When I think about how to slow down a horse, I think about two horses in particular: a white horse that I rode at horse camp one year and an Arabian bay gelding that I leased
Both of these horses were extremely “hot”. That is to say that they were naturally fast and full of energy.
You know the horses that never seem to want to move forwards? Hot horses are the total opposite.
For instance, you might see a hot horse in the field just galloping around for fun. And trying to slow down a horse like that can be quite the challenge – I know.
Comet & Dash
Comet was the very first horse I rode that was truly “hot”. He just loved going fast.
At that stage, I was around 13 or 14 and I was really getting into more complicated, higher jumping courses for the first time. I was at a camp up north for a month and had been assigned Comet as my horse.
Doing a jumping course with Comet was a harrowing experience. I didn’t feel like I could balance him coming into jumps at all so we’d always take the SUPER long spot and then we’d never be able to achieve the sharper turns required to make the next jump.
I remember thinking about jumping a course with him would make me nervous. I’m sure my nerves didn’t help at all – they probably made Comet even more on edge and jumpy.
At that time, I was used to slower, lazier horses so my problem was always how to go faster. I had never actually learned how to control speed because I’d never had to much of it. I had no idea how to slow down a horse.
With Comet, I was forced to adapt a “keep myself safe” riding style in order to try and accomplish what I needed to. I would lean heavy on his reins, I would lean backwards significantly in my seat and I would get through the ride
Sound like fun?
It absolutely wasn’t.
That summer, I got really good at adapting my riding style to the horse and really thinking ahead in order to accomplish what I needed to. It might have made me a more adaptable rider but definitely was not ideal.
Thank god I rode Comet in outdoor arenas with fencing and I wasn’t taking him out on trails where there were any big obstacles, cliffs, or anything.
Looking back when I figured out how to fix the issue with Dash, I realized this was not a good (or safe!) strategy for me and it wasn’t good training for Comet.
So how did I fix it?
And then there was Dash…
Dash was an Arabian bay gelding that was absolutely beautiful. The problem that I had with Dash seemed very similar to the one I had with Comet – except by the time I leased Dash, I was able to recognize his issues ran deeper. I recognized that Dash did not know how to stop and lacked emotional control.
Trying to canter an even circle with Dash was impossible because he’d speed up so much, he’d swing out from his own momentum and constantly be off balance. I was terrified one day he would just fall on his inside shoulder from how diagonal he would get.
He did not understand rein contact at all.
Comet liked going fast and thus would ignore rein and seat cues to slow down about 50% of the time. But he would still collect nicely and would reach forward for bit contact.
Dash, in contrast, would fight against any type of bit contact. Asking him to slow down with the reins would result in him speeding up and his level of anxiety would immediately increase.
Example of understanding the bit:
In fact, when presented with any sort of pressure on the bit, Dash would get heavier and heavier and actually speed up in response. Furthermore, he was quite sensitive to all stimuli and would spook easily.
When I first got him, he could only be stopped by what’s called an “emergency brake”. That’s where you pull on one rein quite sharply to turn the horse’s head so that they physically have to slow down. Just like you wouldn’t want to drive a car with just a parking brake, you wouldn’t want to ride a horse that only responds to an emergency brake.
Although when I got him, I was told that he was a great jumper and an excellent dressage horse, I quickly realized that this was not the case.
Dash needed to go right back to basics in the round pen to learn some emotional control. And at the same time I needed to learn to slow down a horse like him. After that, he could graduate to plenty of exercises with collection and bit pressure. Only then would he be ready and safe to start doing some jumping again.
Emotional regulation and control is the underlying problem for these horses.
A horse can be hot and love to go fast but if they have the ability to curb that enthusiasm when being asked to slow down by their rider, then that is beneficial to both the horse and the rider. The rider for obvious reasons but the horse also benefits from learning how to stay relaxed and calm.
If you’ve ever ridden a horse when you can’t even touch their sides because they’re so amped up and ready to go, then you know what I’m talking about.
Sometimes barrel racers can have this problem.
Horses that anticipate a dead run or horses that are just naturally energetic, springy and forwards can often be challenging to control.
Think about the anxiety that might be associated with that type of behaviour.
It’s important for a horse to learn that not all stimuli is a cue to gallop. They have to learn to dial up and dial down in terms of speed and energy level. This type of training can really improve their state of mind and emotional intelligence.
These horses have a tough time just relaxing and holding a nice steady pace. But ultimately it’s better for both of you to calm down. It’s not good for humans or horses to be too tense too much of the time.
I also find that it’s easier to train horses when they’re on task, not trying to tear off at their next opportunity!
Scroll down to the bottom of this post to learn my new approach to slowing down a hot horse and how it can address this issue of emotional control.
My Tips to Slow Down A Horse
My thinking on this topic has greatly evolved over time. Back when I rode Comet and even with Dash, I had no idea what to do so I was just heavy handed on the reins all the time and I would always be leaning back to protect myself as an instinct.
Now, I have a much better understanding of emotional regulation in horses and the need to keep their anxiety levels low and not over-stimulate them. I also know the value of ground work in teaching these horses the fundamentals.
It’s only fairly recently that I’ve really started to understand and ingrain the principles of “make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard” that I’m sure you’ve heard before in relation to horses that I’ve developed a NEW STRATEGY to slow down hot horses.
You can scroll down to the bottom of this post to find out more about my new strategy.
Here are what my strategies USED TO BE to slow these horses down from least firm to most firm:
Lean back, close my seat, close my hands, push my heels down and verbally say “woah” in a deep voice.
Moderately firm :
All of the above + pulling back slowly but firmly with my reins. If the horse shows any decrease in speed, I immediately release the reins slightly to lessen the pressure.
Once they’re at my ideal speed, then I’m just maintaining comfortable contact depending on the type of riding I’m doing. If the horse does not respond, I’ll try pulling back slowly but firmly for a few seconds, releasing for a few seconds and repeating this several times before I try the ‘very firm’ option.
All of the above + starting to circle the horse. The greater the reduction I want in the horse’s speed to be, the tighter I’m going to make the circle.
Remember when I spoke about this above? The important thing with using the emergency brake is to keep in mind that it’s for emergencies only. If you find yourself using this all the time, you need to go back to basics and do some training with your horse.
Learn back, close my seat, push my heels down in an exaggerated way anticipating a fast stop. Then I’ll slide one hand down the rein about 50% of the way between the saddle and the bit and pull right back towards my hip.
This will flex the horse’s neck right to 45 degrees. That makes it almost impossible for them to keep going fast.
I’ll then hold this position while the horse slows right down to a halt. It’s only once all 4 hooves are planted and the horse is still that I’ll release that pressure.
When to Use These Strategies?
Depending on the situation, I might start with my least firm tactic or I might start in the middle.
As long as the horse is not listening at all, I’ll work my way up fairly quickly to my very firm request.
The second the horse starts to respond, I provide some release and bump back down in order to teach my horse that I’m only going to provide that pressure until he provides the desired response.
In extreme cases, I might use my “emergency brake” first but I try and avoid this.
In my mind, the emergency brake is just that – for emergencies!
Having the opposite problem, and now you can’t get your horse to move forward under saddle? Have a look at my tips here!
My New Approach
I wish I always came up with the best answer immediately but that’s just not the case.
I evolve in my learning ALL the time. In fact, I really don’t know that much about horses as far as I’m concerned. Even in 20 more years of riding, I don’t think I’ll know that much. And that’s because there is SO MUCH to know and to understand.
So when it comes to hot horses, you can absolutely use the strategies above and see where it gets you. If it works, excellent!
But there’s another step that I’ve learned about that has to do with the emotional regulation piece of it. Before, I thought that you needed to go back to ground work to fix that part. But there’s also a way to do it under saddle.
Let me tell you another story about Dash:
So as we learned with Comet, the mistake that you do not want to make with these kinds of horses is to pull on the bit the whole time, keep your legs braced off their sides and try and fight them for collection.
It’s not pleasant for you or the horse and it’s also really NOT SAFE.
I learned this the hard way with Dash as well. When I was riding Dash one day, I was trying to get him jumping. He was advertised as this amazing jumper, after all. Up until that point, he’d refused every jump we’d tried and I had a very hard time controlling him during flatwork so I also didn’t have confidence with him yet.
After fighting with him for some collection and a nice even trot and even a bit of cantering, I decided I was going to try just 1 cavaletti and to see how he would do with it.
What did he do?
He clipped his front hoof on the cavaletti, completely freaked out and bucked me off.
I didn’t understand why at the time but what had happened there was that by that point in the ride, he was so stressed out by all our back and forth, that even the littlest thing totally set him off. It’s not that he was scared of cavelettis but rather that was just the last straw of the day.
Moral of the story? AVOID escalating the situation with your horse! Instead, improve his emotional regulation by keeping his anxiety level as low as possible.
Okay great, but you might be wondering how do you do that?
I share my new approach to slowing down a hot horse by improving their emotional regulation in Day 2 of my 1 Week Riding Hacks Bootcamp. There is no ground work required for this method. You can get it 100% free if you sign up below.
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