A comment on yesterday’s post from one of my regular readers inspired me to inquire whether she had read this post on tempo, which led her to pose a question, which I promised to answer in today’s post.

Her question was: “Any quick suggestions on motivation to “up the tempo” that doesn’t degenerate into nagging?

Great question, don’t you think?  It’s so easy to fall into the nagging trap…sometimes without knowing it.  Luckily, the cure isn’t complicated.  It isn’t easy, but then, riding is one of those things that we never master, we just keep practicing and practicing, ever trying to improve ourselves while we uphold our own standards of excellence.

In all the suggestions that follow, please note that we’re not talking about collected work, we’re talking about moving freely forward with energy in the horse’s proper tempo for the working trot, the working canter and the free walk.

1.  Insist that your horse respects your leg.  How’s your turn on the forehand?  Your leg yield?  If the answer is “not too good,” chances are that either your horse doesn’t respect your leg aid or your leg aid is less than clear.

First, make sure your aids are clear and consistent.  If that checks out but your horse isn’t listening, I suggest you follow Jane Savoie’s solution (as I do) which you can find in her book Cross-Train Your Horse.  She outlines it briefly here but without mentioning that the whip should be applied in conjunction with the leg aid, to reinforce the leg, which is what she suggests in the book. (Just make sure you don’t catch your horse in the mouth when he responds to the whip!  If he canters on or even gallops, let him!  Forward is the right answer, even if it might be delivered in a way that’s a bit too enthusiastic for your taste.  Don’t worry, the overreaction won’t last.)

2. Ask yourself if your own instability may be blocking the forward movement when you ask for more.  You need a stable torso and excellent balance in order to follow the horse, especially when the tempo changes.  This is also true when you transition from one gait to another (or when you lengthen or extend or gather or collect).

3.  Ask yourself if you might be constricting the horse with leg aids that are too strong or held too long.  Think about your legs draping around your horse and breathing with your horse.  Don’t grip.  You’ll block the forward movement if you do.  Also, make sure that after you give your leg aids, you release them.  Don’t hold the aid.  You’ll block the forward motion if you do.

4.  Make sure your hands are giving.  Strive for an elastic contact that always feels as if you’re giving and not restraining.  Your shoulder joint should feel well-lubricated and move freely.  If you think there’s a chance you might pull or rely on your reins for balance when your horse’s tempo increases, let out some rein and work on your balance while your horse works on his. Afterwards, when you pick up contact, think about simply holding the weight of the rein in your hand while keeping it taut in order not to disturb the horse’s tempo.

5. At the trot, the easiest way to regulate the tempo is to let your posting dictate the tempo you want. If you want a longer stride, stay out of the saddle a bit longer.  If you want a shorter stride, decrease the air time.  When your bum is out of the saddle, remember to let your legs hang and not grip.

You’ll want to work on your tempo at the trot first.  Then canter.  For walk, just aim for a good, ground covering stride.  I seldom caution you against trying things — but it’s easy to create a lateral walk with hands that don’t follow combined with an increase in tempo, and that can be really hard to fix. Don’t even think about walk tempo, about playing with it or altering it, until you can say that you have educated hands and an educated seat.

6.  Try marking the tempo out loud or singing it while you’re training, in the saddle or on the lunge line.  One-two!  One-two!  One-two!  That’s your trot.  Horses are team players and most of them will very happily play this game along with you.

Working on the lunge also gives you a chance to observe your horse’s tempo from the ground, and to see just how much ground your horse covers. You can practice altering your horse’s tempo on the lunge by altering the tempo of your One-two!  One-two!  One-two! — and by using the whip as you would use your leg, that is only when you need it, not to keep it.  Try counting strides around a 20 meter circle and duplicating that when you’re mounted.

7.  Vow to yourself that you won’t nag.  Promise yourself that you’ll let your horse fall apart before you try to hold him together.  If and when your horse decides independently that he wants to do something different, then you’ll correct — with a clear, consistent aid from a non-holding, non-gripping leg, with a giving feeling in your hand that you’ll get from a freely moving shoulder joint.  It can help to ask someone to be your “eyes on the ground” and tell you each time he or she sees you use your leg, to confirm that you’re using your aids consciously and only when you want to.