We will not cover emergency stopping methods such as the pulley rein in this article, as a bolting horse is not something a child or novice is going to be able to handle very well. If you’re a beginner, ride only trained horses with a good ‘stop’ and only under the direction of a knowledgeable horse person. Says coach, judge and trainer Kitty Bowland, ‘Don’t ride, or allow any beginner to ride, a known speed demon. Only a professional should have to deal with this problem.’ However, providing you have a good coach and a well-trained horse, learning speed control at the lope and canter is an important and necessary skill.
In english riding, half-halts (or “checks” if you ride western) are applied at the moment of suspension, when all four legs are off the ground, right after the leading foreleg lands. A good half-halt (which is just as it sounds, a ‘mini-halt’ cue) begins with your deepened seat – a result of your flexed abdominal (stomach) muscles causing your seat bones to tuck under and be still and your lower back to flatten. At the same time, your legs will encourage your horse to continue to move forward. The amount of pressure you apply with the reins will depend on the level of the horse’s training and the response you want to achieve.
If you’re a seasoned riding student, you’ve probably heard the words ‘squeeze and release’ many times! In some cases, however, you may actually need to take back with a movement of the upper arm while you sit deep and brace your back. Always keep the intensity of your half-halts at the lowest level possible, and be sure to release after each successful reaction. Using half-halts properly will also improve your horse’s balance and self-carriage.
If you’ve got a well-trained western horse with the right conformation, sitting deeply will often be cue enough for the horse to slow down. For the hard puller, reining trainer Casey Deary of Texas says, ‘If you have a horse that, when you take up both reins, just wants to pull you out of the saddle, you can lift one rein – moving it back instead of lifting up; turn his head to the side, and continue to lope forward.’ As with all speed corrections, relax the rein as soon as the horse softens against it.
You can also work on an exercise to really get your horse listening to you where you lope for 16 strides, stop and back up three or four steps; lope 14 strides, stop and back up; then do 12 strides, stop and back up; and so on until you are down to 6 strides. Be sure to do this both ways of the ring.
Slow & Steady Tips
Check Your Tack
An ill-fitting saddle, poorly positioned bit, pinching girth or other tack problems can cause your horse to be uncomfortable or anxious, which can cause him to pull or rush.
Make sure your warmup is sufficient, whether it involves lungeing your horse to relax him, or 20 minutes of walking and slow trotting/jogging. There is no point doing canter work if he is still too fresh.
Front to Back
Whether you ride western or english, realize that a good slow lope or canter simply can’t be achieved until your horse has mastered balance. A horse must lope properly before it can lope slowly. Some horses are built ‘downhill’ and just don’t have the conformation to easily maintain their balance at a slow speed. You can help increase strength in their quarters and overall balance by doing slow hill work, which develops muscles in the hindquarters and teaches the horse to get his hind legs under his body and his weight off his forehand.
Rather than flying endlessly around the ring at a canter or lope that gets faster and faster, work on transitions (gait changes), such as walk/trot, trot/canter, walk/canter, canter/trot, trot/walk and canter/walk. This keeps your horse listening to you, and gets his quarters under him and his weight off his forehand so that he is not leaning on your hands.
Start with a large circle and pick up a controlled lope or canter. If the horse speeds up, make the circle a bit smaller, but keep him straight, not overbent to the inside or outside.
Good breathing is important for speed control. Shallow breaths and tension in a rider can cause a horse to speed up, while deep breaths not only encourage relaxation, but also improve your position by keeping your shoulders back. A steady inhale and a long, deep exhale can help to keep you centred and your horse calm.