Thoroughbred Logic, Presented by OTTB United: Hanging Out

“… when I ask a horse to hang out, I don’t need anything from them but their company and their manners.”

Welcome to the next installment of Thoroughbred Logic. In this weekly series, Anthropologist and trainer Aubrey Graham, of Kivu Sport Horses, offers insight and training experience when it comes to working with Thoroughbreds (although much will apply to all breeds). This week ride along as Aubrey discusses her logic on teaching Thoroughbreds to just hang out.

One of the main struggles with being a trainer is time. Time, or rather the utter lack of it, patently sucks. I’d love to bend it, twist it into a pretzel and somehow wring out a few more daylight hours. But with the demands of equine care, training rides, and lessons, let alone the other job, the rest of life, and trying to be a somewhat normal human, there simply never is enough time. And one consequence of that whole not-enough-hours-in-a-day thing is the risk that my horses — especially the ones not yet going regularly under saddle — get shuffled to the bottom of the list… and to tomorrow.

But, like pretty much everything in the barn, there is a hack for that. When I teach, I may sit on one and do light flat work. But more often than not, I’ll toss a halter on one of the toddlers and pull them down to the arena with me. They get to learn to ‘hang out.’ I get to teach. We accomplish two goals (and two hours of “work”) for the cost of one.

Back when Aspenfiveoneseven showed up here, he was pretty feral. Hanging out during lessons allowed him to settle in and learn to be a wee bit more civilized. Photo by author.

Hanging out generally consists of me spending the allotted lesson time not only teaching, but also casually messing with the new horse — showing them the various jumps in the arena, walking them over poles, teaching them to jog with me and halt when I stop, and otherwise just encouraging them to be friendly, playful and weird. Mostly though, I’m doing other things and largely not asking much from the horse on the end of my line.

Q (Quality Step) nervously checks out the little mounting block during a hang out session a few weeks back. Photo by author.

Thoroughbreds are usually friendly, curious and happy to seek human attention. That said, when they come off the track or sometimes when they come here from quiet barns, they are a bit more reserved — still professional, but in a shell. It takes time and some effort to help them transform into the happy weirdos they all can be.

Socializing in a “less-structured” environment is one way to help do this. It gives them time to relax into the interaction, teaches them that they can let down their guard and trust a bit more, and bond without having to fulfill specific requirements. For clarity’s sake, by “less-structured” I mean that they are not on the cross-ties to be groomed, or tacked and ready to ride, or purposely walking from stall to field and back. Equally, this is different from grazing or hand walking, where the interaction is centered around their desires and needs. Rather, when I ask a horse to hang out, I don’t need anything from them but their company and their manners.

Doing some of this hanging out from the mounting block also makes the whole ‘you’re taller than me and therefore scary and dominant’ reaction less of an issue. Photo by Audrey Mecklenburg.

Clear boundaries and few ground rules are essential — no pawing, no biting, no getting on top of me or too deep into my space, no pulling back or running off. They just have to chill. And this, for some Thoroughbreds, takes a second. Once they get good at it though, the benefit sticks around for other activities. And as they behave while I teach, hanging out may progress to me hopping on them bareback for part of the lesson or tossing the rope over their back and expecting them to respectively stand or follow me while I fix jumps. Basically, this is an easy step in getting these 1200 lb critters to act like big, well-behaved dogs.

Monk chills behind me while I teach. He has largely figured out the ground rules for the game. Photo by author.

Monk (Sydster) and Q (Quality Step) have been getting plenty of hang out time in the past few weeks. Both horses arrived here with a quite professional but hardened “track-ish” look to them. Yes, they both are race fit, that’s fine. But their eye and their demeanor showed them to sit in the “I have one job, peasant, and this isn’t it” category. Spending time with them and getting them to loosen up and relax around people — and learn that not every second on a leadrope is requiring something specific from them — has been helpful. After a couple weeks of lazy effort, both are now more laid back and easy going. Sure, this has more to it than just the hour here or there spent in the arena “not doing,” but it certainly helps peel away some of the layers.

Hanging out has absolutely helped Monk (Sydster) relax and learn to let his wierdo side show. Photo by Amanda Woomer.

A couple other things to note:

This whole hanging out thing can happen in other situations beyond just ‘while one teaches.’ I ask them to also do this while waiting at a show, clinic or schooling session, or while I grab a beer and finally get to sit down at the end of an event. This happens when I’m early to arrive to a lesson and need to kill time with the horse while I clean tack or am in the middle of a conversation with students and friends. In other words, hanging out doesn’t need the situation of a lesson to happen, it just needs to happen.

Louis (Unbridled Bayou) is the master of hanging out (whether at home or at a show) and being weird with the people he likes — in this case Amanda Woomer. Photo by author.

And then there’s the flip side: just like the hanging out needs to happen, it also needs to finish. I joke regularly that when a horse starts acting up after being patient for a bit, that their “quarter has run out.” Generally getting to this point is totally fine — and then getting a positive action or moment of patience from them after they have decided they are done is also good. But then put them up. Let them go back to their stall or their field. Give their brains and bodies a break.

It might be tempting to hang out with them, then tack them up and ride, and then go hang out again… rinse and repeat. But, especially for a young horse, or an OTTB who is accustomed to the highly structured environment of the track where there are clear moments where they are “on” or “off,” this whole notion of hanging out might end up counter productive if it is set in combination with too many other asks. That said, when done in appropriate amounts, the patience, play and trust created is totally worth the time put in. So hang out, hop on, and enjoy the ride (just maybe don’t do all of that back-to-back right away).

And with that, I leave you with a cute shot of Monk casually learning to jump while hanging out during a lesson.

Good, Monk. Image by Amanda Woomer.

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