not in a hurry anyway.

Oddly enough, both the tortoise (Ol’ Molasses) and the hare (Shezapartygirl) share the same problem: speed control. Both horses need to be taught how to stop and go, how to speed up and slow down-as well as how to turn so they can go straight. Most important, they must learn that when their riders give simple cues, they need to obey, no matter what is going on around them.

Fortunately, horses are astoundingly adaptable creatures, and people who read training articles obviously want to learn how to help their horses adapt. So let’s learn some straightforward exercises that can help us do that.

Set the Speed Dial

  • Use starting and stopping exercises to instill a reliable go-forward cue.
  • Squeeze, bump, and kiss to your horse until you get a noticeable increase in speed, then go completely still with your legs.
  • Ask your horse to slow down before he thinks of decreasing his speed on his own.
  • Never ride the brakes. Use serpentine exercises to decrease forward momentum.
  • Apply a one-rein cue to get a large hips-over move to stop your horse
  • completely if he ignores your rein signal.
  • Make sure you’re not giving go-and-whoa cues at the same time.

Establish the Basics
We are going to teach the horse that when we touch the rein, it counts. It tells him to change the direction he’s going or the speed of his feet. The second we get that response, however, the rein must be released totally. We will also teach him that the “go forward” cue, whether it is a “kiss” sound from the ground or a bump of the legs from the saddle, really does mean go forward. And we are going to teach him to turn by using the rein to put his tail in the direction we don’t want to go. (Hey, fun is important and it works.)

Safety Issues
Start in an enclosed area where you feel safe and use a simple snaffle bit. Remember that you should never get hurt, your horse should never get hurt, and your horse should end up calmer than when he started.

Keep in mind that a nervous rider might not give the quiet and controlled cues necessary for these exercises. Many of these can be started from the ground if you are at all uncertain about control when you are in the saddle. The rein cues are the same.

Time Issues-Quick Fix or Clear Your Calendar?
All horses and riders are different. Some will take longer at certain parts of a lesson than others. Do the exercises in order, and do not move on to the next step until your horse always gives you the response you are asking for at the slower speed. It is a good idea to go through these exercises at a walk before moving up to a trot, especially if your horse tends to “scoot.” Then make sure your horse is solid with them at a trot before moving to a canter.

These exercises could be done in one session if you have a well-trained horse who just needs a tune-up. More likely, it will take a succession of days. This is fine. Rushing things now is not going to slow your horse down later. If you and your horse get tired at any point in any of these exercises, stop when he does something that is an improvement from when you started. The next day, review what you accomplished and continue the exercise.

Exercise 1: Stop and Go
The key to establishing cues is repetition, so be prepared to rehearse them a lot. Start at a standstill. Give your go forward cue. If you are on the ground, this may be a kissing sound or a very light tap with a dressage whip on your horse’s hip. Use a light bump of both legs if you are in the saddle.

Keep in mind that one of the greatest transitions in speed you’ll ever make is going from a complete standstill to a horse that is in motion, so don’t overlook the importance of getting that first step forward. This is where you truly establish your go forward cue.

Once your horse is moving forward, only go about 10 feet. Stop. Ask your horse to go forward another 10 feet. Stop. It may not be pretty at first, but keep repeating this simple transition until the horse is prompt and soft at going forward and stopping. Keep working toward using a lighter and lighter touch of the rein to stop and less and less of a bump with your legs to ask the horse to move.

When you are comfortable and confident at the walk, you can do this exercise at the trot and, eventually, at the canter. As you up the gaits, you’re going to have to up the distance a bit as well. Your goal is to try to keep it to three strides, but the exact distance covered is not as important as doing many, many smooth transitions.

Exercise 2: Changing Direction
If you have control over the movement of the horse’s hindquarters, you have control of the horse. The hips-over move will give you control of forward motion if your horse is trying to run away with you or is generally headed someplace you don’t want him to go.

A horse can’t change direction unless he is moving, so begin this one at a walk. Again, it can be started from the ground if you do not yet feel completely safe on his back.

Give your go forward cue for a walk. Pick up on one rein. Do not think of this rein as being connected to his mouth. Think of it as being connected to the top of his tail. “Point” this rein (say the left one) at his tail, putting enough pressure on the rein that his front feet stop, but his left hind leg steps over and in front of the right one. This very effectively stops his forward motion. Release the rein. Repeat it in the other direction. Swap directions back and forth until the horse is light and comfortable doing this exercise both left and right. Repeat the procedure in the saddle.

Keep this up until you are comfortable you can play with that tail, pointing it at different spots in the arena. Proceed to the trot and repeat.

Exercise 3: Serpentine

Riding serpentines is a gangbuster way to get a responsive, well-trained horse. By the end of this exercise, your horse will be going as slowly as you wish. He will travel on a straight line. He will turn much more easily, be much softer in the bridle, and will have his head and nose where you want them. How long those results take will depend on how much training your horse already has-and how much time you can put into him with this exercise.

As before, you want to start your serpentines at a walk. It will probably take your horse a while to learn to comfortably balance himself (and you) through these turns. He may start out with his head in the air and his nose stuck out. He may even be pulling hard on the bridle. Don’t worry about any of that. You’ll refine all that after the turns are solid, and in fact, some of those initial problems will simply take care of themselves as you work through this exercise.

How to Do the Turns
Start riding a small circle, let’s say 10 to 15 feet, travel half-way round the circumference, and then change direction. As you ask your horse to change direction, let’s say from left to right, pull his head gently to the right with your right rein while releasing pressure on the left rein. Make another half-circle, and change direction again, continuing this snake-like pattern down the length of your riding area.

If your horse turns his head, but keeps plowing ahead in a straight line, pick up your rein and take up as much slack as you need to in order to move the horse’s tail over, just as you did earlier in the hips-over exercise. When you get that hips-over diagonal step, release the rein. Change direction. If your horse drifts again, do another hips-over move. Release. Pretty soon your horse will understand that when you ask him to change directions: A) it means he really does have to do it; B) when you touch that rein something is going to happen; and C) it is easier to do a simple, half-circle change than it is to do a hips-over move.

When you are comfortable changing directions at the walk and all is going smoothly, move to the trot.

If your horse has had speed control issues, they may show up now. His trot may speed up. It may be rough. He may try to canter. Remember, you must always find a way to release that rein and not ride the brakes. That’s why the serpentine is so important.

If you release that rein and your horse speeds up, pick it up again, change directions, and release it again. Let him speed up. Pick up the rein, change directions again, and release again. If at any time you feel that you are getting out of control, ask your horse for a hips-over move, then release and change directions again. This takes away his impulsion and any incentive he may have to surge ahead.

Softening the Serpentine
Once your horse is turning and maintaining a reasonable speed on a loose rein, you are ready to begin to soften and refine your cues for even greater comfort and control. Remember that while you know what you are asking for, the horse does not know ahead of time what a new signal means. It may take him a while to try different things before he works out just what it is you want him to do.

1. Soften the Nose. When you change directions, look at your horse’s nose. As you are turning, pick up the rein again for another two to three seconds. As soon as you feel the nose “soften,” turning more to the inside of the turn with a nice bend of the neck, release.

If you hold the rein for three seconds and he doesn’t soften yet, just change directions again and repeat. Eventually, he will soften his nose, following the motion of the rein with a feel very much like a child taking your hand at a crosswalk. Release the rein. Repeat many times on both sides. Your goal is to get him to hold that nice curve of the neck through the turn on a loose rein.

2. Lower the Head. We’ve used that rein twice now; once to turn and once to soften. Now we’re going to pick it up a third time and ask him to lower the tip of his ear. This one might be a little confusing to the horse at first, so you might want to start it from the ground.

His first response to this third pickup of the reins is going to be to bring his head more and more to the side, as he did when you asked him to soften his nose. So would you if roles were reversed. Keep him moving. Continuing the gentle pressure, push the rein (not your hand!) slightly forward, against his neck and toward his opposite ear to straighten him. He’ll take his head forward again to get away from the pressure. Keep holding the rein for at least three seconds. If he doesn’t figure it out right away, change direction and do it again on the other side. Eventually he will lower that ear tip-even if it’s only incidental. But when he does, release the rein. You have to start making that connection some way.

Once you start back in the saddle, begin at the walk. He may start out with his head up nearly level with yours, but as soon as he drops the tip of the ear as much as a quarter of an inch, release the pressure. As you continue to work through the exercise, changing directions, softening, asking him to lower his head, he will bring it down little by little.

Progress to the trot and canter when he is relaxed and steady at the previous speed.

As you work through this exercise, you will probably notice that when you are in the middle of your change of direction from left to right, for instance, your horse’s head comes up a bit and his nose goes out a bit before coming down and softening in the next direction. It will probably be more obvious on one side than it is on the other. This is normal. Just as people are right- or left-handed, so are horses. One side is not as strong or flexible as the other. It will even out as the horse becomes more relaxed and supple. Just keep working on it.

3. Soften the neck. Your horse may be starting to do this on his own, but if necessary, you can pick up that rein a fourth time-changing directions all the while-to ask him to soften the long muscle in his neck.

By this time your horse’s trot should be starting to feel pretty good. You might not need to pick up the rein as many times to get to the final steps. Just use it as you need to. If he speeds up, or if he is still going a little faster than you want, just keep changing those directions. Do not canter until you are both very relaxed at the trot.

Going Faster
Your horse may be trying to break back into a slower gait by this time. The temptation will be to kick him to keep him going.

Don’t. If you do that, you’re telling him “Don’t trot slowly.” Nor do you want to scare or startle him into the transition. We don’t want him throwing his head up or sticking his nose out or “scooting” into it. This is not a race. We always want the transition to be pretty and relaxed. Instead, wait until he actually does break into a walk. Then let your legs say, “No. I want you to trot now.” The key is to do it smoothly.

It is important that you practice changes of speed. You determine the pace you want the horse to travel. Make one part of the serpentine slow, another part fast, and then the next part slow again. Practice with other horses around. Practice in many different places, in and out of the arena.

Do this at all three gaits. Walk slowly, then walk fast, and go back to a slow walk again. Trot a nice little pleasure horse pitter-pat, then do a long trot, then back to the pitter-pat. Canter slow and easy, move on out and have fun, then come back to a nice, easy lope.

If you do your homework, you’ll find that you’re no longer struggling with a tortoise or a hare. Instead, you’ll be riding a well-trained horse who lets you set the speed.

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