Just like humans, some horses are quick – both athletically and mentally. They’re always alert, might be a bit spooky, fast, and quick in the air. Others take life at a slower pace; take things in their stride, don’t feel the need to gallop flat out in open fields.
Both have their merits, and whilst you’ll never make a sprinter out of a marathon runner, there are various things you can do to slow down a quick horse and speed up a steady horse.
Let’s talk about the steady horse.
A quieter, laid back horse has the confidence giving qualities most amateurs seek in a horse, but it can mean that you end up struggling to get the horse forwards; either in a dressage test or round a course of jumps. Which can end up being frustrating. Because you feel that you were carrying your horse around!
So what exercises will help?
Firstly, it’s important that the laid back horse still responds to the aids. This means you don’t end up nagging constantly, and he respects the leg. Transitions help here – use lots of transitions throughout schooling sessions and hacks, bearing in mind that you’re only going to ask him once. And he should and will react. This may mean the first couple of upward transitions need “loud” aids, perhaps aided by the voice, but as your horse begins to take you seriously you can ask with quieter aids until it’s one squeeze and he’s off. Be strict with yourself, and over a few sessions there will be an improvement.
Talking of transitions, they’re also useful for switching the brain on. It’s not that steady horses are stupid, but rather their brains work steadily like their body. Think of transitions as being the equivalent to mental maths. Direct and progressive transitions, along with lots of different school movements in quick succession will help to get this sort of horse thinking. He’ll be more focused on his rider and not thinking about the dinner waiting in his stable. As he starts thinking more he’ll be quicker to react to the aids too.
Fairly early on in a schooling session I would have a canter, then utilise walk to canter transitions to wake up this sort of horse. Depending on the horse, a hack before going into the arena may be beneficial as horses are often more alert and forwards out in the open.
I would also use poles to provide a very varied schooling session, and keep sessions short and to the point. You don’t want the steady horse to become bored or tired because then his rider has to do even more work! If fitness is an issue then use hacks to build it up; in company to make them more exciting for the horse.
With jumping, steady horses can often lack the agility needed for combinations or jump offs because, quite simply, it involves a lot of effort! Improving their gymnastic ability with grids will help get them a bit quicker at folding their legs up over fences and again help get their brain ticking a bit faster so that they’re better able to think on their feet through combinations and better able to get themselves out of trouble. When schooling on courses I’d also use some transitions to keep them thinking; for example, if you have a fair distance between two jumps then collect the canter after a fence, or even make a downwards transition, and then lengthen the canter before checking that they’re balanced towards the next fence. This keeps them listening to you so you can keep them in front of the leg before the fences.
In terms of managing a steady horse, a lot of owners want to input some energy. Traditionally, this is done with oats, but there are some many energy mixes available now it’s probably worth ringing an independent nutritionist and trialling feeds until you find the right energy level without any silliness added in. Some steady horses benefit from being kept in the night before a competition, or even just an hour before they’re ridden. So again it’s worth finding out the best routine and time of day to exercise your steady horse which will be the most energetic and productive.
I am by no means trying to convert the quiet horses into whizzy athletes, because I value, and think many more people should place emphasis on the reliable and trustworthy nature of the cooler blooded equines. But it is nice to know how to get the best out of them so it’s most enjoyable to the owners.