Try this horse-training technique to help you and your horse find a consistent pace while riding.
By Lainie DeBoer with Christine Hamilton in The American Quarter Horse Journal
When I put together the videos used in the AQHA judges’ educational seminars (for working hunter and equitation over fences), I noticed that when mistakes happen in a go, they often happen when the horses have an inconsistent pace – they go slow, then fast, slow, fast. And they don’t seem to be able to re-establish rhythm and get organized, back to the miles per hour they need to complete the course.
Being able to establish pace and then get right back on that rhythm when you get slightly off of it is a huge key to being successful in the hunter or equitation over fences ring.
If you can just keep your tempo and stay on the same measured rhythm throughout the course, you’d be amazed at how well you do.
These are some simple exercises I use to help riders set pace, and a lot of them will help in any class where maintaining a set pace is important, such as in hunt seat equitation, horsemanship or trail, not just the over-fences classes.
I have my riders count as they ride in the arena. Not, “1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3 … ” – for some reason, that can get the canter a bit choppy – but just count every stride once they pick up the canter: “1, 2, 3, 4 … ” to whatever number, “70, 71, over the jump, land, 72, 73 … ” and so on.
It’s the same thing that a piano player does playing to the rhythm of a metronome, “tick, tock, tick, tock,” just finding and feeling your horse’s balance and rhythm. Some of my riders like to sing a song when they are on course such as “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”
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Another good exercise is to place a pole 19 feet in front of a cross rail and another pole 19 feet on the other side of the cross rail on a straight line. Pick up the canter and establish a nice, even pace. When you turn the corner, start counting every stride until you reach the pole on the ground. Canter over the pole, take one stride, jump, and then take one more stride to the other pole.
If you are carrying too little pace, the horse will lurch over the cross rail after the first pole and could possibly put in two strides. If you are carrying too much pace, the horse might jump the cross rail and then do a bounce step over the second pole.
This is a great exercise to feel if you have enough pace and are balanced.
Step It Up
I have another really good exercise that I learned in a clinic, and it’s especially good for people who get nervous or stiff when they canter, especially at a show. They get so stiff in their bodies that they almost canter against the motion, and they’re not really feeling the motion of the horse.
Put your horse on a large circle at a working trot. Count from zero to 100 by fives, in rhythm with the trot stride, “5, 10, 15 … ” up to 100. Once you hit 100, change direction – either through the circle or on the diagonal of the arena – and circle the other direction, and count back down to zero, counting backwards by fives, “100, 95, 90 … ” etc.
When you have done that, pick up the canter and continue to circle. This time, count by threes from zero to 100, “3, 6, 9, 12 … ” with the rhythm of the canter. It’s not easy! It gets hard, but you have to stay with the rhythm of the canter. Once you hit 100, change direction – through a flying or simple lead change – and circle the other direction. Now count backwards by threes from 100 to zero, “97, 94, 91, 88 … ” It’s really hard to do, but stick with it.
It totally takes your mind off what your body is doing and focuses your mind on your count. What happens is, your body naturally takes over and absorbs all that rhythm underneath it and melts into your horse. While you are adding and subtracting in your mind, you actually become a little absent with your brain from your horse, but your body stays in rhythm. I think riders often over-think what they’re doing, and it hinders the body’s natural ability to find that rhythm. This exercise gets the mind out of the body’s way.
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This exercise gets you to relax and feel the rhythm. It’s hard to teach feel, but this is about as close as I’ve ever gotten to doing that.
The next step is to do the exercise without your stirrups. It’s amazing how it will change your riding. It’s really good for people who get in their own way, mentally.
I really have fun with my advanced riders. I first start with a single jump, and I stand to the side of it. I have the rider start from the corner and never stop looking at me. She must feel the canter and take her eyes off the jump, looking at me the whole time until she leaves the ground.
I believe when you become an advanced rider, too much knowledge can be almost a bad thing. Advanced riders tend to fiddle with the stride or talk themselves out of a distance. With this exercise, they give up all control and just feel the rhythm. The most interesting thing is they usually never miss the distance. The jump tends to stay smooth.
I set up a single jump on a straight line. When you turn the corner and are straight with the jump, close your eyes completely and jump. It’s a really weird feeling, but when you take your sight away, your other senses become keener.
After you get comfortable with that, make it a four-stride, 60-foot line, and jump through the line without looking, eyes totally closed the whole way through.
My riders always get a little squeamish when they do this the first time, but they really have fun doing it. It is such a great exercise to feel rhythm through your body.
Remember – never ride or jump when you are alone, or without protective headgear.
Team Wrangler member Lainie DeBoer has had many show ring successes, including several AQHA world championships, multiple reserves and All American Quarter Horse Congress championships. Riders under her coaching have won multiple youth and amateur world championships and year-end titles, and include 2009 World Show All-Around Amateur Jessica Johnson.
Training yourself and your horse to keep a consistent pace and rhythm will help you place better at horse shows. To see what it looks like in action, check out this winning run video of the 2011 AQHA Amateur Equitation Over Fences World Champion.