Question: My granddaughter shows in 4-h and she has a 6yr old mare we just bought her. Her trot is a little fast and so is her canter. How do we slow it down? The horse has never been to a show and I figure we have all winter to get her ready. Can you help slow her down?
Answer from April Reeves: Yes I can and it’s a fairly easy exercise. It’s also a part of foundation training and will set up your horse to do additional exercises.
First, this exercise will teach the mare to take responsibility for her gait. You should never have to constantly push a horse every few strides, nor should you have to try to correct a fast horse all the time. Horses should stay in the gait you ask until you ask otherwise, and this exercise will help. It’s also easy. You will do very little.
You will need an arena or a field where you can ride safely, and has no holes or rocks. Begin by asking the horse to trot and stay in a circle. Keep the circle fairly large, as you don’t want to put stress on the legs and muscles. Keep your reins loose and allow your horse to trot freely.
Let the horse trot as fast or as slow as she wants, and gently guide her to stay in the circle. Do not pull or try to change her trot speed. Just stay there and go for the ride, quietly.
Your only job is to make sure she does not change her gait. If she slows down and almost breaks into a walk, bring her up again. Ask with your legs once, and if she does not move forward with speed, ask again using a crop and legs at the same time, and mean business. Let her jump forward, even canter for a few strides then bring her softly down into a trot again.
Since your mare is more likely to speed up into a canter, each time she does you are to use a one-rein stop to bring her back to a trot. You can begin to learn this at a standstill. Bring the mare’s nose gently to her side, by your leg, and release when she gives. Go from side to side, asking gently (follow a feel) and releasing immediately when she is soft. Then ask her to walk, and apply the one-rein stop until she stops. Use only one rein; do not pull with both reins. Always make sure the opposite rein is loose when you do this exercise. Also, move from one side to another to keep her from getting stiff on one side.
Once you are comfortable with that, move her up into a trot and use the one-rein stop to stop her. When she stops, move her up into a trot again and repeat. Always change sides. Continue to do this until she stops quietly.
When you have this working well, move her back up into a trot, and keep the trot, staying in the circle. If she breaks into a canter, one-rein stop her until she trots, release her immediately (release teaches) and go back to the circle, continuing to trot. Use the one-rein stop to bring her back to a trot, not a stop this time. You are teaching her to stay in a trot, not stop.
Also during this exercise, do not use your legs at all. The point is to get the horse to continue it’s gait on it’s own without your help. This teaches the horse rhythm and responsibility.
Try to change the circle direction often. You should never overdo this or wind the horse. If she gets hot or winded, stop her and let her catch her breath. Once she is recovered, you may resume the circle. I never wind a horse as it can damage them permanently and sour them.
Horses seek comfort by nature. Since she does not know how long she will have to trot, eventually she will realize that it may be best to slow down and conserve her energy. This is where the lesson is: when she decides this on her own without any help from you.
With some horses, this lesson can take an hour a day for many days, depending how deep this fast movement is in her. It is important that you do not give up after a day or so. This does work on even the most stubborn horses. Eventually they all come around.
What’s amazing is that you just sat there and did very little. There are many ways to create a great foundation without all the pulling, frustration, aggravation and expensive training. All my students learn this before anything else. You cannot do anything without cadence, rhythm and calm first. This is the foundation to begin all other training exercises.
Speaking of comfort, one thing to check before you begin is the fit of your saddle. Your horse may be moving too quickly in response to a poor fitting saddle that rubs and pinches. Also, I prefer to use the easiest of bits when teaching a horse to be calm. The harder the bit, the less calm the horse is. Pain is usually something they try to avoid, and will often take hold of a bit and move quicker. I use French link snaffles to start out my horses, regardless of age. It has two breaks in it and the middle looks like a dog bone. My favorite is a French link with a copper roller, as in the photo.