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Finesse- Fine tuning your energy in the saddle

Topic_Info: Trying to get the horse to walk/trot/canter more slowly.

Website_Info: Google
Location: NY
Date: September 05, 2010

I've been riding a 14 year old mare. She was previously ridden by a person who continuously ran her and ran her shortly after she was broke (she was broken at the age of 10) and I have extreme difficulty getting her to walk slowly. When I'm working on the ground with her/grooming, she is a completely calm horse who seems very relaxed. She stands still even when she's being saddled.

However, when I try to mount her, she gets a bit antsy and starts to walk. If I pull in the left rein to keep her head turned toward me, she still walks in a circle and when I finally get on top of her, she tries to walk as fast as she can. If I slack the reins, she tries to break into a trot. A horse trainer helped me for three days and by "playing with my hands", I got the horse to walk a bit slower, but it took a lot of effort. That was last year. This year, even when I "play with my hands", she either throws her head forward or slows down for a second, and then speeds right back up. (I use a hackamore because her mouth is small, and bits tend to end up cutting her.) When I do get into a trot, it's faster than a normal "trot" should be, and it's the same with a walk; unless I keep a tighter rein on her, she tries to trot faster or get into a canter. When I canter her, she tries to go as fast as she can. I'm not an experienced rider, but I'm slowly starting some natural horsemanship, and when I lunge her on the ground, she walks and trots nicely.
Sorry if this all seems disorganized!

Horses can very easily become patternized. This means that once a certain behavior, manner of interacting with them, or certain expectation of a type of performance is established, they begin to "automatically" respond without really mentally considering what their rider is asking of them. (Have you ever been in the shower and been distracted thinking about something else, when you suddenly stop and have to think if you already shampooed your hair or not?) They wind up going through the motions of a ride without ever thinking. The day you ask something "new" or "different" than what they are used to, is the day you start to find "holes" in their training and education.

Your horse's physical actions are a direct reflection of her mental availability. As long as she is "unavailable" to hear your aids, your ride(s) are going to be a constant source of frustration for both of you. For a moment you'll have to forget about your long term goal of a "quiet" canter, and focus on your horse's brain.

My goal when I ride, no matter what horse, no matter what background, no matter what the scenario is, I want my horse to ask "What would you like" This allows me to offer direction, influence their performance, and achieve that ideal quality ride because we are both on the same page.

Horses can easily and quickly establish patternized responses based on past experience and what has been expected of them. Right now I would guess that your horse is pretty sure that she knows what is being asked of her, and instead of being mentally available to understand what you would specifically like (in this case a slow lope)- your horse is mentally unavailable to "hear" your aids, so there is no opportunity for you to offer her an alternative idea- liking cantering slow. Think of her mind set as that equivalent to a teenager that is going through the stage of "knowing it all.

So even though your horse has been ridden for years, you may have to go back to some of the basics and re-evaluate you and your horse. In your case I would gather that there is general lack of clear communication between you and your horse. There are many ways to break down her lack of willingness to canter at various speeds. Because he is currently confident that when asked to canter it must be at a full out speed, that is all he thinks he needs to offer you. You are going to have to be able to influence his brain with alternative ideas, clarify how and what aids you use, and help him start to gain confidence when he mentally addresses you so that he can then offer alternative physical responses, rather than the current conditioned brainless responses.

First look at yourself, you will need to evaluate what aids you are using, how (specifically,) when you are using them, and with what amount of energy (on a scale of 1-10)? This will help you break down exactly at what point does your horse mentally "tune you out." Remember that a horse can feel a fly land on her skin, if you are creating a lot of "activity" with your aids (in this case the see sawing with your hands) and not getting a response, your horse is tuning you out. You’re job is going to have to “tune-up” your horse’s current level of insensitivity towards your aids.

Most people ride as “passengers” waiting to see what their horse is going to do, and then AFTER the fact, tell the horse if the behavior was “right or wrong.” I call this reactive riding. Instead you need to be “taking your horse for the ride”- mentally preparing ahead of time how, what and where you’re going to ask something of her. The more mental clarity you have ahead of time, the more accurately you’ll use your aids to communicate more clearly to your horse what you’re asking of her. She should be a mirror image of your energy in the saddle. But you’re going to have to take a few steps to establish this before you ever get into the saddle and certainly before you’re cantering and wanting to be able to influence her.

Many horses are what I call "shut down" (mentally unavailable) due to boredom and routine rides. It will take a lot of creativity to create interest in your horse so that she will begin to enjoy participating in the ride rather than tolerating the ride. You will also have to establish black and white lines that clarify which of her reactions to your aids and what behaviors will be acceptable and those that are not. The faster you can catch an unwanted response, the faster she can "let it go" and try another response.

The faster you acknowledge that she achieved your "ideal" response, (giving her a break, move on to something else, etc.,) the more confidence she will have to increase her level of mental availability and physical performance. As you increase your own awareness and thought process you will begin to be able to pin point where and when you need to do something different in order to get an alternative response from your horse.

Also you need to become aware if your horse only has a hard time slowing at the canter, or perhaps you may not have noticed, but I would guess, that asking her to perform various energy levels within the walk, trot, she probably also has a difficult time doing- this only becomes worse the faster she moves, which is why at a canter she feels slightly out of control.

To take it a step further back- I'd start with evaluating her ground work and how "light" she is on the lead rope. Does she barge past you at one pace when you're leading her? Does she display a "heaviness" on the lead rope as you go to turn? If you slow or increase your pace on foot, does she acknowledge this or does she ignore you? Everything she "displays" towards you on the ground will only become magnified once you are in the saddle and certainly the faster you ride.

Many times when working on a repeated exercise, horses try to please us by trying to do what is "right" ahead of when we have asked them. Depending on your horse's background, in your horse's case all she knows is to run, so rather than waiting for specific cues or direction from you, she "takes over" and offers what she thinks you want. There is not going to be a quick fix to undo years of established patternized rides by the previous owners. You need to have her mind available at all times to consider what you are asking. If you can influence her mind, then you can change her physical actions. The more she realizes you are helping her throughout the ride, rather than fighting to control her speed, the more sensitive she will be to listening to your aids.

Last but not least. Keep in mind that race horses run their fastest when they are straight... Mentally many horses are way ahead of where there are physically at; so if your horse is moving too fast, offer an “interruption” (such as a circle, a turn or specific task) as an alternative task to focus on, this will act as something to get her brain to slow down, and tune back in to where she currently is at. You can slowly make the task more specific, until she offers to slow down... then continue on with your ride as if nothing interrupted you... Soon it'll only take one rein to offer her a circle, turn, etc. and she'll slow down... Again, check your body language... If your weight is forward, similar to that of a jockey, you are offering your horse to run faster... If you weight is back in the saddle you are offering her to slow down...

With patience and clarity you will start in small steps (literally) to begin creating the opportunity for a two way conversation. This will allow both you and your horse to gain confidence in one another which will then lead to a trusting and fulfilling partnership that will allow you to both enjoy a quality ride. Remember, when your horse shows signs of rushing, nervousness, concern, worry or stress she is not trying to act naughty, rather she is asking for your help.
Good Luck,

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