High-Speed Horse Training

Use these tips to develop a better hand gallop.

In a good hand gallop, the horse is freely galloping in front of the rider’s leg on a soft but organized rein.

The rider is in a half-seat position, up off the saddle. An extended canter is done sitting in the saddle, but a hand gallop is ridden slightly off the horse’s back in a more forward position.

When judges call for a hand gallop in equitation classes, it’s just another test we use to see the rider’s adjustability and abilities.

In equitation over fences, you might see a pattern call for a rider to hand gallop a single oxer, then turn to a line of jumps down the outside. In the hand gallop, judges want to see an increase of pace and forward stride, not a ride that’s back-pedaled or determined by a set distance. Then they want to see whether the rider can make the horse hand gallop to the oxer and then collect him again for the short line.

It is a test, just like anything else – a counter-canter or sitting trot, etc. – to see how adjustable your horse is and how knowledgeable you are as a rider.

We’re starting to call for the hand gallop more in hunt seat equitation; we want riders to get their horses to move out and gallop a little bit. Why? Because we don’t want the class to look like western horsemanship classes with an English saddle.

In English classes, we want to see riders step up the pace and make their horses go forward and move more freely. It requires using more leg, rather than just perching in the saddle and holding a stiff, upright, trying-to-be-perfect posture.

Common Problems

Draped reins. One of the biggest problems I see in hunt seat equitation classes is riders who ride a pattern with no contact to the horse’s mouth – they ride the whole pattern on a draped rein.

How did that get to be a problem? A lot of riders incorrectly think the English classes are just about having a certain look, sitting up there and having a posture on the horse that they think is correct. If they ride western well, it’s just another class for them to go for an all-around. It’s just another event.

But it is a different riding style and requires a different feel with your hand. You can’t jump a course with a draped rein and no contact with your horse’s mouth.

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No leg. Another problem is riders using little or no leg. You develop contact with the horse’s mouth by using your leg to push the horse forward into a contact with your hand. You can’t do that if you don’t use your leg properly.

Poor position. When you hand gallop, your body position does change. Your seat comes up out of the saddle, and you balance out over the horse’s withers.

A lot of riders just stand up in the stirrups and lean over their hands for the hand gallop; their hands stay at the withers.

What you really need to do is, as you’re getting ready for the hand gallop, shorten the rein almost to the middle of the horse’s neck instead of right at the base of the withers. You allow a little more aerodynamic flow in your body position to increase that horse’s canter stride into a slight gallop.

When you go back down into the canter, you let your reins out, back to the normal rein position for where you want your canter to be, and come back to the saddle.

Too abrupt. People also try to get a hand gallop too abruptly and never really get a true hand gallop. You need to graduate into the hand gallop during several strides. It can’t be done in a matter of two strides; you’ve got to develop it.

Tight patterns. If judges call for a hand gallop, they have to make sure the pattern isn’t too tight and that there is enough room in the pattern to get the true hand gallop efficiently.

What to Do

Get advice. You need advice from a trainer to help you develop and feel what a good hand gallop is. You also have to watch other riders – what wins and why their hand gallop is good – then it starts to make sense. A lot of times, people don’t get to see enough of the good riders to have that “click” and see how to make it work for them.

Start with the half-seat. The half-seat is something you learn in the beginning, when you’re learning how to ride and post. You really begin to use it when you’re jumping because it’s a more aerodynamic position.

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For example, in a jumping class you’re riding a horse fast. You might jump one jump and turn and the next jump is at the far end. To get there, you want to get as aerodynamic as you can to make those seconds up, especially in a jump-off. You can’t want to be sitting, leaning back, riding the saddle the whole time; you want to be off the horse’s back, encouraging him to go at the best speed he can with a good balance.

Half seat is a basic, beginner position that we ask riders to learn, and then you adapt to using it in the hand gallop as you advance as a rider.

Use your leg. In the equitation, I see a lack of leg pushing the horse into nice hands that direct the horse into whatever shape or speed that you want him to be in.

When you do the hand gallop and stand up off the horse’s back in a half-seat, you still want to maintain contact with your lower leg. Don’t stand up in the stirrup and lean or you’ll fall on the horse’s neck. You have to do it with a strong, sturdy leg, then you’re going to be able to maintain and hold that position.

Your leg doesn’t have to be super strong, just tight. You’ve got to be able to hold your leg quiet and tight and not move around on the horse’s sides.

And there are varying degrees of pressure, depending on your horse.

With a sensitive horse, it’s an easier transition to the hand gallop – all you have to do is let go of the rein and they’re in it; you just keep your leg still.

With a colder-blooded horse or a lazier horse, you really have to grind on them with your leg and maybe give a little spur to make them really accelerate into the hand gallop.

Think about it and practice. First, you start at the canter. Then you organize your rein, shorten your rein length, ease up off the horse’s back, close your leg and drive the horse into the hand gallop. It’s an increase of the canter with a larger and faster rhythm.

You can use it in your arena work – as you canter around a bend, incorporate a hand gallop across the diagonal of the arena, coming back down to the canter at the next bend. It’s just something that you have to build into your riding.

Ride without stirrups. As you get more advanced, riding the hand gallop without stirrups really strengthens your leg; you’ll be able to do it even better when you have the stirrup irons.

It’s miserable to do it without irons, but it’s like anything else: The more intensely you train for something, the better you get at it. Be sure to ride in the arena when you ride a hand gallop without stirrups.

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Don’t Be Afraid to Show Off

As a judge, it’s nice to see people who know what they’re doing show off a little bit. It’s nice to see what abilities they do have.

Let’s say you have a line down the outside and you have a single oxer that you could possibly hand gallop to. If you do it and execute it well, that’s going to show off your riding. Then if you have to steady your horse back for a line, it shows the judges you can really adjust your horse to something more difficult.

For that reason, as a judge, I like to see simpler courses that allow riders to show off what they know. I don’t like to see courses so difficult the class turns into a “fault and out” event. I’d rather see the more talented riders win because they know how to ride than see the horse that made the least mistakes win or the one that just happened to be lucky that day.

Check out this winning jumping run from the 2012 AQHYA World Show.