A horse is rushing any time he goes faster than you want, or are comfortable with, and is difficult to slow down. His strides are bigger and more powerful than you need or want them to be. His tempo is faster than it should be. He resists downward transitions and may pull on the reins,” explained Anne Gage, partnership trainer and owner of Confident Horsemanship.

What’s the Rush?

“A horse that rushes is not relaxed,” said Anne. The same issues that can cause a horse to resist a rider’s aids (see Horse Canada May/June), can lead to rushing; these include tension, pain, imbalance and fear.

Equestrian Canada and AQHA judge and coach, Lindsay Grice, said it often comes down to instinct. “Any type of rushing, jigging, or hurrying is an expression of the flight response,” she said. “A prey animal doesn’t get a second chance in nature to make a judgment error. When a threat is perceived, he flees to a safe distance and checks things out from there.”

She added: “Horses hurry through canter transitions, scurry across trail bridges and back off trailers in a flurry. It’s not out of eagerness, but actually to get the experience over with!”

Another good example is the horse that rushes at fences because he ‘loves’ jumping. “Unfortunately, the opposite is more likely to be true,” said Anne. “The horse is anxious about jumping and rushes to get it over with.”

Anne noted that a horse’s desire to rush can also be caused by rider errors such as:

  • incorrect position
  • imbalance
  • tension
  • unclear, poorly timed or unrelenting aids
  • busy hands

“Horses ridden by unbalanced or busy riders learn to tune out all the ‘noise’ and ignore the aids the rider thinks she is giving,” said Anne.

In the case of the hurried jumper, Anne explained: “The horse may not be strong enough to shift his weight off his forehand, lift his back and work from his hindquarters. This can happen with young and green horses as well as older horses that have poor posture. It takes time and a skillful rider for the horse to develop the right posture and physical strength to be balanced while carrying a rider at walk, trot, canter and when jumping.”

Slowing Things Down

“The first course of action is to determine the root cause of the problem,” said Anne. “Start by assessing the horse’s general way of going – how he carries himself without a rider, how he carries himself with a different rider. If the horse does not have a supple and swinging back, willing acceptance of the bit and the rider’s aids, then you need to go back to basics to develop these foundational areas. If these basics are established, then you need to establish exactly what is happening when he rushes in order to help the horse.”

Is the horse:

  • ignoring the rider’s aids
  • resisting down transitions
  • heavy on the forehand; pulling on the reins
  • moving in a tempo right for him, but uncomfortable for the rider
  • moving in a faster tempo than he should
  • moving with a bigger, more powerful stride than is comfortable for the rider

“Too often,” said Anne, “a rushing horse is put in a stronger, harsher bit to give the rider more control. While it may work in the short-term, a stronger bit does not address the underlying problem. Nor will it help the horse to relax. The horse may run from the pain of the stronger bit just as he will from a tight rein or unyielding hands. The horse typically shortens his neck, hollows his back and braces against the pressure of the bit and rider’s hands.”

Lindsay agreed, saying: “A stronger bit is not the answer. When a horse is stressed, he tunes out stimuli. He just switches off. The key is to show the horse what you DO want. Apply the slowing aids, note any shortening in his step and reward by immediately relaxing the pressure.”

Anne added, “A skilled rider can steer and slow a horse down without pulling on the reins, through correct use of the seat, legs, core and upper body.”

Lindsay cautions riders not to trap a horse with their aids. “Conflicting aids create confusion. When a horse becomes confused, his first reaction is usually tension. This tension makes the horse inclined to run away from the stressful situation. The more conflicted the horse becomes, the greater the urge to run or shy away,” she explained. “Opposing signals such as tightly restricting a horse’s head in an upward transition, over jumps or loping poles will make a horse feel claustrophobic. Be distinct with your aids. Speaking clearly and deliberately calms both stressed humans and horses.”

She also noted that riders must be cognizant of their own pace. “Avoid abrupt cues. Gradually increase pressure, especially in a busy, unfamiliar environment, when the horse is on high alert,” she said.

“Often, when our own adrenaline is elevated we overreact. As a judge, I wince as competitors charge into equitation patterns, or even western pleasure transitions. They don’t mean to be callous. They’re just caught up in the moment!”

In the case of a horse and rider mismatch, Lindsay said, “Every coach has experienced the fiasco of the green horse/green rider combination. Likewise, the mismatch of the reactive horse/reactive rider. Applying the aids skillfully is a combination of a) timing and b) intensity. If a rider is abrupt or loud with her signals, or misses just the right moment to relax her aids the horse feels vulnerable and tense. It takes skill and emotional control to convey calm confidence to an emotional horse.”

Some time spent polishing skills on a calmer horse can pay off in a situation like this.

Slowing Exercises

Improving your horse’s balance so that he can work well off his hindquarters, lightening his forehand, will help keep his rhythm and tempo consistent. “A horse carrying himself in this way is able to respond to balancing aids to slow down or collect his stride,” said Anne.

And, as a rule of thumb, “a horse that rushes should not be ridden on straight lines. The phrase ‘the bend is your friend’ is true, as it gives the rider more control.”

Anne suggested the following exercises:

>> Spirals (in and out) on a circle. “Slow your horse down by bending and turning rather than pulling on the reins. Lateral bending causes your horse to naturally slow down his legs. Your horse should bend around your inside leg while keeping his nose in line with the centre of his chest. Being careful not to pull him either in or out of the circle with your reins, use your leg aids to gradually spiral in and then back out of the circle. The aim is to keep the horse, and yourself, balanced, relaxed and moving with a consistent rhythm.”

>> Apply the half halt. “Create momentary resistance [a block] to your horse’s forward movement by lifting and opening your chest as you inhale deeply and slow down your seat. Hold the block only for a step and then release. Repeat as often as necessary – blocking and releasing – until you feel him soften and slow down. If your horse is very strong, combine the half halt with the spiral in circle. As he gets softer and more responsive, the half halt will become effective on a larger circle and eventually without circling.

>> Work on transitions. “Transitions, done correctly, engage the horse’s hindquarters, strengthen his back and abdominal muscles and improve his balance, rhythm and confidence. Transitions can happen within a single gait as well as from one gait to another. Practice transitions on bending lines like circles, serpentines and figure eights.”