Riding a horse that jigs on the trail, rushes his fences, or canters like a freight train, is not fun for the horse or rider. It damages your confidence and can be dangerous for both of you. A rushing horse is in flight mode – tense and braced in his back, neck and jaw; reacting rather than thinking.
A common solution to slow down a rushing horse is a stronger bit. If that works at all, it only works for a short time before an even stronger bit is needed. The problem is not truly solved until you determine the root cause. Before buying another bit, consider these three common reasons your horse may be going too quickly:
>> Extreme tension in his body. He may be nervous about any contact with his mouth, flanks or hindquarters, over-react to leg aids or have tight abdominal muscles. Tension may be caused by anxiety or a nervous temperament or by pain somewhere in his body from poor saddle or bit fit or dental or chiropractic problems.
>> Not equipped to think. We need to teach our horses to learn how to learn. Horses that are asked to do more than they are physically or mentally ready to do have often been trained with forceful techniques to get the end result quickly. The horse learns to behave a certain way to avoid pain. For a horse to do his job calmly and confidently, he needs to be given time and slow, patient training to build up his mental as well as physical strength. Horses that are asked to do more than they are ready to do usually suffer pain somewhere or anxiety which negatively affects their behaviour.
>> Being ridden in an incorrect frame. Even though your horse can trot, canter or get over a jump, if he’s carrying himself in a poor or unbalanced frame (i.e. dropped or tight back) it will cause physical and emotional stress in the short term and result in chronic pain in the longer term.
Assess Your Riding Position
The rider’s seat is the primary aid for speed and steering control. With a good position, you can follow and work with your horse’s natural movement. If someone else rides your horse without the same problem, or other horses show the same problem when you ride them, your seat may be the cause of the problem. Honestly assess your position, balance and suppleness in the saddle. To give clear signals to your horse without causing discomfort to his back, you must be able to:
- sit lightly in the saddle with a long, relaxed leg
- maintain balance without tipping forward or backward
- maintain alignment of shoulders, hips, and heels with strong core muscles
- follow your horse’s motion without bouncing or gripping
- maintain a steady level of contact with soft hands and arms
When you have a following and supple seat, you have better control while helping your horse relax. (See “Getting some ‘Go Go’ in Your ‘No Go’ Horse” – Horse Canada July/August 2013 for tips to improve your riding position.)
Steering and Slowing Down Without Pulling on the Reins
Steering and controlling speed by pulling on the reins creates tension and resistance in the horse. Change the cycle of you and your horse pulling on each other while improving your trust and confidence in each other with simple groundwork exercises that can be transferred to the saddle. Try this exercise:
>> Ride from the ground with contact in-hand. Work with either a halter and lead rope or your horse’s bridle, preferably with a snaffle bit. The same driving and blocking aids will be used that you should also use when riding. This exercise can help you become more aware of where you hold tension in your body and develop consistent following contact while helping your horse relax and soften.
Stand at your horse’s left shoulder holding the line (rope or reins) in your right hand. Have contact on your line while keeping your arm supple and elastic – breathe deeply as you release any tension in your shoulder, arms and neck. Keep your horse’s nose aligned with the centre of his chest as you reach back towards his flank with the end of your line or a dressage whip. Add a voice cue (i.e. ‘walk on’ or cluck) and allow him to take the first step. Just like riding, you are pushing him forward into the contact and then following the movement with your body. When your horse walks off, stay at his shoulder keeping following contact on the line with your supple and elastic arm. Any tension in the reins from your arm will cause your horse to show resistance or tension.
>> Spiral in and out on a circle. Slow your horse down by bending and turning rather than pulling on the reins. Done correctly, lateral bending causes your horse to naturally slow down his legs. When your horse speeds up, spiral into a smaller circle. Look over your left shoulder and move his hip out by reaching back towards his hip with your rope or whip. Circle or pivot around your left foot so that you stay by his shoulder. If you step to the left, you will pull his head in throwing him off balance. As soon as you feel him slow down, spiral out onto a larger circle. Repeat the small circle every time he speeds up.
>> Use 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 step. Hold 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.
>> Transitions within gaits. Making frequent transitions helps engage the horse’s hindquarters, strengthening his back and abdominal muscles and improving his balance, rhythm and confidence. Transitions can happen within a single gait as well as from one gait to another. Once your horse is responding well to the first two parts of this exercise, ask him to increase and decrease his pace between two markers (fence posts, pylons or poles on the ground). Count the number of steps your horse gets between the markers in a regular walk. Ask him to increase his pace and lengthen his stride (fewer steps between the markers) by softening your contact while pushing him forward. Use your half halt and more contact to ask him to decrease his pace and shorten his stride (more steps between the markers). If he gets anxious and rushes, go back to the spiraling in circle until he settles.
When you and your horse are doing these exercises comfortably and consistently in-hand, transfer the same exercises to the saddle. You and your horse will both enjoy your rides more as you become a lighter rider who uses less pressure and absorbs your horse’s movement with your balanced supple body.