Slow Down to Speed Up and Optimize Learning
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Although my husband’s gelding Dot Com came to us already having a long list of achievements in the roping pen, his sensitive nature combined with the pressures of life as a high caliber performance horse had contributed to a way of feeling and moving that involved a lot of physical tension, high headedness, inverted posture, and emotional insecurity.
When presented with an opportunity to spend time with Dot Com, although I drug my feet initially, I have to say I did feel confident I could meet Dot Com’s needs in a way that would change his life for the better, and bring out the best in him – both in the arena and out.
It just hasn’t happened the way I thought it would…
My journey with him so far has been rewarding, especially lately, but it hasn’t been without its challenges. In this article, I’d like to share a few of the lessons Dot Com has helped ME learn and ways in which he’s helped expand my own abilities, in hopes that it will expand yours as well.
To start with, you may already be well aware of how magical simply directing a horse’s feet can be for establishing leadership and bringing a horse’s focus back to you. I had a feeling DC was desperate for more, and better quality leadership. I moved Dot Com’s feet a lot in the beginning, expecting him to really start relaxing as a result. I moved him slow, fast, up, down, left, right, forward, back, etc. usually in quick succession.
The way he carried his body was terrible at this point, and although his posture wasn’t my first priority, even as I noticed a little relaxation, the way he carried himself didn’t start to naturally change as I expected it to, AND the huge degree of relaxation I was after wasn’t really coming together either.
I started to think that perhaps the way he carried himself had been ingrained over so many years, that it might help if I offered more guidance and support. So I introduced a new way of moving by asking him to lower his head, flex at the poll and round his back by using well timed pressure and release.
When that wasn’t working so well, I was getting desperate. It even crossed my mind to resort to the temporary help of a martingale – all in hopes we could replace his old habit with a new, more athletic one, and that his new posture wouldn’t be one I’d have to “hold” in place constantly.
I thought maybe it might assist him in getting the initial idea, BUT that didn’t work either. He would move with decent posture, but only if I held light contact. When I released and left him to his own devices, he couldn’t seem to maintain it.
I was offering the leadership I knew he was so desperately needing, I was moving his feet, I was rewarding him for good posture, but nope – the relaxation and the quality of movement I was after – was not coming together.
In addition, when I set out to teach Dot Com to better yield to leg pressure, his default answer was always to squirt forward, or to fidget around and completely ignore my cues. He already understood how to yield from basic leg pressure, but he just didn’t seem to be learning! I noticed that the more firm I was (in an attempt to drive the point home), the more mentally “slow” he seemed.
He already had a foundational understanding of moving laterally off leg pressure, and I was confident I was doing my part – so what was the DEAL, I wondered!?
In comparison, my own gelding is a thinker – he learns VERY quickly. Perhaps, DC just wasn’t as “quick on the uptake?” So I cut him a little slack. However in time, he still wasn’t making the improvements I expected.
I began to wonder if he had a learning disability!?
Why weren’t my time tested techniques for teaching and building responsiveness working to just “DO what he already knows” – a little better!?
This is where the HUGE light bulb moment came for me… Although Dot Com does appreciate quality leadership, moving his feet so much, so quickly didn’t soothe him – it scared him.
This would be easy for the average timed event competitor to overlook. I certainly admit to it in this case. Honestly, the way he operated didn’t appear much different compared to what many of us consider “normal.”
But his worried facial expression, the tension in the musculature of his neck, the short, shallow breathing, a slightly raised head, the choppy, short strided movement – even if these symptoms are subtle, it might not mean your horse is “excited,” but actually fearful, worried and unconfident, which are certainly not the foundational elements that contribute to a high level athletic performance!
Truth be told, from the beginning my husband had always had trouble with DC in the roping box, and I could see the areas where he needed improvement from the beginning, but Dot Com showed me that the route to getting there wasn’t the one I had in mind.
What I learned was that Dot Com didn’t need me to focus him with redirection him in quick succession, he needed me to SLOW DOWN.
There’s a time and place for the techniques I was using, and they are VERY effective and valuable with certain horses in certain environments (for example if your horse is very distracted or can’t stand still), but it wasn’t the best choice for what Dot Com as an individual needed at the time. For example, it wasn’t that I wasn’t offering what he needed, he just didn’t appreciate the WAY I was offering it.
As this first major light bulb came on, I said a silent apology to Dot Com, and vowed to do better and understand him more as we went forward.
My next lesson came in realizing that being more firm with DC didn’t encourage him to try harder or understand me better, it actually shut down his brain down even more.
When I slowed way down, and made our rides less intense, and focused more on calm, quiet repetition, Dot Com REALLY started to relax. Relaxation especially flowed when I allowed any tension in my own body to melt away, and we trotted small circles for extended periods – the consistency and repetition was soothing to DC.
The relaxation improved even more when I would stop and reward him with a break for any tiny signs of relaxation, like blowing out (sneezing), lowering his head, or even working his mouth.
When I was patient and consistent (I mean REALLY patient and consistent) his brilliance started to reveal itself.
It’s not that DC isn’t smart, it’s that I asked him for things in a way that gave him “brain freeze.” When I slowed waaaayyyy down, and made absolutely sure he understood, and wasn’t worried or tense about what I was asking – he delivered what I asked and did so flawlessly.
I had finally found the place where I could build and optimize from.
The physical tension he carried in his body was a symptom of his unbalanced emotional state. Plenty of timed event performance horses operate like this, but when they do – they’re operating at a fraction of their potential. Now of course, I don’t expect my horses to walk in the arena half asleep like a wet noodle, but if your horse carries an extreme amount of tension in his body, lacks mental focus, and the willingness to allow you to position his feet with the utmost accuracy in competition, he’s likely showing more subtle signs of the same problem day to day – and it WILL get in your way in competition.
I could have tried to teach him to hold his body differently by physically bothering him with my hands, or forcing him into a position with a tie down, but only once he could truly relax organically, without anything “artificial,” could I ever have hope of him traveling and performing with his body shaped to perform the most efficient athletic maneuvers, with the ultimate degree of fluidity and quickness.
When I did my part to create “all natural” relaxation in him, he blew out, and blew out, and blew out as more than a decade of tension stuck his body started to release and for the first time in years he volunteered to relax his body, lower his head, and extend his stride – because it felt good, and because he no longer felt insecure, fearful and worried. His past tendencies weren’t so much about habit, or even education – as they were emotions.
To change and improve how Dot Com used his body, I had to change his mind first.
There is great benefit to be had by taking the time to learn how to get to the other side of the physical and mental tension that is so often a byproduct of lack of foundation combined with the pressure of timed speed events and uneducated or indifferent riders. It’s also true that getting to where we are now has taken much longer than the two weeks I originally estimated to complete Dot Com’s “mental rehab,” which provides even more motivation for myself and I hope anyone who reads this – to always do their best to not go there and create a need to fix such problems to begin with.
To summarize, remember…
- When horse is not responding to or learning from pressure and release, consider that their mental state may be preventing them from thinking. Meet a horse’s need for security first and they become much more likely do what you ask.
- Slow and correct is always better than fast and wrong. Take the time it takes to develop your own, and your horse’s foundation on all levels. You’ll be further ahead (and have faster times) in the long run.
- A horse that is emotionally imbalanced will also be physically imbalanced – which takes away from the level of athleticism, and ultimately speed, they can perform with.
- Be more aware of the subtle signs and symptoms your horse shows. Don’t overlook and ignore them, or accept tension as “normal.” Deal with the small issues as they come up, before they become big ones.
- What worked for one horse, or what worked in the past may no longer apply to your current horse or situation. Make your motto -“There has GOT to be a better way!” and be willing to go back to the drawing board, listen to your horse and especially, open your mind to a new perspective.
- If you’re horse’s poor posture and tension is related to his emotions, no amount of education, or artificial means will create the quality movement and positive mental state that dealing with the issue at it’s source will.
Dot Com is growing more confident each day as he continues to release even more tension as we move on to doing more advanced things in a WAY that is new for him. As we progress, going forward will continue to require very keen awareness and skill on my part to gradually introduce him back to the high pressure environments that contributed to the creation of his challenges.
He has all the talent in the world, but if Dot Com were to continue performing in a way that was tense, stiff, inverted, worried and mentally disconnected, his true potential may have never been revealed.
All this makes me wonder – what kind of diamonds are hiding in horses throughout the world who are shut down, and “rough around the edges” because they weren’t exposed to people who had the skills to bring out the BEST in them? Wouldn’t you love to be confident you offered each horse your very best, and brought out the best in them at the same time?
I’m interested in investing the time and developing my own skills to reveal the VERY BEST in Dot Com, AND every horse I throw a leg over, not just today but far into the future.
I do so not only with the purpose to reach the highest levels of performance in the arena, but to give them the very best quality of life I can as well.
I guess that’s my passion – optimization.
Revealing the VERY BEST in a horse, a circumstance, an environment, in myself and in others.
I hope this article will help you do the same.
For even more on this subject, see Six Secrets for Relaxed, Quality Movement, and Three Exercises for Relaxation on the Move.
Of course, if you’d like to go even more in-depth, be sure to grab a copy of best-selling book, Secrets to Barrel Racing Success where I devoted and entire chapter to Quality Movement (and you’ll receive my FREE Barre Racer’s Guide to Speed Development instantly).
Now, please share YOUR experiences. Did you enjoy this article? Can you relate to my lessons with Dot Com? I’d love to receive your feedback in the comments below!
Last summer an MRI showed a bone bruise on my good horse’s rt front foot, p2. his season was over since 90 days stall rest was all he was going to be doing. So I had to rely on another horse I had.
I have a 14 yr old mare that I had had for just over a year. she had one speed, dead run! I had tried slowing her down, by one rein stops, running till she “gave” in, she never did, I stopped because I was afraid she’d run to death. I tried bigger bits, longer work outs. she did learn to walk, but any bump and she was off in a dead run! She was very good on the barrels, would shoot past the first to the fence and come around and still win the 2D…I was very frustrated, so I just gave up trying…I mean I started, going slower, lots of walking, little trotting back to walking, etc. She knew the patterns well, so I didn’t feel the need to practice barrels or poles too much. I would pony her on another horse, get on her and just walk, trot, and then, just try to lope, with lots of smaller circles, not pulling on her face, using my leg inside, voice to slow by saying whooooooa slowly, and remaining as still and calm as I could. IT is working. she rides much better, calmer more relaxed. She may never let completely go of her worried attitude, but I will keep trying. ( I have had her checked by a couple Vets, she has had Accupuncture on her back, treated for ulcers, hocks/stiffles xrayed and hocks injected)
Thank you for the confidence that I am doing the right thing.
Wow, aren’t our situations similar!? My good gelding has also been out with a bone bruise which is what led me to spend time with Dot Com! It takes a very skilled and compassionate person to bring a horse like this along. I’m finding it’s so easy to lose patience and overlook the little things and be back to square one. Dot Com doesn’t appear to have a big motor right off the bat, he stays pretty withdrawn and quiet UNTIL he actually gets moving, then he’s like a rocket sled on rails. It makes sense, as a horse’s emotions tend to spike with added speed. He’s been a challenge but I’m grateful for the opportunity he’s given me to become a better horseman, and it’s really fun and rewarding to see the positive changes in him. I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed this one, Ronda. Keep up the great work and thanks for sharing!
Hi, I must admit… I subscribed to your e-mails but have failed to read a lot of them, lack of time mostly. For some reason I decided to read through this one, and let me tell you I will now be setting aside time to follow along with them all! It is so nice to hear that other barrel racers think on the same page! I had a very similar case as your DC horse, I know exactly how much work they are, and how rewarding it is when you see that intelligent, confident horse come out in them!! Kudos to you for sticking with him!
This summer I bought a “finished” barrel horse, the first one I have purchase that has had previous training on the barrels (mostly the unstarted troubled prospects seem to find me lol.) And boy let me tell you this poor boy was completely SHUT DOWN. Turns out every time he tried and messed up he would get punished in some way, wether it be a sharp jerk on his mouth (of course they used a long shank, high port curb) or a swift kick and spank. Needless to say it wasn’t too long before he quite trying all together and became dull, which is why he was being sold.
I don’t know what it was but I saw something in that horse and decided to purchase him, even though you could see he had troubles.
The first time i rode him at home I saw instantly that there were large wholes in his foundation. He didn’t know how to move his shoulder and would instead loose his hind quarter position around the back side of the barrel, cross his hind legs over one another, about tripping himself and running a large arch to the next barrel. I couldn’t believe that this was a “normal” run for him. If he kept it up he would injure himself and possibly me. I still saw potential, so I opted to put away my goals for racing him in the amateur rodeos that summer and focus on his foundation, or maybe I should say, lack of one.
I had put him into a loose ring snaffle, which seemed to help him relax some, you could tell that other bit had him scared. However, every time I tried to teach him or correct him with slight pressure he would instantly go introverted, arch his neck, get tense, hollow his back and suck his bit in a nervous, almost psychotic nature. So for the first two weeks it was slow, I asked for one step and then let him stop, while rubbing him on the neck until he came back and focused on me. After a week we could go five or six steps before he started getting worried, and I noticed the try coming back. He even started licking his lips and yawning! We are still a long ways off from reaching his full potential, but he has come so far, he will whinny at me in the pasture now, his eyes are bright as mischievous and he is in the correct position around the barrels which will not only improve our times dramatically, but will help him to stay a much sounder horse. Thanks for the inspirational, motivational and educational article, it’s good to hear from another out there that can put off the winners circle for the well being of their horse.
Thanks for writing and keep it up!
Thanks so much for sharing Alyssa! So glad to hear the post resonated with you, and that you’re “taking the time it takes” to give your horse a new start! These horses require much more quiet and repetitive patience than I tend to have by nature, and because they’re so withdrawn, the signs that all is not well in their world can be easy to miss. It’s been two steps forward and a step back, but I’m becoming more in tune to Dot Com’s needs and he’s getting more relaxed and confident all the time. Progress is slow but sure and already very rewarding and worth while. Keep up the great work! 🙂
Thank you so much for this article. I too, have a horse that is nervous, spooks, and inverted when riding. What has worked on other horses so far has not worked on him, and I feel bad just relegating him to the pasture or the occasional trail ride while I ride and compete with my other horse. I thought it was just that he and I didn’t “click.” Thank you for the new ideas…I can’t wait to go give them a try after work! 🙂
You’re welcome Nikki, thanks for your comment. So glad the article was helpful! 🙂
Thankyou for a great article..I couldn’t agree with you more..keep up the good work.
Your book is full of good insight on horsemanship needed for successful barrelracing as well.
Look forward to your articles!
Thanks Jacquie! I appreciate your kind words and am so glad to year you’re enjoying my content. Will keep it coming! 🙂
Last summer, I fell in love with a beautiful 12 year old mare that hadn’t been ridden for most of her life. She was stubborn as ever, with an attitude and despise for every new thing we worked on together. It tooks months of longing and baby steps to work out her bucking habits and bad manners. Almost a year later, she is a completely different horse. I almost can’t recognize her! Her bad manners in the arena are gone and she seems more spirited and happy. She has a fast time on the barrels and her love for what we do is so evident! I can see it in her desire to learn and work.
However, she has always been a very thin-skinned horse, very ticklish, and somewhat high strung. I know that the energy is prevalent in most barrel horses and is a good thing. But I’m working on slowing her down, so that she’s not so crazy all the time! Thank you for this article. It helps to know that slowing down is a good thing and is necessary for better performance.
Also, the arena that we are using now is on the same property that she was born on. She has been there her whole life and we haven’t hauled her much. So I will be hauling her to another arena over Spring Break to work her on the pattern and see how fast she’s clocking. In your opinion, would this be good for a high strung, somewhat spooky horse? Get her out of her comfort zone and more comfortable with other arenas? Thank you for your help!
Hi Myrissa, thanks for sharing! Sounds like you’re on the right track with your mare and making great progress! Horses are contextual learners, meaning that a lot of what we do will apply in different environments, but not necessarily all of it. If you provide the quality leadership she needs, there shouldn’t be too much of an issue with her getting distracted in varying environments, but if she does, you just know it’s an area to work on further.
You might see if you can think of creative ways to gradually build her confidence by spending a few sessions perhaps on the same property but a different area other than the arena – ride or work with her out in a field, or go down the road, etc. You might also make a point not to really push her in that new environment at first, and instead let her pick the pace she’s comfortable at to help build her confidence.
Some of the most amazing equine athletes are highly sensitive horses – it’s what helps make them so soft and responsive at speed, however these horses are often more sensitive mentally as well, so they take more maintenance in that way. Think of it as a good thing that will serve you well in competition, as long as you commit to meeting her needs mentally/emotionally, you should do great!
Thank you for this article, it will help me with my gelding. He gets nervous and I can feel his heart going very fast. He’s fast so slowing down is a great idea. I love the way you put the horse first.
Do you think you can do an article on horses not entering the arena. My horse is good if he tried to avoid the arena, I’d get off him and have him checked over.
There was a lady at 4 barrel races I went to on a beautiful horse. He would not go in the arena, or face the barrels and if she got him started towards the barrels, he’d go by the timer then spin and run back to the gate. After the race, she had N/T she brought that poor horse back in the arena and was bound and determined to make a run. You could see the marks on his sides from her spurs. She got him around the barrels, when she came back I could see he was off on his left hind. She was going to run him again even though he was showing signs of lameness. I ran over and told her he’d pulled something and to get off him. She just kind of looked at me, but after a few steps he was very noticeably lame. She did get off him and lead him.
He had tried to tell her he couldn’t run the barrels. I’ve seen this happen so many times and then found out later the horse was sore, etc.
You’re welcome for the article Joanne, so glad to hear you think it will be helpful! You probably already found my post on solving gate issues, but here is the – “Seven Tips to Solve Gate Problems for Good.” I appreciate you sharing your experience, soundness issues do tend to contribute greatly to gate problems! It’s so important to make sure we have all the ingredients in place so that our horses have no reason to resist what doing we ask. Thanks again for your comment and kind words! 🙂
I was at a veterinarian lecture recently. The vet works on a lot of race horses including Seattle Slew in the past. He also works on barrel horses. He said he has found that a lot of horses who refuse at the gate and have a lot of gate issues have had a problem with their sacroiliac joints. Here’s a good article describing it in jumping horses.
Thanks for the article it all make sense. I only have one question my problem at this time is when I try to enter the arena for my run, my horse plays up nearly every time but the thing that gets me when I’m not running and I ask my horse to walk in the arena he does it straight away. I understand he would be feeling my exciting when it’s time race but for some reason he puts on the breaks and does not want to enter that arena. I wish I could sort this out as it as adds alot more stess on both of us before our run. Would you have any ideas how I should approach this problem?
Hi Jenny, you might check out my past post titled “Seven Tips to Solve Gate Problems for Good,” and that could quite possibly give you some insight that will be helpful!
Loved reading this article. I feel like I am in a similar situation with my new horse. I bought her because of the potential I felt she had but as soon as I got her home everything went downhill. She started to buck, had a horrible tude, and was just not fun to be around at all. At one point, she even started to have lameness issues. I had 3 different vets out and none could figure out the problem. Finally I tried a chiro and low and be hold my poor mare had TONS of problems. Maybe bones out of place, knotted muscles, and more. Luckily, the chiro was able to fix it all and now she is on the road to recovery. I’m taking this opportunity to SLOWLY bring her back to work and really refine her foundation an groundwork. I think the previous owner did a good job but forced her to do things by scaring her which is why now she’s not willing to do anything on her own. Now I take it slow with her and she’s really learning and wanting to do what I ask. I hope by this fall we’ll be back to running barrels and both of us have more confidence in each other. Loved reading your story and knowing I’m not the only one with a horse that needs to be “started over” per say. Keep up the great work!
Hi Ashley, thanks so much for sharing! I feel as though Dot Com came to us initially in the same state. He seemed somewhat well adjusted on the surface but in time he just fell apart. I like to say that it’s like he was held together with “duct tape” – just enough to get by, and fear was used as motivation in the past. He could get steers turned pretty darn fast and athletically despite it all, but in the long run he wouldn’t have held up – not mentally/emotionally or physically.
We have been starting all over with him as well, and although he does have a fair amount of good training, he’s learning to do some of the same things in a different way that is completely new to him, but it’s so much more enjoyable and comfortable for everyone. In the end, he’ll ultimately be able to perform with even MORE speed and athleticism as he ever would have before as a performance horse. Kudos to you for doing what’s best for your horse, it just so happens that “taking the time it takes” will help you and your horse achieve more in the arena as well – a WIN/WIN! 🙂
Loved reading this article. I feel like I am in a similar situation with my new horse. I bought her because of the potential I see in her. But she is VERY dramatic. Anytime i ask her to do anything, even a simple walk, it is a big fit. Her past owners said when they rode her they couldn’t get her to move forward(they eventually would give up and quit her, so im surprised that isn’t a habit) And now i cant get her to SLOW DOWN and think. When i try to teach her leg pressure and side ways, she literally hops side ways, or flys backwards… ive tried to calmly go along the fence or walk circles pushing my leg into her until she even moved slightly to what i was asking. and id release the pressure and pet her like crazy treating her like a princess. but still didn’t learn it,she really only moved towards the gate, and not in any other direction, and after about 3 minutes of trying, she would “explode”. Just get racey and nervous. And completely shuts her brain off. she stops moving her feet, then when asked she over dramatically moves her feet, lunging forward, or leaping side ways towards the gate or fence, trying to rear. its hectic. Even out on the trail she acts like a “lunatic”. One moment we can be completely calm, the next we are bucking, jumping and literally leaping into the trees or the horse a head of us. I FINALLY learned she acts a little better on a trail at the back of the group or in complete solitude. (claustrophobic maybe?) Now just recently she’s come up lame, has an abscess coming threw and possibly a pulled tendon…. I can see this little girl doing SO MUCH and i just cant seem to figure her out. I have another mare who acted similar, But calmed down after a month or so. And they are both running bred (one being Sunfrost, and my problem mare is double blackburn bred) I consider my self experienced and i have trained many horses, just none quite so dramatic. Winter is nearing and now she will have to have a long while off, I’m thinking I’m mostly going to be doing ground work (after a bit) and trust work. Anything else i can do? After she has these fits she completely calms down, i usually get her to lope, and lope hoping to get rid of her energy, or calmly walk her, then try again, and its right back to being dramatic. I’m at my whits end with her, but I’m not giving up, even if it takes a few years.