Q When I ask my horse to add speed to his lope, he gets chargey and wants to run off immediately instead of slowly building controlled speed. This behavior has made me reluctant to ask for speed—his chargey pushiness scares me. How can I train him to build speed slowly and calmly, rather than running off like a shot?
Christine Garner, Indiana
A The key to controlled speed in the show pen lies in teaching your horse to focus on you and to hunt for your cues. If his mind is focused, he can gauge how fast you want him to go. And if he’s always looking for your cues, he’s listening to your requests.
At home, however, it’s sometimes best to start with a horse with a fresh mind, so you can test him and see where his holes are—in this case, it’s being pushy or chargey when adding speed at the lope. I use the horse’s lack of focus to my advantage. If I can get him “with me” when he’s fresh at home, then I know he’ll be “with me” at a show.
Here, I’ll start by going through the steps of the drill, then I’ll explain how it helps me when I show.
The Three-Part Drill
The key to this drill is to build one cue at a time—the first cue; then the first and second; then the first, second, and third.
I start off at a quiet lope on a circle, using half the arena (like I would loping circles for a reining pattern). I recommend using half the arena, because then you don’t have to worry so much about guiding your horse when you’re working on his speed transitions.
I begin the drill by putting my hand and body slightly forward, like I’m “chasing” my horse forward—this is the first cue. But I’m not ready for him to put on the gas yet. If he bolts into a fast run from this first part of the cue, I pull him into the ground (stop) and back a few steps or pull his head around in a few circles in the same direction I was traveling. This is all done in a quiet, calm manner. I want him to be responsive but relaxed. Then we walk forward quietly. I want to keep myself and my horse relaxed; otherwise we won’t get anywhere with the rest of the schooling session.
We then lope off calmly (or continue to lope if he didn’t run when I put my hand forward). With my hand forward, I add the second cue of the drill: pressure from my legs. Again, I’m not ready for him to add speed just yet. If a horse is particularly sensitive to leg pressure, I’ll use extra squeeze, to desensitize him to that pressure. I want to be able to squeeze pretty hard with my legs and not have my horse speed up.
If he stays at a slow and steady pace, then we move onto the third and final part of the cue. If he doesn’t, then I pull him into the ground and back a few steps or pull his head around, being mindful to keep it calm and quiet.
Finally, with my hand forward and my legs on my horse, I add my voice command—clucking or kissing. Now is when I want him to slowly add speed, and this serves as my “accelerate” cue. If he bolts, I pull him into the ground and back; but if he builds gradual speed, I keep clucking until he reaches the speed I want. Then I stop clucking, and just keep my hand forward and legs on my horse.
I continue loping as long as it takes to get him to the speed I want—it could be a half of a circle or two complete rounds—and then I reward him. I sit back in the saddle and remove the leg pressure and let him drop to a quiet walk. I want him thinking, “If I listen and do this right, then I get to walk, which is easy compared to all that stopping, backing, turning, and then loping.”
An additional tip when working on speed transitions: Don’t always do them in the middle of the pen, where they’d be asked for in a reining pattern. Vary your spot for giving each cue, so your horse doesn’t start to anticipate what you want in a designated spot in the arena. Additionally, keeping the cues out of the middle of the arena reduces your anxiety, because you don’t feel limited by time and space to accomplish something. Ask for each step of the drill where it feels right and where you horse is listening.
At the Show
As I mentioned before, I don’t go through the phases in this drill when I show. Instead, I’ve built confidence and trust in my horse that he won’t charge off at a show, because we’ve worked on it at home. If he does try it in the show pen, then I probably need to take him to a schooling show, where I can fix his cheating behavior. Go through these same steps when you school at a horse show.
Mike Berg, Temecula, California, trains open reining and cow horses and coaches amateur riders with his wife, Kristi, also a successful reiner. They have two sons. Learn more at bergperformancehorses.com.