Seven Steps To Slow Your Horse Down
Without Sacrificing Movement
By Dana Hokana
Slow – that’s a powerful word in today’s horseshow world. People think to be slow is highly desired, yet getting your horse slow enough can be difficult. I am often asked “How do I get my horse to slow down?” I believe many people are confused about how much importance to place upon slow. AQHA is strongly promoting that excessive slowness is not to be the goal, rather a horse moving true in relation to their natural length of stride is the goal. The AQHA rule says “excessive slowness in any gait, loss of forward momentum (resulting in an animated and/or artificial gait at the lope) is to be a fault scored according to severity.” Yet most people feel that some judges are still placing slow above true correct movement. So this remains a difficult subject. I can only tell you what I’ve decided to strive for in my own horses and in my program. I do my very best to keep my horses moving true and cadenced with lift and flow. This is my first goal and being ultra slow comes after that. It is also important for you to evaluate your horse. Some horses are mentally willing to go slow and others aren’t. Some horses are physically more capable of going slow than others. Two important physical attributes a horse may possess that will help him to go and stay slow are lift and a strong deep hock. Lift is very important to maintaining self-carriage at a slow speed. Lift gives the horse the ability to stand up and carry himself. A deep strong hock is beneficial because as they reach up underneath themselves it helps the horse to sit back on his hindquarters giving a moment of suspension slowing down the rhythm and the stride. It is also important to consider breeding. There are pedigree lines that are hotter and horses that are bred to go. Other lines are bred to go slow with slower-legged movement. No matter where you are, these exercises can improve your horse.
The exercises I will give you are not quick fixes, they are all exercises to reinforce keeping your horse in position, between your legs and reins, balanced and without lean and paying attention to your cues. My goal is that they will slowly help you to develop your horse into a balanced correct mover, performing at the right speed for your event.
STEP ONE. Evaluate your horse’s energy level. Prepare your horse for his workout. Does he have so much energy that he has trouble performing his workout and focusing on you? If so, lunge him or turn him out. Let him get his play-out, and then he will be a happier team member ready to work. If high energy is a continual problem, remember that certain foods give more energy. Evaluate your horse’s feed. Don’t over-feed him for his job.
STEP TWO. Understanding and keeping your horse on the arc. An arc is a portion of a curved line such as a portion of a circle. A horse is made to travel naturally at the lope on a slight arc. Keeping your horse on his arc is way more important than most people realize. The correct arc of a left lead, for example, is that the horse’s right hind leg will be in between the two front legs and you will be able to see the back outside corner of the left eye. (See illustration). For a right lead, the left rear would be in between the two front legs and you will be able to see the back outside corner of the right eye. If you go in a pasture of horses loping around freely, you will see that the hindquarters kick in slightly to fall in this position to perform the lope. The head may go from side to side while they are playing but the optimum position for the head and neck is as I described above. Keeping a horse on the correct arc is crucial to getting the best lope your horse has to give. A famous trainer in California many years ago named Harold Farren, whose father trained circus horses, taught me the importance of understanding the arc and how it relates to a horse’s movement and how controlling the arc relates to every maneuver we do. Many trainers have found a short cut to excessively slowing a horse down is to “over arc” or “over cant” a horse’s hindquarters to the inside at the lope making the horse almost lope sideways down the rail. This results in an unnatural gait as the flow of forward motion cannot travel naturally forward. The motion is, stopped for a moment, making the front legs quicker in movement and out of sync with the hindquarters. AQHA is working to put a stop to this by including in the rule book that “Overly canted at the lope (when the outside hind foot is further to the inside of the arena than the inside front foot) is a fault to be scored according to severity.” The first step to improving is developing awareness and I am thrilled that AQHA is educating people. In order for you to keep your horse on the correct arc, you have to have control of your horse’s body parts and demand that your horse keep his position. Many old show horses have either learned to over-arc as I just described or under-arc, which results in a shuffling 4-beat appearance. These horses have lost the arc altogether and are traveling straight down the rail with no slight arc. If your horse is under-arcing, you need to push his hindquarters off your leg to the inside. Establish acceptance and control by practicing this maneuver over and over. You can do this at the walk and the trot. I often make my horses trot their hindquarters around the front end. Like any exercise or workout, practice makes perfect. Build and strengthen your horse gradually. If your horse is over-arcing or over-canting, you may need to bring his front end back over his hindquarters. To do this, you need control of his face and shoulders. There’s an old saying that a horse needs to follow his nose. In other words, the horse’s body needs to follow or track behind where his nose is pointed. When a horse’s head is to the outside and the hindquarters over-canted into the inside, his motion is not following his nose. Try bringing his nose to the inside and drive him up to his face at the walk or the trot. Tighten the circle way up, over-exaggerating the correct bend or arc. Then go back to the lope. If he loses position or over arcs, stop and do your circle again. If the hindquarters fall out to the outside just step up to the trot as most horses will get into position with more forward motion. This will help the problem of under-arcing or over-arcing. The arc is truly one of the secrets to a great lope.
STEP THREE. Redistribute your horse’s body weight. Becoming aware of where your horse’s body weight is, is crucial to maintaining your speed and quality of movement. When a horse is heavy on his forehand or front end, he will hit the ground heavier, use more knee action, get quicker legged and speed up and not want to carry himself. A good correction for this is to stop him, making a full completion of the stop and back him a step or two and roll him back facing another direction and go off again. Pay attention to his body weight. If he falls back on his front end, stop him and roll back again. Do this until he carries himself longer and longer. You should feel his steps get softer and more definite. This exercise is also a great correction if he wants to be chargy or just go forward. As he speeds up or “leaves focus” stop him and roll him back. Use your own discretion as to whether or not you need to back each time. The main purpose is to redirect body weight back over the hindquarters and increase your horse’s self-discipline to carry himself for longer periods of time. Also, don’t scare him in the stop. Don’t slam him into the ground. Just firmly stop him. Call it without losing your temper and losing the message of the maneuver.
STEP FOUR. Improve your transitions. How your horse handles his transitions will directly affect his gait. If he surges off into the trot or lope, he will stay faster than if he softly steps off into it. When moving forward from the walk to the trot, if he is “up” with lift and self-carriage, focusing on you, he should be able to lift up and trot right off. If he is barely paying attention to you and wallering into it or taking big long steps into the trot, he will start off faster and on his front end. If he starts off incorrectly, then stop him and try again. Raise your standard in your mind and pay attention to all his moves. When asking a horse to step off correctly into the lope, he should move over off your outside leg and you should be able to control the step all the way into the lope. I want control of my horse’s hind leg with my leg. I carefully evaluate his reaction to my leg. Is he softly accepting my cue and stepping into the lope or do I feel some negative reactions, such as is he mad, ringing his tail or rushing over off my leg or rushing into the lope? If so, I need to stop him and work on his acceptance to my cue. Am I asking too harshly or not asking firmly enough? If stepping into the right lead, for example, and you need to work on his lope off, pull his head to the left, add your left leg, once you have control of his head then mash or ask with your leg a step at a time until you are driving or controlling the reach and each step of the leg. Also pay attention to his willingness. If he’s mad, then ask him and stop him until it doesn’t feel like it is such a big deal to him. He can then accept it as just a part of his daily job. Demand that he step off softly. If you perfect your transitions, you will perfect your gaits.
STEP FIVE. Drive your horse to his face. I drive my horses to their face to encourage collection. The more collected your horse is, the slower he can go. Some people are afraid to do this as they are concerned it will promote forward motion, but I find most horses can learn to accept the pressure of being driven to their face and also learn to tell the difference that when they are released they are to stay slow and carry themselves. But, in my opinion, the benefit is great as it encourages reach and flattens the legs and, if done correctly, it rounds the back and increases flow. The way that I do this is to hold or contain my horse in the face. If he fights or pulls back, I will bump lightly to bump him off the bridle while I’m encouraging him forward with my leg. My favorite exercise is to medium trot my horse under light contact encouraging him to drive up deep underneath himself and lift up and round his back. I will count with his rhythm and I like to see long, slow, soft steps while reaching deep behind. When I really feel my horse roll up underneath me, I may release and walk a minute for a break or I may lope off and see if I feel that it has improved the lope. I may also two-track at the trot from one corner diagonally across the arena to the other corner, while still driving and collecting my horse. If after these exercises your horse thinks go, simply stop and roll your horse back and teach him the difference.
STEP SIX. Get the lean out. We often miss subtle areas of lean in our horses. If a horse is not staying between your reins and legs and waiting for your direction, he is not performing at his best. I often work on how my horse guides, as how he guides will directly relate to whether or not he has lean. A great exercise for this is to set up a series of cones in any pattern you want, aim your horse straight for a cone and see if he fades one way or another. This is all part of self-carriage. He can let you be in the driver’s seat, not him. If he fades one way or another, he is leaning and usually when he has lean, the next step is that he is going to speed up. Correct his fading or leaning by stopping him and turning back away from the direction that he faded. Do this until he quits thinking ahead of you and stays straight waiting for your next cue.
STEP SEVEN. Take your time. If you want your horse to slow down, you may have to slow down. Often we don’t realize how fast we are sending our cues to our horse. Get fast-thinking out of his mind by taking it out of your mind. A basic principal that I train with is to encourage my horse to wait for me. If his mindset is always thinking wait, he will be less likely to make his own decision to speed up. When you slow your cues down, you project confidence and patience to your horse. This will give him confidence. Walk a moment in between each maneuver. After you do an exercise, stop, release the contact, let him think a moment, then slowly go back to it. Evaluate if he wants to step or rush off or if he’s willing to stand or walk slowly. See where he is mentally. He may need to be walked or stopped until he’s ready to focus. Also, try to soften your leg and hands as he gets more responsive. If you give more cue than he needs, it feels like a punishment to him. Only give as much cue as it takes to get the desired response. Talk softly through your hands and legs. I hope these steps will help you to slow your horse down and improve his overall performance. Many of the exercises I describe are demonstrated in detail in my Winning Strides video series. Best of luck to you with your horse.