Q: My western pleasure horse has a tendency to speed up at the jog and lope, especially when we reach the long side of the arena. The repeated rein contact I need to rate him is hurting me in the show pen. What can I do to convince him to stay slow?
El Campo, Texas
A: You need to create in your horse the desire to slow down. That way, you can trust him to perform slow, cadenced gaits with minimal rein contact from you. I'll give you a simple technique for getting this go-slow mentality in your horse without fighting with his face. It involves a bit of reverse psychology, and it works!
Specifically, you'll insist that your horse go even faster whenever he tries to speed up. This technique works because going fast for long periods is hard work for your horse-even harder than going slow in a collected frame. With repetition, you'll be able to convince him that his decision to speed up results in more work, not less. And, that going slow isn't so bad after all.
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Here's how to do it. Ride on the rail with a loose rein, as you would in a Western pleasure class. Cue your horse to pick up a lope. (You can start at the jog, moving into a long trot, but since he's likely to tire faster at the lope, I recommend that you begin making your point at that gait.) If he maintains a slow, cadenced lope, do nothing. But the instant he begins to pick up speed, urge him into a faster lope or hand gallop by squeezing with both legs, leaning your upper body forward, and moving your rein hand about halfway up his neck, so he can move out freely.
At first, your horse might fly around the arena with glee. That's great-it's exactly what you want, because the faster he goes, the faster he'll tire out. But then you'll feel and see thoughts of slow down begin to cross his mind, as his stride shortens and his ears begin to flick back toward you in the hope that you'll slacken his pace.
The instant you observe those signs, insist that he go even faster, using the same body language you employed earlier. If he doesn't respond, nudge his sides with your spurs until he does. In doing so, you'll confirm an important point to your horse: All speed-related decisions are up to you, not him. Continue to urge him forward until you're satisfied he's making a legitimate effort, with no attempts to slack off. When he does, signal your permission to slow down with the following simultaneous cues: Shift your upper body back, slightly behind his center of gravity, to cause him to rock back over his hindquarters in an attempt to rebalance himself beneath you; take your legs off his sides; and bring your rein hand back to its ordinary show-ring position.
You should feel your horse dra-matically slow down. If not, urge him into the fast lope again, repeating the steps I've outlined above. Before long, he'll be grateful for the chance to slow down-and stay slow.
From his facility in Yamhill, Ore., Bob has trained and shown more than 30 AQHA world and reserve world champions in reining, cutting, working cow horse, Western riding and halter.
This article originally appeared in the December 1999 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.