When I first talked to the psychic about Ashke the first thing he told me is that he is fast and sees himself as a race horse. I guess it should come as no surprise, that Ashke loves the Speed phase of Working Equitation. I think it gives him the chance to race against the clock, make tight turns and demonstrate how well he knows the obstacles. He totally gets it and things are moving so fast that I can't micromanage him during that phase. Although I am sometimes worried I will get bounced from the saddle, the better I get at riding in general, the better I will get at speed.
Because we approach the Speed round with enthusiasm and actual speed, we have kind of gained a reputation in the WE community here. This week I was asked by a trainer, who vaguely knows me, to teach a clinic with her, focused on the Speed phase. I considered it (because my ego got stroked), but I won't do anything that might jeopardize my amateur status, and so turned down the offer. It was a nice compliment, however, and got me thinking that offering suggestions for how to make the speed round better might make a great blog post.
Although, I might regret it at some point in my future.
My last disclaimer is to never practice the speed round. You can practice other things that will make the speed round better, but never practice speed.
So here are my suggestions for improving your speed round:
#1 - Install a solid stop on your horse. Make it a sliding stop, even. Cue it with both your seat and your voice. Practice it, because as your horse stops faster, you are going to have to be ready. This particular skill will help with so many obstacles: the gate, the corridor, switch a cup, allowing you to hand gallop into the obstacle and stop without exiting the obstacle (or crashing the gate). In my speed round at Expo, Ashke stopping when I started yelling whoa, was the only reason we didn't lose more time at the bridge. I was off balance and my reins were too long, plus I had an eleven foot long stick in my hand. The whoa is the only thing that kept us alive.
#2 - Teach voice commands. There is no rule against using your voice in the Speed round and I talk to Ashke all the time. He knows whoa, back, stand and settle. The back is for the reinback obstacles. The stand is at the gate or switch a cup. The settle is when we have handgalloped to the sidepass poles and he needs to calm enough that we can work the poles without to much enthusiasm. One of the big challenges of the Speed is the frantic haste coupled with the precise execution of some of the obstacles. Tarrin demoed the Speed round at one of our clinics at Expo and she uses the command "here" to indicate to her horse when it is to turn. I will incorporate that as well in my next speed phase. And I say "good boy" to encourage Ashke to be brave and fast.
#3 - Teach a rollback. I do this by using a neck rein and kissing sound to encourage Ashke to jump into the gallop. The neck rein, because your horse will be more willing to lift his front end and swing around then if you were using a direct rein, and because I spend at least part of my run holding on with the other hand. I usually combine this with my slide stop when I am practicing it, which I only do a couple of times a year, because it really gets Ashke hyped up. By the time we've done four or five, he is sliding to a stop, spinning into my weighted leg and flinging himself forward into a run, which is what I want but not really very dressagey.
#4 - Figure out the shortest distance between the obstacles. The speed round is not the time for fancy circles and nice transitions. It is the time for direct lines and cut corners. There is still the need to plan the obstacles, like the direction you are going to turn for the livestock pen to set yourself up for the next obstacle, but mostly its about straight lines. Figuring out the line you will ride for Speed is as personal and as important as the line a show jumper picks for the jump off round.
#5 - Try to grab the ring. It will lower your time by ten seconds. However, if grabbing the ring will take longer than ten seconds, then it makes no sense to waste the time. At Expo, I decided to trot from the livestock pen to the bull, grab the ring and then gallop. In part, I made that decision because the distance was too short to leap directly into the gallop and still be sure to make the turn at the edge of the bull (following the shortest distance is a straight line maxim). I trotted it, grabbed the ring and then cantered off.
#6 - Don't drop the pole or bounce it out of the barrel. I always slow Ashke for the drop off, letting the pole slide smoothly into the barrel and not bounce off the bottom. It would cost me a couple of minutes of dismounting, picking up the pole, remounting and depositing the pole. In comparison a couple of seconds to make sure I don't fuck it up is worth it.
#7 - Don't worry about leads. Ashke will change leads at the drop of a hat in the Speed round. He also neck reins very well during that round. Part of that, is that he loves that phase and part of it is that I am finally out of his way.
#8 - Work on neck reining. You are going to eventually have to neck rein anyway, you might as well work on it now. I use neck reining a lot and Ashke understands what it means. Last September, when I rode the Speed round in our last show, we came over the jump and I lost both stirrups. Our next obstacle was at a ninety degree angle to our direction and I laid the rein over Ashke's neck while we were still in the air. He turned sharply in that direction as soon as we landed, which is why I ride with an "oh shit" strap on the front of my saddle.
#9 - I move the reins to my left hand when approaching an obstacle that I need to use a hand for (gate, bell, cup). This keeps me from accidently reaching up with the wrong hand to touch the obstacle. That is the number one reason why people DQ in both the Speed and the EOH phases. If my reins are in my non-dominate hand when I approach, I am much less likely to switch the reins and reach up with the wrong hand.
#10 - Don't be afraid to go fast. Once you have the stop installed and you know your horse is going to stop, you can make up time in between the obstacles by asking for a hand gallop. Even if you have to trot the double slalom or drums, you can gallop between them. This is where having a short coupled, quick horse can make a huge difference.
One of my biggest issues with the Speed round is that I giggle the entire way through it. It is so much fun. It is three minutes of riding by instinct and trust, with no thought of anything but finishing the round without a DQ. Ashke is the perfect partner and meets me more than half way.
However, it isn't as easy for me as it might seem. Usually by the time I'm at obstacle seven or eight I am completely gassed, gasping for breath and about to pass out from lack of oxygen. I actually had my vision dim in the show last September (hot and dusty make it worse) and we had to slow to a trot until I could get enough air to finish the course. I've been blaming my age, but come to find out, I have exercise induced asthma. Well, I might have asthma all of the time, but it reaches critic status when I am running the Speed round. It is something that I am addressing physically, and using an inhaler before racing the course seemed to help at Expo.
So, I hope this gives you some things to work on. And remember - DONT PRACTICE THE SPEED ROUND. It will make your EOH phase so much more out of control if you do.