Most of us face this problem at some time in our riding careers.
When you put your leg on, your horse only goes faster. Instead of lengthening his stride, or using his back better, he goes faster faster faster. You follow his lead - you post faster just to keep up. Or you ride the increasing canter speed.
It turns into a vicious cycle. He goes faster so you go faster so he goes faster. Sometimes, you might just learn to expect this and think nothing of it. Other times, you might not be happy with the increasing speed but still not know what to do about it.
If those scenes sound familiar, you might want to slow your horse down. Here's why.
1. On the Forehand
You probably notice your horse coming more to the forehand. He can't help it - his legs are moving so fast that he HAS to catch himself on the front legs in order to avoid falling. We know that horses (usually) don't literally fall just from a speed increase, but nevertheless, they do have to carry more weight on their front legs to counter the effects of gravity.
Maybe he starts leaning on the bit, getting heavier or stiffer in the jaw. You might notice his movement becoming harsher, with shorter strides that require faster leg movement. Your contact might become heavier and you notice that you have less communication with the horse through the bridle. He cannot bend laterally and there is less and less roundness in his overall outline.
Maybe his movement becomes so heavy that he trips here and there. You'd like to blame it on his feet, but you know that your farrier just came out a while ago. You'd like to blame it on a physical problem, but your vet has given you the all-clear.
And still he trips.
If your horse is on his forehand, moving so quickly that he has to scramble to keep his balance, and he moves along in tension, there is a good chance that the odd trip, especially with the front feet, is happening because he simply can't finish the stride in this quick rhythm.
4. Hollow Back
It is logical that he will hollow his back in order to keep his balance. If the horse is already on the forehand, hollowing the back will allow him to counter gravity. His head will rise, the base of his neck will drop, and his bracing back will send tension through the spine. He will develop a thicker "underline" - rather than sending energy over the topline, he will muscle up the belly area, leaving a flat, unmuscled topline where the saddle sits.
5. Stress/Frantic Feeling
Not all horses display this. Some cope quite well, and just truck along with the tension peacefully and with little regard. Those horses are the ones that always have a "hay belly", regardless of season, corresponding with the unmuscled back (not the same as the obese or wormy horse).
But the more sensitive horses cannot be so quiet. They are the ones that communicate the tension: teeth grinding, dry mouths, pinned ears, wild eyes, and some even hold their breath, letting out gasps every now and then. Most of them continue to move along, obedient to the rider. However, the tell-tale signs are there, if you know what to look for.
It's hard to believe that just running fast could cause all these problems in a horse. You can probably imagine it yourself if you're a runner. What would it feel like if you had to run out of your comfortable rhythm, all the time? Can you imagine the tension that would perpetuate in your body if you had to shorten your stride length and move your legs even faster?
What To Do?
Well, the simple answer is to slow down.
The very first thing to do is to not accept the speed. Half-halt the speed and encourage your horse to slow his tempo. He may not even know that he can.
Conversely, when you put your leg on, don't let the horse speed up.
But there is more to it than that. Because if your horse just slows the legs down, he may also let all of his energy "out the back door," thereby reducing his ability to use his body effectively do that he can carry your weight.
Then all you have is slow legs on an equally tense and braced horse!
Our next post will go into more detail about how to slow the horse's legs down without losing energy.
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