Q. I was asked to ride an 8 year old that's been broke but is very green (won't bend and is fast - very fast). She went away for western training and is back for a month or until she's sold. They used a loose ring snaffle. I'm riding her to keep her worked. She's very unbalanced and unorganized. Even when we trot, it's like her legs are flying everywhere. I try keeping a hold of her face, she's fast, and then I let the reins slip through my hands. She'll slow a little and then start cantering. My knees are pinching. I circle a bunch. So, I got off and lunged until she was calm. I figure I'll lunge her and let it all out and then ride. But, her canter feels dangerous because she's terribly on her forehand. What could slow her down a little and collect or at least move forward decently?
A. This 8 yr old. you're riding sounds very familiar to me. I bought an extremely green 9 yr old mare years ago who was the most unbalanced horse I'd ever seen in my life. She was extremely long-backed - so much so that her hind end never seemed to know what her front end was doing. She was so unbalanced, I didn't even feel altogether safe leading her down to the pasture. She always seemed to be one strong breeze away from falling over. And of course, with weight on her back, things only got worse. She could walk (I always imagined riding her at walk must be what it was like to ride a camel!), and she had a nice little western jog trot, but canter was completely out of the question. In fact, she wouldn't even canter out in the pasture!
This mare needed lots of time to figure out where her feet were and how to carry herself in proper balance before trying to do the same with a rider. For most of a year, I did nothing but lunge her - first with no tack other than a halter and lunge line, and later wearing a hunt saddle. I kept shin boots on her to protect her legs from her atrocious movement and lunged her for relatively short periods (15 mins.) every day. Once she seemed able to maintain a steady pace with reasonable balance in both directions at both walk and trot, I started asking for - no, make that DEMANDING - very brief (maybe 3 strides) canters. I had to get quite aggressive with the whip to force her to canter in the beginning. She was so unbalanced, she really didn't want to risk the faster gait. At first, I was lucky to get one or two frantic strides before she'd break back to trot. That was fine. I just slowly built on whatever she could or would do. Over the course of several months of regular lunging work, she eventually reached the point where she could canter quite comfortably, relaxed, and in good balance in both directions for as long as I requested. It was gratifying to see that as she learned how to operate her own legs successfully, she began cantering and even racing joyfully around the pasture. She was able to keep up with her pasture buddies for probably the first time in her life! :-)
Your green mare needs the same sort of slow, progressive work to teach her how to balance herself. Green horses are very prone to racing at the canter. Because they don't know how to balance themselves properly at reasonable speeds, they tend to rely on the effects of speed and centrifugal force to keep them from falling over around tight corners. This mare will find it easier to maintain a slower pace if you canter for only a few strides at a time down the straightaway. Avoid corners or circling at canter until she has learned to canter in a relaxed and balanced manner down straight lines.
Rapid transition work may be the most effective technique for getting this mare to slow down and maintain her balance. If you ask for 4 strides of walk followed by 4 of trot, 4 of canter, 3 of walk, 4 trot, 5 canter, 6 trot, 3 walk, halt, 5 trot, 4 canter, etc., etc., etc., the transitions will happen so quickly that she will force herself to stay attentive and balanced for your next request. Make sure you only make canter requests when she's traveling down a straight line. Try it. It works! But if the rapid transitions make her very hyper, frustrated, or scared, work on cantering for just a few strides at a time down a straight line without all the other transitions.
When she has started to slow down and balance her canter on straight lines, you can begin to incorporate bending lines. Try cantering through just one corner of the arena before asking her to return to walk. As she canters through the corner, make absolutely certain you are not shifting or leaning your weight even slightly to the inside. Keep your eyes straight forward to help keep your own body properly aligned over her spine. Even the slightest shift of your weight toward the inside of the bend will throw this mare's balance all out of whack and cause her to race through the corner. Pay attention to how this mare holds her body around corners. The more she leans to the inside, the faster she'll go. You can help hold her body upright around the corner (and make it easier for her to maintain a moderate pace) by holding your inside leg firmly against her side and gently supporting her inside shoulder with your inside indirect rein. Don't take a strong hold of her mouth to try to slow her down. It will likely only make matters worse and make her more resistent to your cues. Maintain a light, steady contact through the reins, and let her responses be your guide in any necessary rein adjustments.