Don’t ‘Safety Up’ When You Speed Up

Build the confidence when your trainer asks for speed while you’re practicing so you can go fast in the show pen.

By Patrick Flaherty, With Jennifer Paulson, Photos by Jennifer Paulson

Female rider pulling up the reins of her horse as he lopes
The last thing you want to do when your trainer asks you to step up your speed is lose confidence and ‘safety up.’ Instead, build speed while building your confidence and consistency.

When you hear your trainer yell, “Go faster!” at a show or when you’re at home practicing, chances are, you already think you’re going pretty fast—maybe as fast as you’re comfortable going. 

Comfort zones are understandable, and your trainer should know yours. But it’s also his or her job to push you past your threshold as you become a stronger rider and have loftier goals. Speed is one common area where I see non pros struggle with taking their riding to the next level. 

The Trust Factor

I won’t ask a non pro to do any more than I know he or she can. Pushing too hard is a recipe for disaster, and your coach knows that, too. It’s my job to identify when you’re ready and push as needed to get you where you need to be. I could tell you to go out there and run fast, but that’s not going to achieve your goals. Your speed has to be controlled, and you have to be ready for it.

The key is to work up to the speed you need. I speak about it in terms of miles per hour—though I won’t say the exact measurements are correct. But the analogy of going from so many miles per hour to a few more works well.

Finding Your Speedometer

First, let’s talk about speed in terms of training horses. You teach a horse to go 10 miles per hour by going 10 miles per hour. You can’t teach him by going eight or 12 miles per hour. Once he’s confident and comfortable there, you can move up to 12, 14, and 18 miles per hour. I say 18 miles per hour is peak speed when you’re running to a stop for a +1/2 maneuver score. But until your horse knows how to go 18 miles per hour and stay at that speed—not waffling between 18, 16, and back up to 20—you’re not going to get that +1/2. Plus, it’s a great way to build confidence in your horse: he knows what he can do, and he’s comfortable (and reliable) doing it. 

The same things go for you as a rider. There’s no point in you trying to go 18 miles per hour in your large, fast circles when you can’t consistently go 16 miles per hour doing the same thing. Start at one speed, master it consistently, then move to the next notch. If you think you have 16 miles per hour mastered, move up to 18, and you find you’re not ready for it, go back to 16. But the key is not to get stuck! 

female rider in the distance lopes her horse while coach watches from horseback
When I say, “Let’s go fast,” my rider knows what speed they’re at from previous lessons. Let’s say that’s 14 miles per hour. They ride three or four circles, until it’s smooth and consistent, and then we slow down or break to a walk.

Practice at Home

At home, my riders go whatever speed they’ll show at in the next competition. When I say, “Let’s go fast,” my rider knows what speed they’re at from previous lessons. Let’s say that’s 14 miles per hour. They ride three or four circles, until it’s smooth and consistent, and then we slow down or break to a walk. 

Next, I ask them to build more speed. They get to 15 or 16 miles per hour, lope a circle and a half consistently at that speed, and we quit. I find that slowing down at the top of the circle instead of the middle helps remove some of the anticipation that can build in the middle of the arena. If they fall apart with more speed, we go back to 14 miles per hour.

This type of practice allows you to get a good feel for the actual speed you’re going—especially because it often feels like you’re going faster than you really are. (Putting your hand up between your horse’s ears can feel really fast—but it’s probably not as fast as you think.) It gives you experience to know when your horse is running ahead of you or maybe is getting out of control, because no matter what speed, ideally every stride is identical once you establish your speed.

female rider lopes her horse with confidence
You have to practice how you’ll show. Going fast at home allows you to get the feel of traveling with speed and consistency. This goes for building speed in rundowns, too, when a consistent speed is crucial to a good stop.

This philosophy doesn’t just apply for circles—it’s a good way to think about rundowns, too. Ideally, when you lope off, your first stride is slower, your next two strides steadily build speed, then you reach the speed you want and maintain it until your stop. You might think you need to build speed with every stride, but that leaves the door open to lose control and safety up before you stop. You never want to be losing speed when you drop your hand and say “woah.” 

Considering your next show comes into play for your practice. If you’re preparing to compete at a smaller show where you won’t have to call on your horse, prepare that way at home. Maybe stay at 16 miles per hour and get super consistent. But if you’re getting ready for a major event—like a world show or a derby—you need to practice that way at home and prepare yourself and your horse at 18 miles per hour, if that’s what speed you intend to show.

Recognize Your Situation

You have to be a certain level of rider, with a certain level of horse, to be able to go 20 miles per hour. It takes years of building yourself as a horseman to confidently, consistently reach that kind of speed. The key is to recognize that you’re building your horsemanship as you progress from 14 miles per hour on up. 

Think of it this way: You have to consistently mark a 0 on a maneuver score before you can +1/2. Marking 70s consistently comes before 72s. It might be that your horse is a 70 horse—he might not have the talent to be the 72 horse you level-up to after a few years of building your skillset and mastering your consistency.


Patrick Flaherty

Patrick Flaherty, Scottsdale, Arizona, trains and shows horses in top-caliber aged events while also coaching a strong group of youth and non pro competitors and preparing their horses. He’s been a finalist in all NRHA major events, serves as the chairman of the NRHA Professionals Committee, and is an NRHA Judge.