Thoroughbred Logic: So You Don’t Want To Go Fast…

This week’s Thoroughbred Logic discusses what you can do to keep these smart, sensitive and capable horses balanced, consistent, relaxed and maybe just a little slower.

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 offers her logic on keeping Thoroughbreds consistent, balanced, and maybe a little less fast.

“I first rode a Thoroughbred when I was a kid… I had ridden kick rides and naughty horses and lesson horses, but the sheer power the Thoroughbred had was thrilling.” I honestly cannot remember who recounted that to me recently (three people have said similar things in the last two weeks), but the comment set me up to think through this whole Thoroughbred and power thing… And frankly, I’m pretty sure, when I first sat on a Thoroughbred as a nine-year old (after years of riding ponies), I felt the exact same way.

Bold Sailor, my first Thoroughbred, featured here in his younger days with my childhood riding instructor, Terry Schrieber. Photo courtesy of Terry Schrieber.

So, yes. And yes again. These horses are powerful – they have a forward drive that many other breeds simply don’t have. And they want to work. I joke with Shane, my partner and professional hunting guide, that his working dogs – German Shorthair Pointers – are the Thoroughbred equivalent. They are wickedly bright, capable, occasionally stubborn, but mostly they want attention, and they want to work. Left without a job and to their own devices, God help your house and everything in it.

Shane Drake helps three of his German Shorthair Pointers disembark the dog boxes and head out to do one of the jobs they love – hunt quail. Photo by author.

But like working dogs, the Thoroughbred needs to go and do and being switched on means that while that drive and power might be thrilling, it also might not be for everyone, everyday. To state the obvious, Thoroughbreds are bred for quick-responding, long-running speed; to get around the track well, they need not only a fast responding body, but also a brain that can keep up. In a second career, they demand a rider who not only appreciates that, but knows both how to tune it up or down as necessary.

I know that if I leave that paragraph there, I’ll get comments about kick ride Thoroughbreds and how not all of them are fast and wild. So, yes. Yes, of course there are kick ride Thoroughbreds. No, not all of them remain as sensitive, bright, and forward their whole life. Hell, I have ridden ones where it takes a bunch of leg to canter, but once there you feel like you are riding into war — all big, ground covering strides and bravery. There are others where you ask for a walk from the halt, and you’re halfway around the ring at a gallop before you manage to collect your reins (thankfully, we can fix that). Even when addressing the green-beans who just came off the track, there is a wide range of speed, impulsion, and need to go forward.

Vanderboom Ridge canters around in dressage warmup at the Retired Racehorse Project’s 2021 MegaMakeover. Boomer was a very successful racehorse who can cover impressive ground when opened up. Photo by Alexa Wegner.

Regardless of whether they are more ‘go than woah’ or more ‘woah than go,’ an important part of riding Thoroughbreds is getting them to use that inherently thrilling power for good, and not for evil – or you know, for accidentally terrifying or generally intimidating their rider. So here’s the thing – if you want to go slower, there are actions to avoid and the concepts to cling to.

Here are three of my go-to recommendations about rider position and getting the Thoroughbred to stay slow:

Don’t pull (equally, don’t balance off the reins)

This is really, really, really annoyingly easy to say – it is of course, far harder to do. One often can successfully be soft while the horse is slow, but if they get quick – maybe on a canter transition, or around a turn, after a jump, or heading back towards the gate, Do. Not. Pull. Like literally do everything in your power to resist using your reins other than as an accompaniment to a half halt. It is natural that we want to control with our hands and arms, but for former racehorses, pulling or balancing off the reins simply means go faster. And they will do so…quickly. It is also a vicious cycle — the more a rider pulls, the more the horse inverts and goes faster, causing the rider to pull more.

Instead, use your core

Well, first… don’t panic. Me saying that is surely not helpful, but it is a place to start. Then, instead of your hands, use your core. Pushing your hands forward in what Practical Horseman refers to as a “shopping cart” feel (still having contact but not pulling back), tighten and engage your stomach and back muscles to manage their speed. At the trot, core control of speed means that you are able to slow your post despite the tempo of the horse. This means sitting gently through the foam of the saddle and feeling your seat bones sink in. This means being able to tighten your core and pause at the top of your post before coming back down. In the canter it means dropping your tail bone, flattening your back, and riding slightly behind the horse’s rhythm so to ask them to come back to you (and then have the patience to let them do so). It is hard. It takes significant strength and training. But, this method usually yields far better results on a sensitive, powerful ride than rushing to your hands.

Crafty Charger rides through Cross Country at Poplar Place Farm last year, requiring a soft feel of his mouth and core control. Photo by Chris Peterman.

Don’t: Pitch

Like pulling, pitching forward towards fetal position is not just common, but instinctual (and the two things — pitching and pulling — usually go together). Pitching protects our organs. Hell, it is evolutionarily designed. Unfortunately, it is also is the most likely position to not only make a horse go faster, but also cause a rider come rolling off. Leaning forward tips and narrows one’s center of gravity, moving it from a wide balance at your hips to precariously set just over the front of your pelvis. This makes riders vulnerable to side-to-side movement, rooting and bucking, and to changes in tempo as horses blast around (and thus usually contributes to more use of the hands for attempted speed control). Definitely note though, tipping and two-point are not the same thing.

Still one of my favorite pics of a very athletic, El Scorcho. Sitting up was always key on this pretty, ridiculously talented mare. Photo by Alexa Wegner.

Instead, Sit Up

A rider gains strength and balance when they sit up and put their hips under them. Heel, hip, shoulder. This is why folks say to focus on good equitation when shit hits the proverbial fan. Good equitation puts you ninety degrees to the dirt, grounds your seat bones down into the saddle like a plug into an electrical socket, and sets you up to be able to not only ride out any turbulence, but feel it coming and pick up your reins (and their head) and let them know that bolting, bucking, propping, or porpoising isn’t how this ride is going to go. More importantly, the more upright and soft a rider is, the less the idea of “go fast” will cross the sensitive horse’s mind. Perhaps it can be thought about this way: upright (even in two point) and soft gives the fast horse the confidence it needs to try to go slow.

Cheese Whiz is a sensitive ride, and the best means of containing him comes through soft hands, core engagement, and staying upright. Photo by Cora Williamson.

Don’t Lock

Locking in my terminology means bracing through a joint or portion of your body that shifts the shape and movement of how you ride. This one is tough, though, as most people aren’t always aware of where they are locking. Moreover, a quiet, patient, well-schooled friend might simply flick an ear at you and ignore the immobile joint– a Thoroughbred, especially a green one, may well use it as a sign to go faster. In their brain, that bracing puts pressure on them where there should be softness and flexibility, and that means “go.” Everytime “go.” So until you can figure out if it’s the ankle or the hip, or hell, behind the knee bracing, or not being soft with your shoulders, elbows, wrists, or simply your hands turned into fists, your mount will likely invert and get to hustling along.

Instead, focus on being bungee

A trainer can help assess where the bracing occurs and provide metaphors and training tips to help a rider stay bungee in that joint (and all the others). Otherwise, when you ride a sensitive horse, I find it helpful to run down the checklist: where is my tongue (yep- it starts there, and needs to be off the roof of your mouth), my jaw, shoulders, elbows, wrists, fingers, lower back, hips, knees, ankles… and so on. Being bungee, or making yourself into strong but supple rubber band is super helpful for giving these sensitive horses confidence to go forward and use their bodies correctly.

I first heard the term “tensile strength” in relation to gymnastics, where men and women have to not just be capable, but be graceful, elastic, and so strong that they can do the hard, athletic things while making it look effortless and fluid.  That said, tensile strength actually refers to how much force a material can take before it snaps. Considering the term’s emphasis on the flexibility and bending before that happens, it seems like such a concept applies quite well to riding too.

Boomer (Badabing Badaboom) tackles the boat at Chatt Hills. The key to riding this talented former racer is to use one’s body to provide confidence while encouraging softness and flow. Photo by Cora Williamson.

Overall though, there are a lot of ways to stay quiet and enjoy the ride without unnecessary excitement. I could have written about inside leg to outside rein, about ensuring their balance, or about learning to be OK with just a little bit too quick. I’m sure I’ll get to all of that in other articles. That said, the most counter intuitive part of riding these horses effectively is that you have to meet their power and speed with strength that relies on softness, confidence, and self control. It is neither easy nor for the faint of heart. But if one can figure it out, the amazing thrill of the Thoroughbred gets to become real.