Speed Control

by Nancy Wesolek-Sterrett
Head of Dressage Department, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre

As students work to master the progressive levels of the riding tree, speed control issues seem to fall into two distinct categories.

  1. Some riders have trouble getting their horses to go forward.
  2. Others have trouble getting their horses to slow down.

While these two problems appear to be polar opposites, they actually have a common cause. The riders have not yet developed a balanced, secure seat that follows the horse's motion. When they accomplish that, they can coordinate their aids to influence the horse's speed.

Frustrated riders often blame the horse when the horse refuses to go forward freely or resists the rider's efforts to slow its rhythm or stop. But closer analysis usually reveals that the horse is simply responding to the signals it feels from the rider's seat. Sure giveaways that the rider's seat is the actual speed control issue are:

  • other students ride the same horses without problems, or
  • every horse that a particular student rides exhibits the same plodding or rushing issues.

A rider with a good seat sits relaxed in the saddle with shoulders, hips and heels in alignment. Relaxed, flexible hip, thigh, and hamstring muscles allow the rider's thigh and calf to lie softly against the horse without gripping. This flexibility coupled with strong core muscles in the abdomen and back, allows the rider's seat to follow the motion of the moving horse in balance without bouncing or tipping either forward or back.

When students without a good seat fail to get the response they want from the horse, they often apply their aids more strongly. If the horse is not moving forward enough, they think that more leg will fix the problem. Or they try to push the horse by following its motion with aggressive hip thrusts. If the horse is speeding up or going too fast, they shorten their reins and increase their grip. A goldie oldie school horse may go along with these 'solutions'. Depending on its training level and temperament, however, the horse is more likely to feel blocked and move more slowly. Or the sensitive horse may become anxious and run from these stronger aids.

Like any aid, the seat never works in isolation. When a rider without good balance tips forward, the seat bones lose contact with the saddle and the rider loses communication with the horse. Riders who grip with their thighs or calves to maintain their balance also lift their seats out of their saddles. They need to develop balance so that they can relax their leg muscles to lift the horse's back with a following seat, strong core muscles, and relaxed calf muscles. Riders who balance on their hands, ride with 'puppy dog' hands, or constantly fiddle with their reins can cancel the influence of their seat.

Riders need balance, relaxation, flexibility, and muscular strength, to find and maintain correct postural alignment in the saddle and to follow the horse's motion in a rhythm that sets the horse's speed. When a rider's seat does not follow the horse's motion, it blocks forward movement. When a rider's following seat slows down or speeds up as the horse's motion changes, he or she is not regulating the horse's speed. The rhythm of the rider's seat should direct the horse to move at a regular, set pace. If the horse speeds up or slows down, the rider's seat must continue in its steady, directing rhythm while the rider uses other aids to ask the horse to match the seat's rhythm. When a rider sits in a chair seat with the leg out in front of the hip, they get behind the horse's motion. Some horses slow down and get loftier motion in front when this happens while others run away from the pushing seat.

Riders also need to coordinate their breathing with their following seat to help set the rhythm. Coordinating a following seat with breathing and correctly timed half halts helps the horse to step into a perfectly square halt at precisely the spot the rider directs. Riders who get breathless after the second tour of the arena at a trot lack the stamina to follow the horse's motion rhythmically.

If a rider's seat needs improvement, analyze the root of the problem. Does the rider need to work on basic relaxation and balance? Is there a lack of core strength? A lack of stamina? A lack of flexibility? Is the rider unable to isolate various muscles in the body? Does the rider understand how to time and coordinate other aids to support the seat? Depending on the answers, different exercises can help riders address seat issues that will enable them to use their seat to regulate their horse's speed:

  • Place the hands on a stationary object while bouncing on a mini-trampoline or simply moving up and down by flexing the ankles. This keeps the hands steady and allows the rider to develop a flexible feel for the opening and closing of the elbow and hip joints.
  • Sit on a balance ball. Lift one leg at a time off the floor while keeping both seat bones evenly weighted. This helps develop balance, core strength, and muscle isolation.
  • Do squats to develop strength in the quadricep muscles.
  • Stand against a wall for stability and do leg lifts from strong back muscles to strengthen hamstring muscles.
  • Do runner's stretches to increase leg muscle flexibility.
  • Do crunches to develop abdominal muscles.
  • Invest in Pilates or yoga classes, both of which help riders develop strong abdominal and back muscles, isolate muscle groups and develop balance.

Riders who are unable to control a horse's speed without resorting to constant bumping with the legs, 'pushing' with their hips, or pulling on the reins need to assess their basic tools. Can they sit relaxed in the saddle with a long, relaxed leg? Can they maintain balance without tipping forward or backward? Can they maintain alignment of shoulders, hips, and heels with strong core muscles? Can they follow the horse's motion without bouncing or gripping? With these basics mastered, the rider's seat becomes the primary speed control aid.

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Meredith Manor is an equestrian career college dedicated to preparing students for hands-on, equestrian careers as trainers, instructors, equine massage therapists, stable managers, farriers and more. If you want a career with horses and are considering attending Meredith Manor, request an information packet to learn more.

Throughout my time at Meredith Manor I became a new person. With every new horse and every new quarter my confidence and skill level improved dramatically. I became a rider at Meredith Manor. My life long dreams are coming true.
Kelly Lagos: 2005 Riding Master VI Graduate