To Go Slower, Just Add More Leg

Now that my wonderful little mare, Callie, is safely in Colorado and soundly under saddle (YAY!!), we've gotten down the business of building her muscles back up from a month of light work, then no work, then travel, and finally adjusting to a new setting and temperature.

And already, she's reminding me about one of my most favorite and counterintuitive Rules of Riding:

When your horse goes faster, you need MORE leg and LESS hand to slow down 90% of the time.

Here is why.

Imagine that you are a little out of shape, and someone asks you to go for a run. You might be OK at first, but as your muscles begin to fatigue, your form starts to suffer - what was once bouncy and light is now flat and heavy. Now, imagine that you're tired, but someone magically gives you something to lean and balance against. Suddenly, you're able to go much faster, using this "crutch" to help you along. But your form? That doesn't recover - you're still flat and tired - just faster.

Now transfer this scenario to a horse, and that "crutch" becomes your hand. See the downward spiral that can quickly occur? I'm sure you do, because I'm sure you've seen it time after time in lessons, or even experienced it yourself, walking back to the barn, your arms aching and your lower back about to give out.

Take Callie, for example. Her canter, especially to the left, is not super strong yet. When she goes that direction and tires, she starts to lean against my hand, flatten her stride, and quicken her pace. If I were to let her, she could set her teeth and go down a rabbit hole. The more I pulled, the more she would lean and the faster she would get, until it became a cycle that would play out every time I rode her. The worst part, she wouldn't be getting any stronger, and would in fact be building the OPPOSITE muscles that I want to develop.

So what is the solution? Instead of letting Callie lean against my hand, I close my leg to help her support HERSELF with her hind end - the motor of her Magic Figure Eight of Energy- and give with my hand as soon as I feel any sort of natural balance and lightness occur. Sometimes, she can only hold it for a stride or two, and then will lean into my hand again, and so I repeat the process again (Add leg, Sit deep, Give when she balances). Ultimately, the end goal is to have her lengthen the amount of time she can balance herself until she's strong enough to stay light the entire time.

The nuance here is that by "slower" we really mean "more balanced," because it is that gorgeous, BALANCED canter that makes a winning hunter round!

This particular example is for the canter, but really, you should start with the walk, making sure they are light and balanced, and then move to the trot and repeat the same thing. A horse shouldn't start to work on the canter until they are strong enough to stay light and balanced at the trot. Even a horse that's experienced, like Callie, needs to be legged up again in a slow, methodical way, to make sure their muscles are strong enough to tackle the next step. Case in point - we're not going to think about jumping her until her canter is built back up both ways, and we did nothing but walk/trot for the first week she was with us to make sure she was where she needed to be.

I'm not sure why this is one of my favorite concepts with horses. Maybe because it's something that took me so long to understand myself, and maybe because it makes ABSOLUTELY perfect sense even though it seems backwards at first. It makes SO much sense in fact, that racehorses are taught to lean on the bit, because at the speeds they travel, they need to balance a little on their jockey's hands in order to stay upright (which is another reason why OTTBs need very experienced riders - they will break into a gallop if you pull on their mouths because that's what they're trained to do!).

It's still something I need to actively think about when my hand gets heavy (as they tend to do), but if I do it consistently, the positive results in my horse are visible immediately. And that's enough reward to stay vigilant!

Callie's left lead canter - it's coming along!

The end result - happy horse!


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