Fine-tune your horse’s brakes and gas with these exercises so you can speed up and slow down with ease.
By Mirjam Stillo, With Abigail Boatwright; Photos by Abigail Boatwright
Speed transitions are core skills for reining horses. To be successful in the show pen, you must be able to move your horse from the lower gears to the higher gears and back again. You also need to be able to build speed gradually during your rundowns. To do these things, your horse must listen to your cues and be willing to guide. Here, I’ll outline my philosophy for speed control and my training program to master the skill.
Speed + Guide
The most important thing about controlling your horse’s speed is not only that you can control his speed in the pattern, but that your horse continues to be willingly guided, consistently under control, and listening to your cues. Speed control really starts at an early stage—before you ever think about going to a horse show.
Before you consider adding speed, your maneuvers must be dialed in. Running as fast as you can in your circles won’t earn credit if your horse is out of control. The same applies at slower speeds—if your horse can lope a very slow circle and look good while being guided, making it look effortless, that’s great. But if he can’t, try to stay as correct as possible, positioning your horse in the spot where he’s comfortable and looks balanced. You don’t want your horse looking like he’s “troping” or not engaged behind because he’s in an artificial lope.
Ideally, your push to your horse’s top speed and transition down to his slow speed are sharp yet smooth—placed directly in the center of the arena, without falling out of lead, breaking gait, or incurring any other type of penalty.
Personally, I don’t like a horse that gets ahead of me. I want my horse to listen to my cues to speed up and respond, but not to the point that I feel like if I’m asking for one gear faster, he kicks it up three gears all at once. The smoothness of the transition is very important to me. I try not to push my horse in a drastic manner, but I want my horse to gradually pick up speed and gradually come back to me when he’s slowing down, both with minimal cues.
To effectively keep control, you have to judge your horse’s ability to extend and slow his speed. That’s really connected to how trained your horse is, how collected your horse can be, and how good of a loper he is, among other things.
When practicing, you should be able to increase your speed and slow down at any part of your circle. Change up your transition placement so your horse knows he has to listen to you anywhere in the pen—not just in the middle. This also helps prevent him from dropping his shoulder to the inside or trying to leave the circle to the outside, because you’re guiding him all the way around the circle.
Your end goal is to be able to go into the show pen, show one-handed on a drape, and have your horse move forward off of your voice and your feet while staying between your reins.
I don’t practice fast circles over and over, especially with younger horses and finished older horses. I might work on fast circles once a week, but I don’t ask for 10 fast circles unless I have a horse that demands that specific kind of exercise on a particular day because he’s not willing to move forward at all. If I know my horse is moving forward and guiding well, I don’t need to test him on a fast circle every day. I’d rather work on collection, body control, and steering, because if those parts are all working well, my fast circle will be good most of the time, too.
Steering at all speeds requires repetition and body control. When you teach your horse to slow down, you want him to change speed in response to your body position—the cue of your inside leg, your body relaxing, and/or your voice—not your hand. If your horse isn’t listening, or is in a stage where he’s still learning, you can amp up your cues so he clearly understands what you’re asking.
If you’ve relaxed, hummed, taken your inside foot off his side, put weight on your inside stirrup, and stopped driving forward, and he’s still not slowing down, draw him into the ground with your reins, and back him a couple of steps. Or, you can break to a walk, then stop, sit, and let your horse relax before collecting him and trying the transition again.
You don’t want your horse to fear your hands. You want him to look forward to that slowdown as a reward, not dread what’s coming, such as you jerking on his mouth. I don’t want my horse to be tense because he’s nervous when he’s asked to change speeds. I want a horse that’s relaxed at any speed. It takes a lot of time to build that confidence, especially on a younger horse. It’s a gradual process. You’re not going to run a 2-year-old or an early 3-year-old as fast as you could an experienced, derby-aged horse. You’ll put the pieces together slowly, over time.
To teach your horse to collect and slow down in a few strides, with no contact on his face, start by working on hip control. Break your horse down from a lope to a walk, and push his hip over to the inside, then lope off again, repeating until he learns to shift his weight to his hind end, collect, and pick up his back when he’s slowing down. He’ll find out he gets rewarded for that effort. I don’t force him to stay in position with my hands; instead, I collect him and steer until he finds the release he’s looking for in the slowdown.
When you’re riding an older horse or one that drops his inside shoulder, slow down at the lope, lope straight for a couple of strides, change leads but not directions, and counter-canter the slow circle. Many horses that have been shown a lot or that aren’t very balanced drop their inside shoulder. Teach him that you’re not going to slow down in the same spot every time by riding a circle to the inside. You could counter-canter, or start by loping a straight line ahead and then breaking to a walk. Later on, lope straight, and add a counter-canter circle to the opposite direction. I do this drill until I feel like my horse isn’t dropping his shoulder anywhere and is waiting for me to guide him through the circle. This exercise also eliminates some anticipation of the lead change.
Speed Control Through Lead Changes
At higher levels of competition, you want to nail the slowdown as sharp as you can in the exact middle of the circle. You’ll want to be as smooth as possible, showing a big difference between your fast and slow circles. This requires taking some risks to increase the degree of difficulty in the maneuver.
Practice at home so you know if your horse can handle changing leads at speed and then slowing down for a slow circle, or if you need to slow down a bit before your change. If your horse isn’t an awesome lead changer or is a mediocre mover, it’s a risk to dramatically change speed and ask for a lead change at the same time. But if your horse is a good mover, very balanced and well trained, this is an area where you can gain credit.
I rarely practice changing leads coming from a large, fast circle to a small, slow at home. If I do need to address it on a horse before a big event, I may do a lead change at speed to see if my timing is correct, my horse understands my cues, and he allows me to guide him through the transition. Then, I lope him into the small circle and break down to a walk to reinforce my cues to slow down. If necessary, I can increase my cues by humming and taking off my inside leg. I then stop and let him relax.
Mastering Rundown Speed
An experienced horse might anticipate speed changes, particularly in the rundowns. He may grab the bit and run or accelerate those last 20 feet to the stop or he may start “scotching,” trying to stop on his own and not running pure anymore.
I like to work a lot around the short ends of the arena and work my horse on lines that aren’t in the exact spot of my rundowns. I don’t always work on the stop; rather, I work on the rundown by itself more often. I’ll lope around the short end, lope through a corner to the next corner and steer my horse around in a small circle or square without him dropping his inside shoulder or speeding up. I want him to wait for my cue. If the horse has a lot of anticipation about coming around the end of the arena and starting the rundown, I’ll come around the end and break down to a jog or a walk, then lope off very slowly all the way to the end or steer around to the inside or outside in a counter-canter.
The key is to work on fencing slowly with these types of horses. Don’t focus too much on how your horse stops at the fence. Be more concerned with the rundowns. I vary my speed a lot—I may do a fast rundown and build my gears, and then the next time, just pony lope around the ends and all the way down to the fence. I wait to see if my horse gets ahead of me or not. His reactions to my cues tell me what I need to work on next.
If my horse is ahead of me going toward a stop, I draw him into the ground softly, back up a couple of steps, and let him rest for a second while I think about why he did that. For example, was it because he was nervous, just anticipating, or leaning? You can apply different methods to regain that speed control depending on what your horse is doing.
Follow these quick tips to address your speed-change troubles.
- A horse that isn’t well-balanced or falls out of lead needs work on his fast circles because he’s having a problem at those transitions from the fast to the slow or while going fast.
- It’s hard to get anything done in the show pen without forward motion—not only in your circles, but also in rundowns and lead changes. A horse that doesn’t respect your legs must be addressed at home. Make sure you’re able to move your horse off of your legs and that you’re in control of all his body parts. Sidepassing and two-tracking at a walk and jog are very good exercises to master.
- A younger or less-experienced horse might get ahead of the speed you want and be scared or nervous instead of relaxing in the pen. Give him time to get comfortable in the pen and overcome his “stage fright.” When an older horse starts getting ahead of you, take him through several paid warmups and schooling classes where you can correct him while he’s showing.
- Remember that you might be part of the tension problem, too. If you get tense and nervous in the show pen, your horse feels that, and he might run ahead of you and get anxious. Work on getting comfortable and trusting your horse in the show pen.
- Work on the speed you want to go in the show pen when you’re practicing at home to check that your horse doesn’t pick up any faster gears than what you’re asking for. You want to be comfortable and have good position as a rider at that speed.
- Every horse has a different speed sweet spot to earn credit from a judge’s perspective while staying out of the penalty box. Not every horse will be able to run a +1 circle, do a really sharp slowdown, and handle that pressure. Perhaps a half gear slower will keep you out of the penalty box, and you can earn those credits somewhere else in the pattern. It’s really important to understand what your horse is capable of in the pen and ride accordingly.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mirjam Stillo works out of Toyon Ranch in Pilot Point, Texas. She’s been training horses for 13 years and has won multiple aged-event titles as well as AQHA and APHA world championships. She was the 2016 NRHA Professional Horsewoman of the Year, has been an NRHA Open Futurity and Derby finalist, was the 2019 Adequan® NAAC Open champion, and placed in the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games individual top 10.