Thoroughbred Logic: The Slow Down

“[H]ere’s hoping the breaks that you take are those you choose — with an eye to growth and a bit of a reset before the sun comes back out and the next season sneaks up and kicks off.”

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, come along for the ride as Aubrey discusses her logic on slowing down in the off season.

It is December in Georgia. I moved here 12-years ago to escape the bone numbing cold of the North (yes, months of 90-plus-degree days are fine by me), but I don’t think I ever quite thought through the mud. Mud in the paddocks, my arena sand sloshed into mud, clay-like mud on the driveway. Winter at its worst in the South is pretty much cold rain and mud… mud bloody everywhere.

Bayou Prospector (Gumbo) makes his way to the gate through the usual Georgia winter mud. Photo by author.

So while I could spend an article creating typologies of the various types of mud (slick mud, sucking mud, crispy frozen mud…) and coloring it with my general distain, instead, I’ll focus on what the mud necessitates: a slow down.

In much of Europe and sometimes on the tracks and up north, folks proverbially end the season, pull their shoes and kick their competition horses out to pasture for the winter. In short, the horses get a break. The riders get a break. And then later, there is the restart where one has to hustle to get back in shape and then ride out the bucks and feralness built up in those couple months of downtime.

Successful racehorse, Twoko Bay (Bred by Winchester Place Farms) and his pasture mates had their shoes pulled and were kicked out to pasture in Kentucky for the winter. Photo by author in Dec. 2020.

In the South, our eventing season ‘ends’ in early December, with schooling shows and the Florida circuit picking back up in January. There is the potential to come off of a season-capping competition, do a clinic or two, and immediately start training for the next one in the early season. Shoes (literally or figuratively) are not pulled. And besides a sometimes holiday-imposed slow-down, there is always the gear up… the keep going.

The first schooling show back in GA is usually a tad chilly. Last year’s blustery opener featuring Rhodie (Western Ridge) at Chatt Hills was no exception. Photo by the Kivu Team.

But then there is the mud. And instead of hating it, this year, I’m going to try to embrace the fact that the mud mandates slower movement (and an acceptance that by the time I’m done with AM feed and turnout, I am covered from shoulder to toe in damp red clay). And that slow down might mean that the majority of the time horses only get worked on the driveway, or may get days or weeks off. I get frustrated when this happens, but in reality, it is probably a good thing. Mentally and physically, they (we) all get a bit of a break.

Gumbo (Bayou Prospector) and Snaps (Mr. KW) got to enjoy a road hack earlier this week. Photo by author.

In Thoroughbred-land, when horses come off the track, they often need ‘let-down.’ Their bodies need to shift from the tightly wired racing machines to learn to “horse” in a much less managed sense — turn out, eat grass, let their musculature shift from greyhound to golden retriever. Sometimes this process can be done while they still have a job (and for some they need it to be that way), for others, time just getting kicked out in a field is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Once they are restarted, legged up and competing again, there isn’t much to expect by way of a break, especially when you’re at this latitude and can keep riding through the mild, albeit sloppy winter weather. But these breaks are, in fact, good. They allow a reset, a softening, a perhaps month-or-two-long breath where the interactions are not geared towards anything other than ‘oh hey, how you doin’? Want to go for a groom and a hack?’

Snaps, Aspen, Gumbo and Louis get to chill out in the lake field through the winter while taking it easy under saddle. Photo by Ashley Clarkin.

I’m giving this whole “break” thing a very intentional shot with Louis (Unbridled Bayou). Louis ran in eventing and show jumpers at the Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover this year as a four year old. He was a good kid, and did absolutely everything asked of him — including the dreaded fake ditch. In the last couple months approaching the October haul to Kentucky, he ran a bunch of Beginner Novice competitions and racked up the show mileage and experience. So when that immature four year old finished his run in Lexington, I made the call and gave him the winter off to grow. Note, when I picked up Louis in January last year, he was a hare above 15.3 hands. Today, he’s a bit over 16.2 and getting broader by the day.

Louis (Unbridled Bayou) warming up at the RRP TB Makeover in Lexington this year. Photo by Lauren Schuster.

The time to grow, let down and relax is making him a bit of a terror in the field, but I can see his body settling into a better shape and his gate maturing and becoming more even. Now, knowing this kiddo, when I bring him back to work in January, he’s going to give me a run for my money with that slightly more adult body and significantly more feral, and somehow more confident, way of being in the world. But I am banking on this break being a good thing — especially at his age and slow-to-grow physical maturity.

Louis taking a snooze after a long night out in his field. Photo by author.

So while we keep slopping through the mud and assessing whether or not my arena is ridable… and while I keep healing and riding through a separated shoulder, and Needles Highway recovers from surgery for his sequester, we all kind of get a break. I’m pretty sure I’m like my horses and “need a job” or I get cranky and feral, but a little turnout and slowdown probably is a good thing. Hell, maybe it’ll mean I get my dishes done or finally unpack my apartment (after three-plus years)…

Needles Highway hanging out his his buddy, Pig, after successful surgery. Photo by author.

S0 here’s hoping the breaks that you take are those you choose — with an eye to growth and a bit of a reset before the sun comes back out and the next season sneaks up and kicks off.