The other day, Jo was reminiscing about a grey mare she used to ride when she was a teenager. Her name was Holly. The perfect choice, Jo reckoned, since she was a fairly prickly character!
Jo recalls, “Holly was a fantastic forwards-thinking horse who jumped like a stag. And since lots of people told me I was doing a great job with her, I thought I must be a pretty good rider too. But in hindsight, I was just surviving.
When we went into the school, that’s where Holly could really lose the plot! I only managed to stay in control because somehow I managed to ride very quietly and lightly so we could do some basic work.
On a good day we could walk, trot and canter on both reins in a reasonably sane fashion but we never managed to get further than that.
Back then, I had no idea how to actually school her effectively to improve how she was moving and carrying herself. And I’d no understanding of how that would help her settle down and relax. My whole focus was on keeping her explosiveness under control the entire time.
If I’m being honest, she probably also expected to have her face grabbed and held in every time she powered forward or got a bit excited about what she was doing too. And not without good reason, I’m embarrassed to say.…
But if I’d known then what I know now, I would have been able to avoid annoying her even when she got wound up. I’d have been able to help her move to her full potential and feel good without restricting her, which would have increased her trust in me and my riding.
And if I’d been able to do that, I think we could have gone a long way…”
Over the last 20 years, we’ve been able to help riders with all sorts of horses solve this kind of problem once and for all by putting into practice what we’ve learned about the most effective way to control a forwards horse’s speed.
What makes speed control a tricky issue is that horses that go too fast or fizz up come in a few different varieties. There’s a good chance you’ve met at least one of them:
As you might have already discovered, riding horses like these can be a challenging experience. Frankly, it’s not much fun feeling like you’re sitting on an unexploded bomb and trying not to accidentally trip the fuse!
Faced with these kinds of situations, riders tend to end up doing one of two things:
Some, like Jo, focus on not disturbing their horses and ride ever so gently and lightly in an effort to stop them getting fizzed up.
And although riding lightly and gently is a good thing, if your only tactic is constantly tip-toeing on eggshells and hoping your horse will keep it together, what are you going to do if your horse does get excited or upset?
Other riders take the opposite approach, shortening their reins and restricting the front end, perhaps with the help of strong bits and gadgets like martingales or draw reins to keep things under control and believing that this is solving the problem by correcting the horse’s balance.
And while holding them in like this might seem to work in the short term, the reality is that compressing your horse against the bit just hurts their mouths, necks and backs. So the hot ones get even more wound up and agitated to the point where they can start really throwing their toys out of the pram, while the more tolerant ones will shut down mentally and just soldier on.
What’s worse, riding with such restriction of their mouths or necks only leads to bigger problems in the longer term. As many riders go on to discover, a lot of these horses eventually break down either physically or mentally – or even both!
So what’s the answer?
Well, while being careful not to upset your horse by gripping with your legs or pulling on their mouths is a good start, what revolutionised everything for Jo was learning how horses control their own bodies – and how riders can use that knowledge to their advantage.
It turns out that it is indeed about balance – but nothing to do with how she’d been taught to ‘balance’ a horse before.
Because of the way they’re built, and especially the fact that they have a long neck sticking out in front with their head on the end, horses naturally carry about 60% of their weight on their front legs.
This naturally ‘front heavy’ balance makes it easy for them to move forwards almost without thinking about it – just as you will tend to go faster if you lean forwards while walking or running.
If they want to slow down, stop or make quick changes of direction, on the other hand, they instinctively shift their balance off their shoulders and transfer some of it towards their hind quarters.
But what’s not so obvious is that just by sitting on our horse’s backs the first effect we have is that we actually make it more difficult for them to maintain or change their balance and keep themselves under control.
No matter how slender and light you may be, just sitting there shifts their balance even further forward, because the majority of your weight, as well as the weight of the saddle, is going to be added to your horse’s front legs rather than their hind quarters.
Because of this, many horses just speed up more and more whenever they start getting enthusiastic or upset. Unless their rider knows how to give them the help they need, things can go from bad to worse very quickly.
And the mistake that a lot of riders are making without even realising it is they rely on their horses to somehow figure out how to overcome this man-made balance problem all by themselves.
In our experience, it’s actually extremely rare to find a riding horse who’s capable of balancing himself properly with a rider sitting on his back because most horses need to be taught how to do that and need help in developing the necessary muscles. And so very few of them ever get the education and help that they desperately need…
The starting point is to show your horse how to use his forehand and shoulder sling muscles to carry the added weight of his saddle and rider in an effective way.
Ideally, you start this process on the ground before even getting on your horse’s back but there’s still a lot you can do to help them from the saddle. One of the reasons we created our Schooling made Simple online training programme is to show riders how to do all of this in easy to follow steps.
Then, instead of trying to physically slow and control your half-ton horse by blocking their forward movement with what mainstream teaching thinks of as ‘balancing aids’ (but what are really just ‘restricting’ aids), we use our aids in a way that makes it easy and comfortable for our horses to actually change their own balance whenever we ask them to, so they control their speed themselves.
Different horses also tend to respond to even a ‘nice’ contact and horse-friendly aids in totally different ways. Exactly what your own horse does will depend partly on his or her conformation and partly on their previous experiences of being ridden.
So, depending on how your own individual horse reacts with his head and neck when you pick up your reins, you may also need to do some work to develop a trusting relationship between your hands and his mouth.
Inside our programme, we also dive deep into the details of the 5 different ways horses respond to contact. We explain exactly what to do in each case to establish the kind of relationship you’ll need between your hands and your horse’s mouth in order to be able to influence their balance easily and effectively without the need for special bits or gadgets of any sort.
And as our many happy students have discovered, learning how to do this is SO worth it. By asking your horse to change his own balance without compressing his neck you’ll get an amazing degree of control over his speed and direction.
Because you’ll be working in harmony with his nature instead of struggling against it, you’ll be able to do this while keeping him perfectly calm instead of irritating him and winding him up even further in the process. Instead, you’ll be able to help him easily slow his tempo, take longer, more relaxed strides and find that nice steady rhythm we all dream of having.
With even the most sensitive or ‘tricky’ horses, instead of rushing forwards, you’ll get that amazing feeling of a horse who’s carrying himself and his rider with poise and elegance.
Best of all, there’s no fighting with the reins and you don’t need a stronger bit. You’ll have a deep and true connection that opens the door to developing real collection and more advanced movements. Plus, you’ll have the confidence of reliable brakes and a calm horse when you’re riding outdoors, even when cantering and jumping.
Your horse’s natural beauty starts to shine through when you ride them this way and it looks pretty amazing too. Best of all, it gives you genuine confidence in the saddle, it feels great for both of you and your horse will love that the two of you are finally speaking the same language.
PS: Do you recognise any of those ‘fast-forward’ horses I mentioned? Let us know in the comments…
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