Thoroughbred Logic: Use Your Core

“The combination of core and confidence make a positive-reinforcing cycle that lead to greater strength, and for lack of a better synonym, greater confidence. Together they allow a rider to sit up, add the necessary leg, take a deep breath and release while staying centered over the horse.”

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 the importance of using your core when you ride.

This past weekend, I had the fantastic opportunity to teach a Thoroughbred Logic Clinic in the Fingerlakes Region of New York. The horses were beautifully conditioned and the riders were all talented and appropriately matched with their mounts (yay!). It was a packed day, but that’s the great part. One of the things I love about doing these clinics is the ability to watch trends develop through the back-to-back-to-back-to-back rides and to really have a chance to think through and experiment with how to address them.

At this particular clinic one of a few common themes was for riders to sit up and go to one’s core to lift and balance. While students had the chance to try this out during their rides, I also had the fun opportunity to hop on a really good demo case. Lincoln (Auto Be The Man, owned by Sarah Hepler) has been doing fantastic (damn, this is a nice horse!), but has also been getting a little quick and heavy in recent lessons. The solution was to ride upright, stretch tall, add lots of supportive, forward leg and yet stay soft on the reins. By managing the ride almost exclusively from my leg up to my core, Lincoln had to hold himself up and go forward without pulling down. When he figured it out, he stepped his hind end under him, lifted his shoulder and became forward (not fast). Damn it was lovely.

Lincoln (Auto Be the Man) working on listening to my core in New York this past weekend. Photo by Sarah Hepler.

Lincoln, though, is not alone in this trend of really benefiting from a forward-going, core-contained ride. In fact, I’d argue this is a pretty common need among Thoroughbreds.

On the track, Thoroughbreds learn that a leaned forward jockey and tight reins means “faster;” they literally run forward into that pressure. Consequently, off the track, drawing back on one’s reins (and holding) very rarely succeeds in effectively settling the green OTTB. Instead, usually that produces one of two things: 1) a downhill going horse often trying to travel at undesirable rates of speed while the rider struggles to slow them with their arms. Or 2) a horse who lifts their head away from the pressure, hollowing their back and doing their best impression of an annoyed giraffe.

Forrest wanting to freight train against contact but remaining somewhat core-contained. Photo by Team Kivu.

Forrest (Don’t Noc It) is ever the great example here. He has turned into a semi kick ride over the years (yes, see here). But once he is in his big, slow, rocking horse canter, if you pull him into the down transition to trot, he will run on his forehand, avoiding his hind end. A hand-first transition leaves Forrest freight training himself around the arena in a poor-rendition of an extended trot, eventually breaking back into an unbalanced canter. The only way to stop him is to balance him up over his hind end by sitting up, adding leg, tightening one’s core and effecting a half halt that finishes — not originates — in the hand.

Rocking Rhodie (Western Ridge) back on cross country requires a soft hand and a half halt that runs from leg-to-seat-to-core-to-elbows. Photo by Cora Williamson.

I joke regularly that everything about riding a Thoroughbred is counter intuitive. In this case: If you want to slow down or to balance them uphill, best to make your reins very secondary and go instead to the rest of your body. Sitting up tall with your shoulders above your hips, dropping your tail bone under you, and raising one’s hands slightly above the neck and using an adaptation of leg-to-(light)seat-to-CORE-to-hand (closed fingers on the reins and then release) will rock them back up and slow them down. In other words, an elastic elbow and giving hand helps, but you need the core to really stay upright and be able to tighten and to encourage them to lift and slow.

This is particularly tough because a rider needs to be able to avoid bracing to do any of this. Bracing against a quick horse avoids the use of (most of) one’s core and will only make horses quicker. And we as humans are good — very good — at bracing. We can do it with our shoulders, our hips, our knees, our ankles, and even our jaw. Bracing in one location stiffens all — literally all — of the other joints in a body and shuts down the horse’s ability to stay elastic.

An image that actually captures the effort of trying to use my core instead of my hands to balance Wolf (Louisiana Moon) in his down transition from canter to trot at Poplar Place Farms. Photo by Cora Williamson.

Better yet, when riders go to their hands or arms and not their leg-to-core, the smart, smart Thoroughbred tends to go, “Ok, great, thank you for holding up my head and shoulder all by your puny 1/10th of my weight self.” And they drop their head and neck into your hands. The result is a heavy, hard to balance/maneuver horse, who, like Forrest, is running on their forehand. The impacts of this downhill-ish-ness while they rely on the human to hold them up include: lower quality gaits, pulling (or dragging down), use of speed for balance, poor transitions, and rushed fences.

Madigan Cat dropping the weight of his head into my hands and requiring leg, core, and an elevated hand to help lift him back onto his hind end. Photo by Cora Williamson.

That said, it is really hard to not brace or pull without a strong core and ample confidence. The combination of core and confidence make a positive-reinforcing cycle that lead to greater strength, and for lack of a better synonym, greater confidence. Together they allow a rider to sit up, add the necessary leg, take a deep breath and release while staying centered over the horse.

But the circle is exactly that — a circle: one needs a strong core and confidence to use their core and gain more confidence. So for riders who feel their core lacking and who maybe only get on a few days a week — or even once a week — what is the solution?

Here at Kivu, Ranger (Cowboy Night) has become a stellar horse to gain experience and strength (by leasing or lessons) for riders looking to improve on their own horse. Photo by the Kivu Team.

On one hand, the best thing to do is to spend the time in the saddle trying to perfect the position that is strong, balanced, and keeps you properly upright. Find a quiet horse to practice on, get strong, then ride the green OTTB. When that’s not possible… I hear good things about Yoga and Pilates. I also know that the rowing machine uses a lot of the same muscles. None of this is an easy, simple fix. But the stronger a rider, the more bungee and confident they can be.

Go ride folks, here’s hoping your core gets a solid workout.