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Rating the Speed of Your Horse
WRITTEN BY: Laura Phelps-Bell   [Sept. 23, 2000]

My purpose with this article will be to explain my concept of what "rating speed" is, but also to help people understand how to "feel as one" with their horse; to teach horse and human to be on the "same page" and "following the same lead" with the human in the capacity of being the "director" of this production, but not inhibiting the creativity of both individuals by that direction; to teach the human how to have the horses feet go where they want them to go and at the speed that they wish to go.

Creating "oneness" with our horses is a very achievable endeavor as long as we educate ourselves in the "nuts and bolts" kind of way too. The two go hand and hand. It would be wonderful if we all had "feel" and knew how to "follow a lead" naturally but alas, that usually isn't the case. The "natural" aspects of interaction with horses will usually take place as more standard education is in place first. Then we will begin to develop a naturalness of interaction that is wonderful; both a union of mind and spirit.

Rating Speed:

My definition of rating speed is maintaining a consistent speed (cadence and rhythm) with your horse once you are at your desired speed. I also consider rating speed to be controlling speed between transitions of speed within a gait. For example: if we go from a canter to a hand gallop and then back to canter again. Basically the same gait, just making a transition of speed within the gait.

Rating speed is one of those things that is very important in terms of creating understanding and communication between a horse and rider. From a safety standpoint, it is very important as well. If the horse and rider are moving "at speed" and the rider wishes to decrease and/or moderate the speed of their horse and it is at that moment that the communication between them breaks down, the horses "fight or flight" instinct might actually kick in to high gear, potentially causing a run-away scenario with both the horse and rider in jeopardy.

Learning how to rate speed:

In a perfect world, the horse and human have bonded, done a lot of ground handling to establish mutual respect and trust at that level first and have developed a good communication level between them. The human also has an "open mind" and is continuing on the learning path. Since I'm a realist, I understand that this isn't always the case, but I make it a point to advise people that their horse experience will be a better, safer one if they take the time to do these very simple basics first. For purposes of this article, we will assume that the foundation groundwork is solidly in place.

One scenario that I see quite often is when the rider sends their horse forward and is enjoying a fast, forward ride in whatever gait the rider has chosen. Now they want to decrease speed so they pull on the reins. If the response from the horse is not one of "coming back" (as in slowing down), the rider may pull harder and harder which may cause the horse to just bear more and more into the pressure. At this point all we have is a pulling contest.

If the rider were to "open their shoulders", drop their heels down so that they are the lowest point on the rider's body and then offset a straight pull back on both reins with instead a steady tension on one rein and a "softening of the jaw" (vibrating) type tension of the other rein, all would probably be well. The horse would probably relax their jaw and poll and melt into a slower speed.

Instead, what often happens is the rider now begins to become frightened and they many times will start to curl their body into a fetal (defensive) position. Then their calves and heels come up and grip the horse's sides hard, which compounds the problem. With the riders calves and heels in their sides, most horses have been trained to go faster with more pressure from the riders legs and heels and that is exactly what happens; the horse goes faster and gets stronger. Now we have a rider hunched forward, trying to pull the horse back while desperately gripping the horse's sides with their legs and heels.

Quite often this scenario will turn into a "runaway" situation, and because the horse is now scared too, they are running in a panic without either the horse or the rider having a level head and thinking and making decisions.

If the rider had just sat up straight in the saddle, dropped their heels and calves out of the horses ribcage and done effective communication with the horses head and neck via the reins, the situation probably wouldn't have spun out-of-control.

Let's break down "rating speed":

From having taught hundreds of people how to interact with and ride their horses, I've come to the realization that terms like "feel","follow the lead", "the horses feet are my feet", etc. don't really mean anything to some people (especially those with little experience). It's like speaking in a foreign language. As a person's horse experience becomes broader (they learn the language), these terms will probably begin to make perfect sense, but in the beginning of the "experience", they often don't. I have had better results if I break things down and give people mental "pictures" to relate to.

Think of riding your horse like driving a car (or for a kid, like riding a bicycle). It takes a certain amount of "feel" to drive a car or ride a bike, just like with a horse. We are also "making the cars or bicycles tires, our tires" when we drive, just like when "the horses feet are our feet". It also takes education, coordination and good reflexes to handle certain situations that may arise.

Of course, we are only dealing with one brain (ours) when operating a car, but if we take the time to educate ourselves, develop our skills and break it down, its definitely transferable to riding a horse.

Riding your horse (driving your car):

You have reins (your steering wheel and brakes) and your seat and legs (the accelerator, but also your steering wheel and brakes if you know how to use your seat and legs effectively, but that's a different article!). Now let's picture coming to a railroad crossing with our car and the crossing gates are down. We sit patiently until the train comes and goes (unless you're silly enough to try and weave your way between the gates and play "chicken" with a train!). The crossing arms go up. Now, do we mash down on the accelerator (kick the horse in the sides) and dash across the railroad tracks blindly? A sensible person wouldn't do that.

Instead, we apply pressure to the accelerator, (squeeze our legs on the horse's sides), we steer the direction of our vehicle with our steering wheel (our horse with our reins) and in this way we are controlling the speed and direction of our vehicle (our horse). We regulate/control our speed and direction by how we use our accelerator, steering wheel and brakes in balance and harmony. Once we get to the desired speed, we maintain that speed by how we coordinate our feet and hands on the controls in the car.

Think of the crossing arms as they go up as being a door that is opening and we are simply going through the opening with our vehicle. With our horse, we are the ones that are creating an opening for them to go through by easing up and relaxing our contact with the reins to their mouth and by applying leg pressure (the accelerator), we then send the horse smoothly through the opening created by the easing or relaxing of the reins.

Rating the speed of a horse is like rating the speed of your car; a balance between accelerator (seat and legs) which sends the car (horse) forward, the steering wheel (hand(s) of the rider on the reins) and our brakes (hand(s) of the rider).

*For purposes of this article, I'm not going to complicate things by going into all the different ways that we can use our hands, legs and seat in unison to steer, stop and have our horse perform intricate movements. I'm keeping things as basic as possible. If you push your horse forward with your legs, you will then "catch and direct" them with your hand(s) as your horse moves forward (just like applying the accelerator in your car. When the car goes forward, hopefully you have your hands on the steering wheel to control the direction).

Once you are at the desired speed, you will hold steady, in light contact with your horse's mouth. If the horse wishes to go faster and you don't want them to, you simply apply pressure with your reins (the brakes) to ease them back to your desired speed, hold the pressure for a few seconds and then lighten the contact with your horse's mouth (easing up on the brakes) to just contact, not pressure and tension on the reins.

Sometimes you may have to repeat this exercise until the horse understands that if in reality you wanted to go faster, you would apply the legs (the accelerator) to ask for faster. Since that is not what you are doing (and you may need to check yourself to make sure that you aren't actually egging your horse on with your calves and heels gripping into their sides), the horse will begin to realize that he has to focus on what it is that you are asking for in that moment.

I take this a step further with some of the horses that I train and will hold with slight pressure at the desired speed and then ease off of the contact completely to a loose rein. This causes the horse to have to learn to "carry themselves" without me having to hold their mouth (forehand) with my hand(s). When I want something else, I then apply the appropriate signal of hand, leg or both in harmony. We should avoid a "pulling contest" because it is combative and counter-productive. Combat has no place in riding (or driving, but maybe that's why we have "road rage" because some people just don't get it!).

Just remember that we are pushing our horse forward with our legs and then "catching" and directing with our hands on the reins. It's a matter of riding the whole horse, not just the forehand or the haunches. We should be thinking in terms of dividing the horse in half; forehand, haunches. Now divide them into quarters; right forehand, left forehand, right hindquarters, left hindquarters.

Both legs of the rider will direct the horse's haunches. The left leg of the rider will also direct the left haunch more precisely, just as the right leg will direct the right haunch. Both hands on the reins will control the forehand (unless the horse has more advanced training and knows how to neck-rein, in which case both reins are in one hand of the rider). The right hand directs the right forehand and the left hand directs the left forehand. When sitting in the saddle, from the riders hands forward that is the realm of the hand controlling direction and speed. From the riders legs back, that is the realm of the influence of the riders legs.

So now we can look at this scenario: the rider "opens the door" with their hands on the reins by relaxing the reins. They give the horse a squeeze with their legs to send them through the opening that has been created with the relaxation of the reins. They ride their horse up to the desired speed and then apply just enough contact/pressure to tell the horse that this is where they want to be in terms of speed.

Once the horse regulates their speed at that speed, the rider can either ride in light contact or they can ease off completely on the rein contact and go to a slightly slack rein. If the horse speeds up, the rider makes sure that they didn't do something with their leg to tell the horse to in fact go faster.

When the rider has checked themselves to make sure that their legs and heels are not grabbing the horse in the sides and that they are sitting up straight and not hunching into a ball, then they can bring the horse back with tension/pressure on the reins ("closing the door", applying the brakes), hold the horse at the desired speed once they get to it and then after a few seconds, ease off the pressure/tension on the reins and continue the ride at the desired speed.

Sometimes this exercise will need to be repeated until the horse understands that a relaxing rein is not their cue to go faster. They are only to go faster if the rider applies leg pressure and/or sound cues such as clucking or kissing.

In order to decrease speed, the rider should once again check to make sure that they are sitting correctly and are not cueing the horse to go faster. If everything is as it should be, the rider will now relax their legs ever so slightly, apply as little pressure as possible to the reins to soften the jaw of the horse (vibrate the rein) with either rein but not both and only increase the pressure (pull) on the reins if necessary. Remember, if a subtle cue will get the desired response, that will keep the communication between you and your horse "light". If we don't get the response we're looking for with a subtle cue, we can always increase what we're doing until we get the desired response. The rider should be thinking of synchronizing the balance of their hands and legs and the "jobs" that the parts of their bodies are performing in cueing the horse. The rider is "directing" the production and that includes directing themselves, not just their horse.

By creating an atmosphere of communication, trust and also balance (harmony) between horse and rider, we can effectively ride our horse at any speed, maintain a consistent speed, vary the speed from slow to fast and back to slow again and also do smooth, balanced transitions between gaits.

Unless the event we are riding in calls for it, we should avoid abrupt, helter-skelter, quick moves. Actions like these are what will tend to frighten a horse and cause them to lose their balance, which in turn sometimes leads to erratic, paniced behavior on the part of the horse and maybe also the rider if they become frightened and realize the situation is out-of-control. Try to keep transitions smooth and in balance and keep thinking about riding "the whole horse", not just the front or the back.

Laura Phelps-Bell -- "Better Horsemanship Through Better Education"

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This article was published on: Sept. 23, 2000. Last updated on: Sept. 23, 2000.