Thoroughbred Logic: Riding the Nervous Horse (Part 3)

“If they are going to go, best to set them up for success and go forward with them. There’s trust to earn there. Hold them back, and you may add to the worry, anxiety and fear. At the end of the day, they simply weigh more, and they’ll go despite you.”

Welcome to the next installment of Thoroughbred Logic. In this weekly series, Anthropologist and trainer Aubrey Graham, of Kivu Sport Horses, will offer insight and training experience when it comes to working with Thoroughbreds (although much will apply to all breeds). Come along for the ride as she discusses more of her logic on riding the nervous horse.

A few years back, I was coaching a student on cross-country while sitting on a very, very green Thoroughbred (like less than five post-track rides green). Teaching and riding on XC is absolutely an art, and I certainly had not perfected it by the time this day rolled around. At that point, I often mirrored how I would teach when not in the saddle; I would plant myself and yell something like, “Sit up!” “Kick” or “Soft! Hands Forward!” while the student galloped to the next fence.

That day, this tactic was less than super successful… read: welp, that didn’t go as planned. It wasn’t just that I was shouting from his back (though I’m sure that didn’t’ help any), but that I was asking him to stay still while others galloped away from him. He rocked from foot to foot. I lightly held him in place and despite the slow-mo-jig, he seemed largely quiet and OK.

Next thing I knew he was most of the way vertical on his hind legs. We crumpled over his left hip, both hitting the ground (in a thankfully non-dramatic fashion), hopped up like nothing happened, and I kept coaching. To that, my student had no idea that there had been an unplanned gravity test.

I now mostly teach XC from the ground… Photo by Josie Scortado.

As I checked his legs, verified my tack, and climbed back on, I carried with me the most obvious of lessons: When the nerves increase, those feet need to move. Also, maybe I don’t need teach from atop the greenest of greenies.

It honestly doesn’t matter if they seem like they’re handling it: Some horses simply internalize the anxiety (as did the one I sat on that day). Internalizers will seem “mostly” fine. They will let you ride them around, ask them to stand, do all the things while appearing mostly quiet. Only their ears, pulse, and energy might tell you otherwise. But then, when the right amount of time passes (and their timer goes off) or one more stimulus increases their pulse, they will explode with what seems like very little warning.

Louis (Unbridled Bayou) displays internalizer tendencies while standing “mostly” quietly and looking at the terrifying crowd at the Retired Racehorse Project’s Masterclass at Bruce’s Field last Friday. Photo by Rhyan Banas.

The horse with externalized nerves will be edgy and “up,” or downright ridiculous off the bat. You usually are able to spot these horses from across the farm or show grounds. Forrest (Don’t Noc It) is one such critter. Inevitably, in warmups he’d leap and contort, stick his head all the way up in the air, and occasionally kick at passers-by. When trainers along the rail would advise their kids, “Just steer clear of the red one,” no one ever questioned which chestnut horse they were talking about. In some ways, externalizer horses are easier – they boldly wear their anxiety like their lather. And you know what you have under you.

And there’s this great clip from the 2018 RRP Makeover, where Forrest decided he categorically did not want his ribbon…

Whether a horse is internalizing or externalizing, a good go-to solution for anxiety is often wrapped up in the same action– go forward. Move their feet. Get their brain back by making their body work at the same speed as their nerves. That does not mean go blasting off, but it does sometimes mean that a “no standing/walking right now, go trot or canter around” might be in order.

Baby Andy (Irish Sporthorse) bucked around during one of his early rides under-saddle. The ‘move his feet’ applied here too. Photo courtesy of author.

As another example of how this works, I present the “big field” test. I have a 20-plus acre field with a serious hill that abuts my arena. The gelding herd in that field can easily reach 30-miles per hour when careening back down to the gate or water trough. After a week or so here, horses in the arena settle in and proverbially just roll their eyes at the happy, galloping fools.

For that first week of acculturation to my equine madhouse, there is very little eye rolling. Instead, the anxiety becomes near visible as the geldings top the ridge. Riders pitch forward, quickly going fetal, and the Thoroughbreds suddenly remember both their race backgrounds and Arabian heritage — tails up and ready. In such cases, my coaching is usually the same, “Put your heels down, soften and sit up, grab mane if you need to. Do not pitch forward. Get trotting where they can look at the goobers.”

Roo (Indy Rules) being a rockstar during a lesson as the boys in the field put on a show. Photo by Author.

Most riders want to turn their horses away from the chaos. The horses on the other hand, need to both move and look. Through a near-statistically-significant number of tests built over the last 2.5 years at this farm, if you trot the horse and keep them able to see the running herd, you stay on, and their feet usually remain near the ground. Lock up, turn them away and try to hold them in a halt, and they’ll either go vertical or bolt out from under you.

One can’t always predict a horse’s response, but one can use knowledge of their herd and flight/fear instincts to guess what will happen. If they are going to go, best to set them up for success and go forward with them. There’s trust to earn there. Hold them back, and you may add to the worry, anxiety and fear. At the end of the day, they simply weigh more, and they’ll go despite you.

If you do this enough — move with them when they need to move — you will set them up to increase their confidence. Over time, the anxiety will be replaced with trust. And there, you can earn the quiet stand through the chaos, and gain their check-in in exchange for their explosion.

The trust gained by going forward during an xc lesson allowed Rhodie to be comfortable in this pause. Photo by Amanda Woomer.

To this point, it is no surprise that all riders (Brit Vegas on Doppler, Jordan Pruiksma on Crypto, Sara Myers on Mountain and myself on Louis) at the Retired Racehorse Project’s Masterclass at Bruce’s Field Grand Prix Eventing Festival last week entered the arena similarly. Without being told to do so, everyone immediately asked their recently-post-track horses to get going. The settled walk and relaxed halt came only after confidence was earned through the movement of their feet. A reverse effort might have looked quite different.

Brit, Jordan, and Sarah keep their horses moving during the RRP Masterclass at Bruce’s Field last week. Photo by Rhyan Banas.

To close up, I circle back to three key tenants that help to keep the young/nervous Thoroughbreds calm: 1) a quiet, confident rider 2) clear communication 3) and moving their feet. Certainly there is a lot more that can be said on this topic – and such broad brush strokes don’t always address the nuance inherent in each horse. But for now, go ride, relax, make your asks clear, laugh at the errors, and kick on — your horse will appreciate you for it.