Fix the Right Problem

So, as it happens, two of the horses I'm riding have the same problem. They lope like their tails are on fire. One, my horse Angel (in the picture below) came from an auction and, I'm told, was in the kill pen. She's about 12 now, and, as it is with horses like her, I have no idea where she came from before, what her breeding is, or what she was used for, other than that it was clear that at one point in her life, she had gotten an education. She was not in good shape when I got her. The other horse is also a mare, a little thing, I think also about 12 or 14. She was barrel raced. Too much. So, I figured I knew where her take off came from.

I know a couple of ways to slow down a too fast gait. You can haul on the reins, but I didn't think that would be the best way with these horses. Or, almost any horse. If you could slow them down with the reins, you wouldn't have to pull their heads off to do it - and hauling on their mouths is a harsh thing to do, it makes them invert, disturbs their balance and I feel it is not conducive to a productive relationship.

If they don't respond to the rein, they probably won't respond to the seat, but Angel did recognize the ask and tried. She couldn't quite make it.

You can lope a few strides, walk a few strides, lope a few strides, walk a few strides. You can lope in small circles (they almost toppled over and my toe touched the dirt on the little one!). You can halt, reverse, and walk the opposite direction. None of this seemed to be working.

I read a book called "Evidence Based Horsemanship" by Dr. Peter Stephens and Martin Black. They say, horses learn by repetition, like the way we learn to swing a baseball bat. So I got an idea.

I let 'em run. I let 'em run like maniacs while keeping a light rein and a following seat. After several unrestricted circuits around the ring (there were no other riders in it while I did this), they slowed down. We were able to connect. They found a rhythm and I supported it with my body. They found the balance. When I felt the tension leave and the easy come, I let them slow down (didn't have to pull their heads off, either!) and let them rest.

Every time thereafter, I'd ask for a lope as quietly as I could, with only the lightest contact on the rein. They'd take off, but the manic phase became shorter and shorter. Angel is getting pretty close to a Western Pleasure lope. The other is coming along almost as well, but I don't get to ride her as often.

I figured it out. It's like for us riding a 2-wheeler or ice skating. At first, it's easier to go fast because we're just finding our balance and we don't have it yet. It's harder to go slow. You need to be stronger, and have better balance. It's harder to go slow than to go fast.

So, in this case, the answer was, to let them lope long enough to get stronger, to find the balance for themselves. It wasn't a "slowing" problem at all! It was strength and balance. So, from now on I will try to remember: before you fix something, make sure you're working on the right problem!

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