“In contrast, when one slows one’s body down, the slow translates from the rider to the horse; steady, soft and balanced in the tack encourages quiet and responsive below the saddle.”
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 offers her logic on staying quiet in the saddle.
As far as I’m concerned (and a lot of other people, too) every rider should have a trainer or coach. Besides providing realistic input on my horses and my ambitions, I regularly get reminders (thanks, Werner) about a few persistent problems, namely: getting ahead of the horse over fences and, in general, doing too much too fast.
It is probably no surprise not only that these are common rider issues, but also that I end up saying similar things to my students.
“Slow your body to slow the horse.”
“Stay back/sit up and stay still.”
“Literally hop in your half seat and don’t move”
All of these slow/still tactics are super helpful on fast-thinking, fast-reacting, fast-footed Thoroughbreds (or any horse who tends to amp up, or experience anxiety or the need for speed). To be fair, speed comes from a lot of places: a lack of balance, a desire to avoid the hind end, general exuberance, and a response to the rider, among others. But, the more a human moves in the saddle, the more the horse must shift to compensate and the more likely they are to rush, scramble, change their form or get choppy and hollow.
To be irritatingly clear, this means that every time a rider adjust the reins, pitches or alters their position, shifts in the stirrups, pinches with their knees, shifts their pelvic angle, move one’s hands or upper body, etc., the horse responds. As a result, a vicious cycle is possible: movement, response, correction (aka movement) response… and so on, potentially into a fussy or hollow gait or just added anxiety.
In contrast, when one slows one’s body down, the slow translates from the rider to the horse; steady, soft and balanced in the tack encourages quiet and responsive below the saddle. Another way to think about it is this:
Riding with too much movement is loud – for the horse it is a bit like trying to hear a conversation in a noisy room. If you’re anything like me in those busy, loud situations, you know how hard it is to focus and how easy it is to feel overwhelmed. When a rider keeps their body quiet and still, it is like the horse is able to put on noise canceling headphones and tune in to just the sounds that are desired. By reducing the “noise” by staying still, the movements you do make are the ones the horse is able to feel and pay attention to.
The first time I realized that I moved too much was in a clinic with Beth Stelzeleni a few years back. I was riding Calpullec, a little pocket rocket through a set of bounce grids, and Beth was trying to get me to sit back (still a challenge) and stay still over the fences. AKA Do not jump for the horse. I think she asked me finally to just “do less” instead of “doing all the things.” So, I did. I took my leg off and let him canter to the grid unassisted and unsupported. The talented pony slammed on the brakes inside the bounce and only my sheer luck of balance and his neck saved me from face-planting into the next vertical.
So… when I say, “don’t move,” I do not mean, “don’t ride.” I think that is exactly what Beth told me then, too. Keep leg on, stay bungee, keep quiet contact, but don’t go doing all the things quickly – just stay still. Give the concept – the ask – time to translate. And the more anxious or hot the horse, the longer you have to wait it out. Take your time, slow it all down, and give them time to cut through the static and hear what you are asking.
This might sound a bit woohoo too, but it is about trust. Staying still, means staying consistent. And consistency breeds confidence and trust. I’ll take that simplicity.
I rode a young mare (Egyptian Sage owned by Johnnie Bowers) this past weekend at the Thoroughbred Logic Clinic (next one April 2nd!) and she didn’t know me from Adam. She had the tendency to be quite forward and a bit hollow. So, when I got on and felt how inwardly anxious she was, I picked a circle and a trot rhythm and I just stayed consistent and as still as possible. Sure, I still posted around the circle, but I set my hands in light contact with more support in my outside rein, and I gently set my inside leg to encourage her into the outside hand.
Once I got situated, I didn’t change. We trotted that circle in the same rhythm and balance quite a bit before she realized that the ask had not shifted. She could both “hear” me and trust that I wasn’t going to suddenly change what I wanted. Little by little the hollow and short stepping anxiety dissipated into a lovely round trot.
Just. Don’t. Move.
This works equally as well over fences. Again – back to my issues of trying to jump for the horse – when I do that, I tip them onto their forehand and encourage anticipation and rushing before the fence and speed to rebalance on the backside. But, if I don’t move, if I keep my leg on, if I hold my shoulders back and look up, they can get to the fence, find their takeoff, lift, land and canter off in balance. If I don’t move, and therefore I don’t get in the way, they get more confident and ridable. The more confident and ridable they get, the easier it is to stay still and out of the way. For once, it is a cycle that is not vicious, but positively self-reinforcing.
Importantly, for much of this, the half-seat (even at the trot) is your best friend. If you approach a pole or fence in the half seat (grab mane if you need to) and try not to change position, you give your horse an excellent chance to figure out their feet and field the fence confidently. And the best part here – if they mess it up – if they trip over the rails or put a leg back down, they did that. Bring them back around, do the same thing, in the same stillness, and watch them learn without being micromanaged. It won’t take long before they get it right and trust that you’re balanced, supportive and with them for the ride.
So moral of this long story is this: when in doubt on a hot, anxious or rushing horse (or just in general), slow your body down, and try to stay bungee and supportive but still. Aim for clarity over noise and less as opposed to more. But take it from the person who struggles to write less than 1000 words on any topic… less is hard. Stillness is hard. But once you hone the simplicity, the results are surprisingly lovely.