Whether you’ve got an off-the-track thoroughbred, that school horse that “isn’t recommended for beginners” or a warmblood who thinks he’s a bulldozer, it can be frustrating, difficult, and sometimes even intimidating to effectively address strong or fast gaits. While the “easy” thing is to lean back, haul on the reins and pray for a give, though it may work from time to time, more often than not it turns to a tug-o-war and it’s far from being an effective or beneficial long-term solution.
This post will focus on the trot, as it tends to be the most worked gait, but even while the specifics for each gait varies, the principle remains the same.
Our goal turns from “slowing down” to “channeling the energy.” When we have a horse that wants to move, that loves to move, it’s a shame to punish or get in the way of that desire. While that may sound like a poetic pipe-dream to some, that’s more reason to give this, my favourite technique for redirecting that energy, a try.
Transform Speed into Collection
While your hands are undoubtedly maintaining a contact on the rein, lighten the hold as much as you can and set a rhythm with your posting, punctuate it as best you can to jive with the horse’s rhythm and consciously try to manipulate it to slow down. As you do this, during the sit-phase, squeeze and release the rein. (Note: squeeze, not see-saw, not yank, not pull – but simply clench your hands into fists and relax again.) Insist until you get a response, then soften the weight on the rein as reward without dropping the contact.
This teaches them to that’s it’s not a pulling battle, but rather a reward for listening to your seat aids. It’s an excellent habit to enforce in the rider as well to ensure ample rewards and use more body instead.
If they speed up during the reward, just ask again, and be sure to hold the tempo with your posting as best as you can. With consistent practice, it will improve.
As you are able to grapple better control of the speed, apply a little squeeze with the inside leg during the rising phase of the posting trot. While it may seem counter-intuitive, the cue asks for engagement from the inner hind while it is stepping under. This is followed by that half-halt during the sit phase to stabilize and reinforce the steadiness of the rhythm while simultaneously encouraging them to step under and carry themselves.
It is so important to use as little hand as possible. It’s a terribly difficult habit to break, and while it can be incredibly challenging when you have a frothing speed-demon dragging you around, by reinforcing seat and leg aids as means of “backing off” to set your tempo, you are setting your horse (and yourself) up for improved, and better attuned communication. When the rein is no longer the safety line to manage speed, the relaxed hand allows freedom in the front end for your horse’s shoulder. It facilitates your horse’s expression and character rather than getting in the way of it.
While your seat and leg influence the gait and tempo, you may begin to feel the back lift, rounding out and over the shoulder and neck. You may begin to feel more suspension in the gait, characterized by a punctuated rhythm and “airy” sensation. This is what we strive for. Reward enough that it is observed by the horse, but keep that gait packaged with inside leg and half-halts for however long you can safely (or willingly) do so. Even if it’s only a stride or two, it’s an amazing feat and your horse deserves a just reward.