My discovery ride also flagged my three-year-old Warmblood True’s inconsistent trot pace.
Fast, slow, medium, whoops way too fast, and so on. This is a very common problem in young horses who don’t know that a consistent pace is desired. That desire goes against the natural bent of their brains, so it must be taught.
We saw last week that True’s slow walk pace was improved by leg pressure that was intermittent (timed to his slightest slowing) rather than constant. The reason for that lies in the horse’s brain, with a biological process called “neural fatigue.”
Brain cells called neurons initiate and execute action in animals. When the neurons that govern walking are activated, they cause us to walk. No surprise there! But when the same neurons are activated for a long time—like a minute or two—they get tired. When neural fatigue occurs, these cells can no longer fire at their normal rate.
Some people try to achieve consistent pace by finding the leg pressure that produces it, then holding that pressure steady. This causes neural fatigue to occur. Soon, the horse’s brain can not possibly create the desired effect because the cells that initiate such motion are too tired to fire at the proper rate. Have you seen a horse who’s hardened to the constant pressure of a heavy hand or dead to the legs or spurs? That problem is caused by neural fatigue.
How to fix it? Well, let’s look at True’s trot. He’s too young to know that his pace should be consistent. A youngster’s brain tells him to pause when something interesting comes along and to speed up when he’s scared or when other horses are galloping. It also tells him to slow down when he’s bored, or when another horse comes into the arena, or when the first 15 minutes of his lesson are over, or… well, most any excuse will do.
I apply pressure evenly with both legs to cue True to trot. Because I already know he tends to be reluctant to move forward, I don’t let him lollygag around about this. Leg pressure means trot now, just like it did last week when we were working on the walk! If I have to add the “flop” sound of a light crop behind my leg, I do.
He trots. The first ten steps or so are a bit slow, so I press him up, pushing his hindquarters toward my hands. My hands are very soft at this point with only light contact, allowing freedom for plenty of forward motion. A baby is not ready for collection, and paired aids make mixed messages. Oh, there it is, the pace I want! I resume neutral leg pressure.
But True slows when I go back to neutral. He is making the natural assumption that the lightening of my leg is also a cue, and that it means to slow down. In other words, he’s behaving as he’s been taught—we just need to teach him a new concept called self-carriage. At the slightest sense of slowing, I apply even pressure with both legs again. He speeds up. We play this little game a few times until he maintains his pace after I resume neutral pressure.
This is the moment for reward! We have to let the youngster know that he has done what we wanted. He knows the phrase “good boy” from ground work, so I ladle up some of that plus a few long strokes down his neck with the back or side of my hands, which are still holding the reins. (Don’t let go of the reins on a baby. I’m just sayin’!)
When the time comes that I am finished working on the trot, I make sure not to cue the walk until his trot pace is appropriate. This way, the rest in an easier gait becomes a reward for his good behavior at a consistent trot.
Horses need a lot of work at any gait to achieve consistent pace and to learn that they—not we—are responsible for maintaining that pace. Once you ask for and receive the pace you want, resume a neutral position with your aids. (Neutral—not zero.) The horse should continue on. When you want to slow down, speed up, turn a corner, or change something, you will provide new aids to him for that maneuver.
It takes months of practice to establish pace firmly in a young horse at all gaits, but it’s one of the most basic kindergarten lessons he must learn. Just remember not to demand pace with an unrelenting aid, or you will create neural fatigue that prevents the horse’s brain from achieving your goals.
Once pace is established, we can begin teaching the horse transitions, so that he makes a gradual and smooth increase from jog to slow sitting trot to medium trot to a fast and/or extended trot and back down. We’ll also begin to expect consistent pace under all sorts of distracting conditions. But that’s all still a ways down the road for True.
Brain-Based Horsemanship is a weekly column that chronicles Janet Jones, PhD, and her journey with True, a Dutch Warmblood she trained from age three using neuroscience best practices. Read more about brain-based training in Jones’ award winning book Horse Brain, Human Brain.
A version of this story originally appeared on janet-jones.com. It is reprinted here with permission.