Thoroughbred Logic: Embrace the Chaos (But Have Boundaries)

“I think these often-comical personalities exist in each of these horses, but there actually is a recipe to allowing it to flourish: Embrace the chaos but have clear boundaries.”

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 allowing horses to develop their personalities while still setting clear boundaries. 

Two weeks ago at Poplar Place Farms, one of my favorite people (who I really only get to see at shows) was playing with my new-ish dog, Littles. If you have met Littles, what happened next will come as no surprise: She wiggled and wagged so hard that her body wobbled; she sat down and then melted into the dog version of a puddle. Aly laughed, “She’s such a hot mess — she fits in perfectly.”

That comment stuck with me — in a good way. Ostensibly, Littles is Walker’s (my German Shepherd) dog. This past autumn saw lots of tough changes including a breakup that needed to happen, but which most importantly meant that my 10-year-old Shepherd lost his best friend — a young, goofy German Shorthaired Pointer. So when I was ready, we both (Walker and I) headed to the shelter and came home with Littles, a pure Atlanta Mutt. This creature is ridiculous — loves every human and canine she meets, has a concerning lack of fear of horses and is certain the world was structured so that she can soak up all the attention out there. Walker loves her but is still wondering when she is going to go home. I’m plain thrilled.

Walker and Littles at the Big Cheese Eventing Jumper show a month ago. Photo by Amanda Woomer.

One fun thing about having my new canine hot-mess is that I have gotten to watch her experience at the barn parallel that of the new Thoroughbreds. She came in quiet, shut-down, but as sweet as the day is long. Truck sounds would send her scurrying for the back corner of the living room, and any attempt to tie or leash her was met with frantic attempts to chew her way out. Now, she’s pure comical chaos and has the run of the property.

Wolf (Louisiana Moon) got a Littles escort up the road on his second ride post-track. Photo by author.

The ponies often show up from the track in similar ways — confused at their new life, anxious, internalizing, though often quite professional. Give them a few weeks of the general chaos and incidental “make ’em weird” campaigns here, and the goofy, hot-mess express comes to the surface. Yes, I think these often-comical personalities exist in each of these horses, but there actually is a recipe to allowing it to flourish: Embrace the chaos, but have clear boundaries.

It is a rare day here when I will say, “Hold up, slow down, please don’t spook the horse,” or “Let’s wait until the pig has left the area before trying to walk by.” Sure, I do have some self preservation, so if I’m riding and the new horse is literally one stimulus from a complete and total meltdown… OK OK, maybe I yell at Littles so she doesn’t run down the hill to the arena gate, or maybe I just hop off and do ground work for a few minutes until the horse takes a breath and settles. But otherwise, bring on the chaos.

Sometimes, if I’m being a smart human, I build tolerance to the chaos from the ground up. Featured here: CJ’s Empire figuring it all out. Photo by author.

In this way, I am lucky. This big, 16-stall barn is busy. We’re not a boarding facility, so it is not the usual kids and parents and things… but there’s trucks and tarps,  tractors and pigs, and people building things, fixing things, dragging blankets around and generally making a ruckus. During the day, the paddocks that surround the ring are occupied. I laugh at the antics, and end up filming between green-horse ears while one turned out goober grabs a stick and chases his buddy, or others decide to test their hind leg balance next to the arena.

There’s no avoiding that what happens in the paddocks has the potential to impact the ride. Instead of bringing the paddock boys in, I aim to train the one I’m on to not care under saddle. Photo by Author.

So when the wind is gusting into the 30-miles an hour range, and storms are rolling in, or we just went from 80 degrees to 37 (thanks, Georgia spring), I still get on. The ride might not go as planned. We might not work through the higher grid while jumps are blowing over and a jacket has turned into a flag on the jump standard. But we ride, and I do my best to laugh through the antics and keep kicking on. (If you’re here, you’d hear a lot of crazy laughing coupled with “no bucking, go forward!”).

Wolf and Louis (with Alanah Giltmier in the irons) taking on the wind and rain last week. Good greenies. Photo by author.

While I often give the chaos of this barn the credit for making quiet, non-reactive horses, if I’m honest it is more this equation: chaos + boundaries = sane horses. There are a few solid ground rules around here — no pulling, no walking through me, no rearing, biting, kicking, and no being patently annoying (I hate repetitive noises, so pawing, flipping the crossties around, banging feed pans, etc. are not tolerated). The ground rules are the same day in and out so there’s no confusion as to what might be permitted today. The same applies in the saddle — antics are fine so long as they have forward momentum. Rearing, running backwards, or broncing are not permitted.

Sure, that wind was cold, a little porpoising down the long side is totally fine — but go forward.

Yep, the boys are running again, you can look, but also trot by. No balling up and rearing, go forward.

Madigan, you are getting excited — cool, a small bolt or scoot is fine, but no pounding the ground and broncing. Go forward.

Still my favorite photo of how this barn operates. Good girl, Lottie (Hatch Gate). Q (Quality Step) and Monk (Sydster), you two are ridiculous. Photo by Kelly Robison.

And once the equine goobers know the rules, there’s so much more that can be done and so much more comical fun that can be had. I don’t expect perfection, and I don’t expect the same attitude or energy on the other end of my lead rope every day. But I do expect to not get pulled or have a shoulder dropped into me, regardless of whether or not the pig is trying to heft his weight into a run down the driveway or the shavings truck is making a ruckus while unloading. And if something is regularly causing fear or concern, then let’s head that on (incrementally). Let’s walk by it, lunge next to it, get a little closer each day without inspiring panic.

And then regardless of all the daytime madness, I’ll grab a drink and hang out by their stall windows as we wrap up. I let them enjoy the attention, snuffle my collar, steal my hat, gum my hand, learn that play and biting are different things.

No, Louis (Unbridled Bayou) and I are not drinking from the bottle, but I was excited to score the Woodford bottle for the 50th anniversary of Secretariat’s derby win. Photo by author.

And so it has been the same with Littles: Learn the rules of the barn (no chasing the cats, no running away, get out of the way of the horses — we’re still working n that one — come when you’re called, no going in the arena when I’m riding) and then embrace the chaos. Consequently, I have a happy hot mess of a dog who knows that they can run, greet, wiggle, and sleep in the hay because the ground rules don’t change. Now, is it perfect? No. Did she get in trouble for cat chasing just yesterday? Absolutely. But there was no confusion on her part about why. And she’ll be as free to make (hopefully better) decisions about cat chasing today as she was yesterday.

Littles and Pops (Old Man Mac) during his conformation photos taken just after arriving from the track. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

Turns out, the combination of happy chaos and boundaries doesn’t make automatons. Rather, it inspires goofy individuals, happy to fly their quirky flags, make mostly good decisions, and able to embrace their hot-mess ridiculousness. I, personally, wouldn’t have it any other way.

Kick on folks and enjoy the chaos.