“…if you can get your horse balanced . . . they can collect, they can turn, and they can do all of those things as slow or as quickly as you’d like without the necessity of using speed to balance themselves.”
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 how to get a horse balanced without using speed as a crutch.
If you have ever been around while I have been coaching, there is a good chance that you have seen me do one of my favorite ridiculous demos. I square my shoulders and bend my knees, creating a bungee form of balance or what I call a “boxer stance” — no I have never boxed, but I’m pretty sure you can’t throw a good right hook without engaging your core and keeping good footing. Then I walk in a small circle. I can walk fast, I can walk slow, and I can make the circle as big or as tiny as I’d like. Ain’t no thing.
At this point you’re probably like, uh-huh, get on with it.
But then I lean. The only way I can even remain in a walk is to do a big enough circle that the lean carries me around it softly. Any smaller and I must, by necessity, go faster. Smaller? Faster. Tiny? I’m sprinting in micro steps trying to use the laws of physics to keep me upright.
While using my body to demonstrate how the horse functions only works as an approximation, I still like this demo. The premise of course is that if you can get your horse balanced — aka pushing from their outside hind leg and engaging their core — they can collect, they can turn, and they can do all of those things as slow or as quickly as you’d like without the necessity of using speed to balance themselves. And then of course, when you want faster and are balanced, it comes in an uphill manner that is still adjustable and safe.
But if the horse is leaning, throwing their weight and momentum through their inside front leg, balance-via-strength has largely gone out the window. Instead, they have balance-via-speed, and this is where things get dicey.
With Thoroughbreds right off the track, this notion of ‘how to balance’ becomes an important step in training — especially when the canter comes into play. Many of these successful runners pull through their front end, covering ground in impressive fashion. Sure, their jockeys strive to keep them in balance and get their lead changes on the turns, but with the wide sweeping geometry of the track, speed will carry them around it.
Staying upright is a horse’s default goal. If a rider alters their balance, most (especially Thoroughbreds) will use the most efficient method to maintain their legs under them, speed. In smaller arenas, and especially in disciplines founded on circles, the notion of strength-as-balance must be taught before some of the more rudimentary things — like quality turns and going slow correctly — can be achieved.
In that way, when I canter an OTTB for the first time, I set them up off a turn heading into a straight away. This gives them time to get the gait and me time to work to balance them “up” a bit before I have to turn. Even if I go into the turn on the forehand and begin to add speed and shorter strides, I’ll use the proverbial key to life — inside leg to outside rein — to keep them balanced. And then I relax, rebalance on the straight away and work again to move them into my outside rein on the turns. As they go, they get slower and more even. Awesome.
But the dangerous thing is that for many, that speed and the “pulling down” that comes with it, comes with a level of sheer terror. It feels unbalanced and out of control. It is usually neither of those things… until someone pulls on an inside rein and aims to make a tighter turn to slow them down. Big loopy circles help get control, sure, but tight turns, or any real grabbing of the inside rein creates a situation that is harder to watch. The horse who has calculated their turns and the speed necessary, is pulled tighter, requiring more speed to stay upright.
Contrary to the rider’s desire, this turning does not slow them down… though it might cause them to break into a sprinting trot, emergency slam on the brakes or feel their legs start to go out from under them. Better to find a big, sloping turn, where one does not have to change the balance between ‘turn’ and ‘straight’ and half halt effectively into the outside rein to slow down.
Similarly, when making a turn to a jump — or starting a circle off the rail in dressage — any pulling through the inside rein for the turn will send the average horse onto their forehand and alter their speed, length of stride and overall balance. Consequently, the jump is almost always better and more out of stride when turned from the outside aids, which keep that outside hind leg and the horse’s core engaged. And in dressage, a circle holds better rhythm and balance when turned from the outside rein and leg, with support from the inside aids, balancing the horse “up” not “down and fast”.
This comes back to the notion that, especially with Thoroughbreds, I allow them to operate “above tempo” for the first few weeks or months of riding. Their trot is allowed to be “fast” so that they can carry over their back and gain the strength and muscles that they will need to slow down. This doesn’t mean they fly around on their forehand. Nope. It means that I use wide turns to channel how they know to stay balanced (speed) while asking them to engage the muscle structures they will need to be able to sit through their hind end, and eventually, properly frame up.
And when this happens — when the horse almost overnight goes from hollow, quick, and rangy in their gaits to quiet, round and over their back — you know that you have begun to gain strength-as-balance. From there, it is not long before the 20-meter circles are rhythmic, roll backs and tight turns are possible and jumps come out of stride.
So go hop on and kick on, just don’t grab that inside rein.