My prior post on how to increase your horse’s energy without nagging led to this post, which is the flip side — how to decrease your horse’s energy without pulling.
If the problem is that you’re riding a hot horse, I’d like to direct you to another prior post, which has lots of great advice for riding hot horses. If that’s not your problem and your horse is simply too strong or not listening, I invite you to read on.
Here’s my advice, for those times when you want to pull but you really don’t want to pull:
1. Stay centered in the saddle with a vertical torso and a straight line from shoulder to hip to heel. Are you tipping forward because you don’t want to get left behind…or you’re trying to avoid having a driving seat by making yourself light in the saddle…or you just got dislodged? If so, you’re telling your horse to go forward. Most horses instinctively try to align themselves underneath their riders. If you’ve shifted your center of gravity forward, that’s exactly where your horse will go.
Staying centered is the best way to help your horse stay centered. It also gives you the maximum stability to be able to use your rein and leg and weight aids independently. The exception to the rule? If you can do so without a driving seat or increasing leg pressure, simply shifting the balance of your torso slightly behind the vertical can make your horse slow down (if you’ve trained the Buck Brannaman way, it’s sure to happen).
2. Breathe. This may sound more like yoga instruction than riding instruction, but I recommend that you work on your breathing. Rapid, shallow breathing encourages your horse’s flight response. You can avoid rapid, shallow breathing by avoiding anxiety…or you can help control your anxiety by avoiding rapid, shallow breathing. Either way, it will work!
If your instinct is to pull in order to rein in your horse’s energy, you’re probably somewhat anxious. Taking long, deep breaths that fill the bottom of your lungs can help you and your horse reduce both your anxiety levels, and both your energy levels.
3. Look where you’re going. When your horse starts getting agitated, it can help to focus your eyes on a target. Your horse will feel your focus and that will help him calm down. Select something to look at — perhaps one of the posts along the rail, or a letter in your dressage arena or a tree in your field. Anything but your horse’s mane or head. Sometimes, horses become strong because they think they have to lead…and if you’re looking at your horse’s mane or head, you’ve relinquished that role to them. Once you embrace your role as leader, you’ll find your body alignment improving along with your focus. Those are two things you’ll have going for you as you attempt to decrease your horse’s energy without pulling.
4. Let your legs be a reassuring, but not demanding, presence. If you’ve trained your horse to respect your leg, the application of pressure from the leg means “go forward.” If you want your horse to slow down, make sure your legs aren’t telling him the opposite. But be careful of the opposite extreme — taking off your legs completely, which your horse can attribute to abandonment (see #3).
5. Train your hands to act differently, and to resist or insist. Remember all those different rein aids? If not, familiarize yourself again with the Opening Rein, the Direct Rein of Opposition, the Indirect Rein (neck rein), the Indirect Rein of Opposition in Front of the Withers and the Indirect Rein of Opposition Behind the Withers. All of which will direct your horse’s body away from bullet-like forward momentum. Don’t forget the pulley rein or the One Rein Stop. They’re there if you need them.
Try squeezing the reins and releasing, in quick succession. Or do as the old French masters did and the new ones do, and simply lift both hands directly upward, bringing them down as quickly as the horse responds. That’s your demi-arret. Resist simply by squeezing your fingers around the reins until your horse complies, with no backward traction.
6. Whatever you do with your hands (unless you’re resisting or insisting), keep a giving feel. If you’re resisting or insisting, be ready to have a giving feel at a moment’s notice. It’s hard to feel like giving when all you want is for your horse to stop. The good news is that your horse will respect you if you correct him without pulling on his face. If you really want to see pulling backfire, get on an an off-the-track Thoroughbred and pull on his face to slow him down. Handriding is sure to get you more of that energy you don’t want, whether you’re cantering, galloping or in a bolt.
7. Turn. Turning your horse slows him down biomechanically. Here’s the place to see how all those rein aids work. Or turn using your weight, stepping into your inside stirrup, spiraling your seat or pointing both knees in the direction you want to go.
8. Remember to release your aids and reward your horse. The release of the aids is in itself a reward, but it doesn’t hurt to give verbal rewards when your horse backs off even just a little bit. Don’t get greedy and withhold the reward until you have exactly what you want. Be generous instead. You’ll get exactly what you want quicker that way, even if not precisely on your timetable.
9. If your horse speeds up, ride figures. Voltes are my favorites but figures of eight can come in handy, as can serpentines. Anything that can make your horse have to think about where to put his feet, work, and rebalance himself.
10. If you’re riding in a ring or arena, try a half-volte in reverse. Heading towards the rail instead of away from the rail is a natural tranquilizer and rebalancer.
11. Half-halt from your seat. If your horse hasn’t been taught to half-halt from your seat, teach him.
12. If you need a strong half-halt, don’t be afraid to use it. Make yourself into a block of stone in the saddle for that fraction of a second that it takes to get your message across. Be sure to release as soon as you feel your horse thinking about complying. Repeat your half-halts as often as necessary but remember that one strong half halt is more effective than five half-hearted half-halts in a row.
13. Try warming up at the walk with a lot of lateral work. This is good for engaging your horse’s mind and making sure he’s listening to your aids. It’s also real work for your horse, so it can dissipate a lot of pent-up energy before you go on to schooling the other, more energetic gaits where you may end up wanting to pull.
14. Make sure you can move your horse’s shoulders. Moving your horse’s shoulders will change his balance, putting you back in charge and naturally slowing him down. Experiment with how subtle you can be in your aids in order to get your horse’s attention and move his shoulders.
15. If you have good hands, think about employing a curb bit or using a double bridle. Everyone these days is hysterical about using a double bridle too soon (I’d be more impressed by this if I didn’t see so many horizontal curbs at Fourth Level and above…maybe if we introduced it sooner, before riders got used to a constant tug of war with a snaffle, both hands and horses would improve).
Trainers as disparate as Jean Claude Racinet, Captain Elwyn Hartley Edwards and Linda Tellington-Jones have no hesitation about recommending a curb bit or full bridle early on in a horse’s education, because with proper guidance, a curb bit can develop a sensitive mouth in the horse and sensitive hands in the rider. Responsiveness is what we want, and with a curb bit, an indication goes a long way.
If you’re riding an older horse that’s a puller and that’s used to pulling hands, a curb bit can turn the ingrained response around. If you don’t trust yourself to be able to handle a curb bit properly, get some guidance from an experienced professional familiar with the history and application of the curb bit beyond the “Schooling Third Level Dressage” point of entry.
16. Do as the Portuguese do — place the palm of your hand on the crest of your horse’s mane, an easy reach with an outstretched arm. Don’t ask me why this works but it does. Not just on Lusitanos and Andalusians but on any horse I’ve tried it on. Could it be because when we do it, it naturally relaxes us?