Question:I need your advice regarding my riding mare, Lady. One problem has been very troublesome for me, as it takes a lot of the pleasure away from our rides. She doesn't want to stay in the speed or gait that I tell her - she continues to speed up. How can I get her to listen?
-Judy Fraughton,Lazy Sun Ranch,Eagle Point, Oregon
Answer: First, understand that your mare is both a prey and a herd animal. Whenever you're with her, you make up a herd of two. Become herd leader, and look at her as your student. You have to build a mutual bond of trust and respect; she has to allow you to be in the leadership position.
It's all about control. Teach your mare that you're in control in every area, on the ground and in the saddle. When you're in control, your problem with her speed will be solved. Following are the steps to take to achieve this goal. You'll start by building a strong foundation on the ground, then you'll carry over this training to under-saddle work.
As you work, be consistent; horses learn through repetition. The more you work with your mare, the deeper the bond will be. Work with her four times in a row per week, or twice each day for two days in a row (morning and afternoon). End each session on a positive note. And be patient; patience is key in training a horse.
If you have trouble with any of these exercises, consult a certified riding instructor or reputable trainer. Don't attempt anything that would be unsafe. Also, understand that every horse is an individual; no one method works on all horses.
Step 1: Work on Flexion
First, outfit your mare in a lead rope and halter, and practice the lateral flexion exercises I described in the May/June '06 issue. Also use lateral flexion to move her hindquarters away from pressure. You'll have more mind and body control over your mare when she's flexible; you have no real control over a stiff horse. Using these exercises, you'll teach your mare to bend between the poll and withers, bend her rib cage, and soften at the poll on cue.
Step 2: Teach Voice Cues
Once your mare is relaxed and supple, teach her to change gaits on the longe line in each direction. Outfit her in a halter and 20-foot longe line. Take up slack by folding the line back on itself multiple times. That way, if your mare bolts, the slack will play out and you won't catch your hand in the line. Carry a longe whip.
Walk your mare to an enclosed area with good footing. Begin with a circle to the right: Hold the folded-up longe line in your right hand (yourlead hand), and hold the longe whip in your left hand (youroff hand). Send her out on a circle by leading her to the right, giving her a walk-forward cue (see below), and letting out slack in the longe line. To reverse direction, halt your mare (see next page), and bring her toward you, folding the longe line as you go. Place the longe line in your left hand and the whip in your right hand, and send her out on a circle to the left.
Teach verbal speed-up cues.Ask your mare to walk forward with one high-pitched cluck; ask for the jog with six-to-eight quick, high-pitched clucks. (Note:Never ask her for a gait change until she's made at least one complete circle in the gait that you just asked her for. This will help keep her from being confused.) Ask for the slow lope with a kiss. Ask her to speed at the lope by kissing more than once. To reinforce your verbal speed-up cues, crack the longe whip behind her hind feet without making contact. The sound will reinforce her focus on you and will urge her to speed up. Repeat these speed-up cues until your mare understands them. She'll then begin to make smooth gait changes on your verbal cues, which will carry over to your under-saddle work.
Teach verbal slow-down cues.Now, teach your mare the cues to slow down. At the lope, teach her that a cluck six to eight times in a high pitch tone means come down to a jog. To ask for a walk from any faster gait, say "easy." To reinforce your verbal slow-down cues, drop your longe whip on the ground, and place your off hand a few inches in front of your lead hand. Apply even pressure to the longe line. Repeat these slow-down cues until your mare understands them.
Teach the halt cue.To halt your mare, give the verbal cue "whoa!" or "ho!" and apply even more pressure on the longe line, as above.
Step 3: Saddle Up
For under-saddle work, outfit your mare in a good-fitting saddle and a bridle with either leather split reins or a one-piece loop rein. Use a smooth, full-cheek snaffle bit, or an O-ring or a D-ring snaffle. Make sure it's a true snaffle bit, with no shanks. With a true snaffle, you can apply lateral and vertical pressure without causing your mare pain or discomfort. (But be sure not to jerk on the reins.)
Work on lateral-flexion.Reinforce the lateral flexion exercises you did on the ground. Work on both sides, the halt, and the backup, all on your cues.
Cue for gaits.Ask your mare for forward motion at a walk: Squeeze lightly with your calves while simultaneously giving one high-pitched cluck, just as you did on the longe line. Avoid applying any bit pressure. Stay relaxed. For the jog, squeeze lightly with your calves while simultaneously giving the same verbal cue you used on the ground. For the lope, kiss once. (Note that I'll cover leads in a future issue.) With all her ground training, your mare should follow your cues. It's a lot of work, but there are no quick fixes to truly training a horse to do well in a positive way.
Step 4: Troubleshoot on Trail
If, after all this arena work, your mare still speeds up on her own, remind her that you're still in control. If she speeds up, keep her going fast. If she gets tired and wants to slow down, don't let her. Let her know that speed doesn't intimidate you. Urge her to go even faster, and don't let her slow down until you're ready.
When you decide to slow down, sit deep in the saddle, and bring your legs forward a little to shift your body weight back. Simultaneously apply light even pressure, on the reins. As soon as your mare slows to the desired speed, release all pressure, and tell her she's a good girl. Praise he only when she's done what you've asked her to do.