Put an End to the Tug-o-War (part 1)

“If your arms are tired, you’re riding wrong.” Saying or hearing that phrase can be how you make enemies at the barn, but there are better ways of controlling speed than by pulling. It may seem like the only solution at the time, but whether your horse is constantly pulling against you to drag his nose in the dirt, or you are pulling on them to slow them down, once you fall into the trap of tugging, it can be a difficult habit to break – for us. For a horse? They tend to curb those bad habits more easily, as long as we are consistent. That is key. We have to be the ones to get creative, change the game plan and commit to new solutions – because pulling is a battle that only buys us a little time before we lose to 1200 pounds of muscle. And let’s face it: it’s discouraging to end every ride exhausted and constantly feeling like we are out of control.

So, without further adieu:

Slowing Down the “Speed Demon”

Usually your hot-blooded type, sometimes they are ex-racehorses, sometimes they just like to go fast. Keeping a constant weight on the rein is oftentimes the only thing that keeps them from going even faster, but by having that weight constantly on, we are actually dulling the effectiveness of the rein. So how else do you control them?

pyramidoftrainingRemind yourself of your immediate goal: Slowing down, right? Tempo. Rhythm. Remember the training pyramid?(see right) That right there is the foundation of all good riding. And look what’s next? Relaxation. Suppleness. That may seem like an impossible pipedream, but don’t discount hope just yet.

On a 20 metre circle at the trot, first, attempt to establish a consistent rhythm with your seat. Check your hands. Are you pulling? Soften the contact. If they speed up, slow down your posting. Still rushing? Half halt. Half halt. Relax. Enforce the rhythm with your seat. Within the space of 3 strides, you may have to go through this technique 3 times, but be consistent, and avoid resorting to a pulley-rein at all costs. It is crucial to remain emotionally neutral, and to refrain from jerking on the reins. Doing so will revert you back to square one.

So be persistent: hold the rhythm with your seat, your hands soft. Half halt, half halt, relax. Keep your thighs soft with your lower leg present. You need that to support them through the half halt, and you will need that to lift them off your hand.

Yes. I said it. Use your leg to lift them off your hand. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the only way to get them listening to your seat is to use it effectively and get their attention with it. How better to accomplish that amicably than to use the energy they are giving you, and channel it. Bear with me:

After the half halt, immediately cue your inside leg with the rising phase of the trot (when their inside hind leg is stepping under). This encourages correct bend through the ribs and asks for a slight lift in the back. If they rush again, no problem. Half halt, half halt, relax. The half halts can be strong if your horse is trying to ignore you, but you must reward the slightest give/soften by relaxing the hand entirely. Maintain the contact, but just enough to keep a feel so as not to bonk their mouth. Use that inside leg to reestablish your bend and engagement, all the while holding the rhythm with your seat. If they hold their rhythm, then keep your hands soft and leave them alone. That is the ultimate reward. The moment they speed up again: half halt, half halt, relax and ask for the rhythm you want with your seat.

Bear in mind, it is a lot of stimulus, so even if you get just 3 or 4 strides of something good, encourage a moment to “chill” and soften your hands, let them reach forwards/downwards with their necks. It is a lot to think about and they need a mental break too. Sometimes giving them those moments of total reprieve is all that they need to relax mentally and physically, and their rhythm may slow and regulate. That is exactly what you want, so leave them alone – soft hand, soft seat, soft leg – for at least a circle, or until they change their rhythm. If they get faster again, half halt, half halt relax.

Not only are you teaching them to control their pace, you are showing them how to express themselves within your guidelines (lifting their back), you are teaching them self-carriage (by leaving them alone when they respond correctly), and you are teaching them to accept the contact softly by rewarding the slightest of positive replies with a giving hand.

If there are certain areas around the ring where they tend to surge ahead – whether it’s rounding a certain corner, passing around a jump, or when they take a turn up the long side – do a downward transition to a walk, establish a decent, supple walk then trot on, establishing the rhythm you want right from the start. The downward transition contradicts what they anticipate, but you are able to make it into an easy, calming request instead. Try that a few times before proceeding past that point at a trot, keeping your body soft and make corrections and half halts as necessary. It’s important that you do not anticipate unwanted behaviour as you near that spot, because it will inadvertently tense your body and in turn signal to them that there is a reason why this spot is “special”. So ride as if there is nothing wrong, proactively just asking for correct bend and suppleness and making corrections only as necessary.

Be sure to change direction, move your circle to another area in the ring if you can to mix it up, throw in a walk break (or two – sometimes just the transition with a walk break helps them “cool their jets” and relax a little), and maybe even after all that, go “large” on the rail to test it out on the long sides, but don’t be greedy. If they catch on and respond well, call it a day.

Forward is good, but keep it on your terms and quit while you’re ahead.

Put an End to the Tug-o-War (part 1)
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