Title: The horse who always offers to go up a gait
Subtitle: My horse wants to trot if I am making her walk.
Case: A 6 year old mare and an admittedly tense beginning adult rider.
Question: A lot of the time my mare wants to trot if I'm making her walk and it is only with a constant squeeze on the outside rein that I can keep her from running off. The second I release the squeeze she speeds up. I will often turn her into the wall when she starts in, or make her do little circles. Sometimes at the trot I can tell that she is just dying to break out into a canter.
Keeping in mind that a gentle trot is easier and requires less energy than a good walk, for the horse to offer a trot instead of a good walk is natural. The tension in your arms and the constant squeeze on the reins is uncomfortable for the horse. The horse will try to lean on the bit and/or rush while unbalanced on the forehand. Any horse will try evasions to relieve an uncomfortable situation. It is up to the rider to analyze the problem and effect a solution. The horse will feel the differences in the rider and adjust. The adjustment for the horse will take time because horses are creatures of habit. As much as the "old way of going" is uncomfortable, most horses will "go the way I know" rather than adjust. It takes infinite patience to develop your consistency which allows the horse develops the muscles needed to go in a more balanced, athletic frame.
When you feel as if the horse runs off (or is not listening) there is a spike of fear/tension as a reaction to the fact of the horse using the power of its haunches and its natural inclination to go "up a gait" rather than work harder at the slower gait. A fearful rider has a natural tendency to assume the fetal position, grip with the legs and rely on the reins for balance and control. This is instinctive but it is just about the worst position for the rider and the least comfortable situation for the horse. Any tension in your seat makes the horse want to get away from the discomfort the tension causes, and this forwardness (especially if the horse is unbalanced, strong or hanging on the rein) makes you even more tense.
The cycle must change immediately or the situation will only get worse for both horse and rider. Time for a big change. Otherwise, you will have an angry, resentful horse. The horse will continue to try to evade. Neither partner is going to be having fun!
Starting at the beginning of your ride, warm up on a loose rein at all three gaits. At least, warm up at walk and trot on a loose rein. Let the horse stretch out and relax. Allow time for the horse to get the kinks out and the blood flowing. This is the time for you to assess your balance and physical ability for that day's ride. A rider who is not confident AND who knows how to longe correctly, should longe the horse through a warm-up. Either way this should be an enjoyable time for the horse, and a time for the rider to assess how the horse is going that day. Any horse will have days when she is better balanced and willing to work, and days when she is resentful and unwilling. You will have days when you know in your heart that you are not at your best. This is normal! On the days when you feel you can't find your balance to save your life, it is wise to stick to simple things both horse and rider do well. To attempt a serious schooling on those days, will only set back the development of the partnership and make both partners unhappy.
The goal of schooling is a lightness. You want your horse to be relaxed and going forward from the inside leg into the outside rein. What does this mean? In general the rider's legs should be laying on the horse's sides as though they were wet dishrags: "there" but with no tension or grip. Aids come from a momentary tightening of the calf muscles against the flank and urging slightly forward. There should be no weight/pulling on the reins. The horse should be gently mouthing the bit not driving into it. Your hands should feel as if they were holding baby birds cupped gently. Squeezing is a gently vibration of the ring finger(s).
Since there is a cycle of conflicting aids, pulling and resistance, getting to the point of lightness is going to take some time and some patience. Your horse will respond to the changes, but remember that she has learned certain behaviors from past rides and it will take time for reschooling. It is up to you to sit quietly on your horse and "think" your tension away one muscle at a time from your jaw through your toes. The more you are able to achieve this, the less the mare will want to get away.
I will often turn her into the wall when she starts in, or make her do little circles.
No matter how fearful your are, turning a horse into the wall is not a good idea. It's natural that the horse will begin to think she doesn't have to stop unless she is turned into a wall!! If the horse really starts to run off RELEASE the rein a bit and relax into her back. The release of your tension in your arms and seat and through the reins takes away the things the horse is running away from. This will allows her brain to do a "reset" which will, in turn, allow you to gain the horse's attention and then attain control. If possible you should use a corner to bring the horse onto a circle, but not too small a circle, and gently spiral into smaller circles. Try to conquer the fear of the power being offered. The more often you can "go with it" as a means of regaining control, relaxing the seat and calming the horse, the more comfortable you will become with the power of the gaits. This relaxation will not only reduce the horse's need to run away, but it will build a bond of trust between the partners.
Sometimes at the trot I can tell that she is just dying to break out into a canter.
This is natural. Allowing a canter on a large circle will work to promote relaxation. In an enclosed riding area a horse can't really run off with you. She may get momentarily strong, but she isn't going to go tearing across the country jumping anything in her path. When in an enclosed, safe area try to allow a little more forwardness with less restriction. Trust. Allow your tension to melt away into softness. Your goal is to take your muscles from stiff (unusable) tension to supple (responding) resilience. Then, the more you allow forwardness in a balanced horse, the less the horse has to resist. Allowing without tension will build confidence, trust and partnership. During this training it is advisable to work on 20 meter circles. Try not to do many long, straight lines as this allows time for a horse to pull. On the long sides of the arena, do a big serpentines or break up the long sides with circles.