Title: What to do when a horse rushes
Subtitle: My horse rushes and I don't feel in control
Case: A 6 year old mare and a tense adult rider.
Question: My horse loves to go, go, go. I have heard one teacher/trainer say that when they are like that you have to just make them go slow so they learn to, and I have also heard that you need to just let them go forward. Can you help me understand this?
Ah, good question, though there is no easy answer. It depends on the development of the particular horse.
In general, this is a matter of balance. Always, always, always the idea of training is to develop balance and self-carriage in the horse AND to do this with the horse as a willing participant. It doesn't matter which discipline you ride, from reining to steeplechase, the rider is encouraging balance and urging the horse to use the haunches/hocks. Think of the horse and rider as dance partners. The rider is the leader but there must be no force or pain to get the horse to follow. Both partners must be balanced, light and attentive. The rider can't drag the horse around and the horse shouldn't drag the rider. Dancing is a very athletic "sport" and requires both partners to be fit. They must be constantly listening to each others' aids and instantly able to adjust.
Whether to rebalance the horse, "make them go slow so they learn", or to encourage stretching/suppleness, "let them go forward" depends on the moment. Literally. If the horse is balanced under you then encourage forward and take what the horse offers with delight, then gently rebalance as necessary. If, however, the horse is leaning on the forehand or rushing around making you feel for all the world as if you are being dragged, then you must ask for balance with a series of half-halts. If half-halts are not enough, ask for up and down transitions consistently (say at every third fence post or the points of a compass on a circle) until the horse rebalances. Quite often in the beginning of schooling or retraining, avoiding long straightaways is a good idea. Break up the long straight areas of the riding arena with serpentines and circles to keep the horse listening, thinking and interested. Think up new patterns and try them. If the exercises are done correctly, the horse actually feels more forward and may not be going more slowly but rather is going in balance (collection!) The power is coming from the rear through the back and abdominal muscles into the bit. There is a lightness that you cannot mistake for anything else.
To develop a young horse or retrain an older one, a wonderful tool is a field with a bit of an incline. Trot up and walk down allowing/encouraging the horse to go forward. The incline "forces" the horse into a natural balance and self-carriage while the horse develops the proper musculature. You must also stay balanced naturally leaning slightly forward on the way up and slightly backward on the way down. Don't be afraid to grab a little mane or the pommel/horn of the saddle to keep your balance. Trail riding also helps develop balance and self-carriage, as does a good gallop around a track or flat field. Ground poles are great if you know how to place them. Always choose your exercises based on your increasing skills and the fitness of your horse. Work for relaxation in both the horse and the rider.