Thoroughbred Logic: How to Slow Down

“…perhaps the best, but hardest thing to do: don’t panic. Take a deep breath and stay bungee but effective.” This week’s Thoroughbred Logic focuses on how to slow down… at least when it comes to horses.

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 slow things down… at least when it comes to horses.

I really wish this was an article about life. Because if I knew how to write an article about how to do that type of slowing down, that would be awesome. Alas, this is about the type of slowing down I do know how to do: the one that comes through the half-halt. I’m open to suggestions on the rest.

Much of riding – and especially riding Thoroughbreds – is counter intuitive. My favorite is this: if you pull – and keep pulling – they often will just go faster. (I talked about that a little bit in the balance article from the other day). Yes, you can often “haul them up” if necessary — slam on the brakes and put them on their ass. But that is neither fun, particularly productive nor good for their brains or bodies. I’d save those emergency brakes for situations like stopping before going over a cliff or before getting hit by a train. That’s totally appropriate in those cases. Making the horse skid to a stop as it is getting swiftly faster going down the long side of the arena? Nah, there are better ways to bring them back.

Thoroughbred speed is great if you know you have brakes. Rhodie (Western Ridge) burning up the “show gallop” at the 2021 Mega Makeover in Kentucky. Photo by CanterClix

So, how does one apply the brakes on a green Thoroughbred (or even, a schooled one)? The answer here is through a half-halt and a more open, bungee body position. This is all pretty easy to practice if the horse will walk quietly. Without pulling back, one tightens their core, stretches up taller, squeezes up through their thighs, tightens their butt together and then finally closes their fingers around the reins. One’s body is bungee but taught. Wait. One… Two… then, release (and reward them) and resume general bungee status. None of this works without the release. And a note that will come back in later — half-halts often need a two-to-three count (then release) to be effective on a green horse.

Always reward the try. Needles Highway, featured here, having halted approximately where I needed him to as he finished his first dressage test at a Big Cheese Eventing this spring. Photo by the Kivu Team.

At the walk, the application of the half-halt should have brought the horse to a halt or close. Once the walk-to-halt is perfected, then move to the working trot to the collected trot. A true collected trot is not required here, especially for green horses. Rather, a slow trot, where the horse is listening clearly to your aids and waiting to see if they should walk or keep slow trotting is great. On a controlled 20-30-meter circle, trot, then use the tightening half -halt to coil the horse onto their hind legs, get their attention and release them into the new, slower pace.

It is important to note that often you’ll have to use two half-halts. The first will get their attention. It is like that annoying buzzer at the airport before an announcement — that long beep that tells you to listen for gate changes or if you somehow screwed everything up and need to start sprinting. The second half-halt is the announcement — it gives them the information. So first half halt: “hey pay attention, I’m changing something” the second “here’s your new gait/pace/turn/balance etc.”

Louis (Unbridled Bayou) listening for half halts through his dressage test at Poplar Place Farm. Photo by Kimberwick Visuals.

A voice command of “easy” or “woah” when half-halting is always good (unless you’re in a dressage test, in which case, zip it). But here’s something to think about: When folks are in a panic…when the half halt is so needed…when that horse keeps going faster and everyone wants to pull and keep pulling (reminder, that won’t work) — words tend not to come out in soothing, even tones. “Woooooaaaaahhhhh” will sound like “WO! WO! Dammit!”

Considering most horses go by tone and volume rather than the words themselves, that staccato verbal sounds a lot like “Go! Go! Run Forrest, Run!” Consistency in the tone and volume of the verbal cues is critical — whether or not you’re racing to hell at high speed, or simply heading from a quiet trot to a walk on a good day. (Have I mentioned that horses will teach you to stay calm in a crisis?).

Party tricks like this are only possible when they horse is listening to your aids. Good boy, Q. Photo by Kelly Robison.

So, if you have mastered the trot-to-walk on the circle through the half-halts (without pulling), time to try it on the straight away. This increase in difficulty is shown in dressage as you move from down transitions on the circle or in corners in the Intro levels to those placed on the long sides as one progresses through the Training Level tests. On the circle, the horse must balance on their outside hind leg to keep from falling out of balance. The half-halt also asks them to sit through their hind, so the whole process is a little bit easier, more coherent. On the straight-away, the horse is more-or-less evenly on your aids, and it is far easier for them to pull forward onto their forehand, where they can lean and speed up.

OK, so let’s say you have mastered the circle and the straight away at the walk and the trot. The horse is listening to your half-halt, they rock onto their hind end efficiently, and you have gotten good at releasing. Now the canter. This is the real test to see if the humans and horses have gotten the concept. When horses are doing this fantastic little canter around, a set of half-halts often just sits them into an equally quality trot. That is reassuring and shows that there are brakes, attention and balance. Rock on.

Wolf (Louisiana Moon) balancing in his canter down the long side, at the last Thoroughbred Logic Clinic. Photo by Cora Williamson.

But when a horse — especially a Thoroughbred — blows through that quality canter, when they really get going, that little half-halt that used to work isn’t going to anymore. And that headed-for-the-horizon-and-gonna-get-there-fast canter is where some people panic and all sorts of not helpful things happen. Here’s a short list of those not-so-helpful things:

  • Panicking
  • Yelling Woah (or any number of obscenities)
  • Pulling one rein to put them into a tight turn and almost knocking them over
  • Locking up one’s arms (aka bracing)
  • Pulling down
  • Holding with no release
  • Thinking one is half halting but only really tugging for a one count (which just amounts to rhythmic yanking on the face, which they probably find annoying, but can ignore)
  • Gripping with one’s knees and leaning forward
  • Burying one’s hands in one’s crotch as one pitches over the pommel in the attempt to go fetal
  • Or the telling sign that one will likely come off the horse – lifting one’s hands above the waist in an effort to pull back.

We all have been there at one point or another. And it sucks. But the reality is, the horse has probably just continued to gain speed as we fumbled through these seemingly logical options until we either came off, they ran out of gas (rare for a Thoroughbred) or we figured something out and managed to enact a slow down.

When you know you have brakes at speed, all the fast things get to be a lot more fun. Forrest-the-freight-train (Don’t Noc It) featured here having a blast galloping through the water at Big Cheese Eventing’s Halloween show last year. Photo by the Kivu Team.

As a horse gains speed, they need two things to slow down: balance and clear communication. Balance comes by getting them onto their outside hind – so the recommendation is to put a horse on a BIG sweeping circle, that way we’re not having to balance and rebalance the canter… er… run, through corners and straight aways. A small circle can cause them to lose balance, so make it big and easy. If you’re on cross country, guess what? You have all the space around, so take your time, and start big and slowly make the circle smaller and the horse slower.

Simultaneously, stretching tall helps communicate the desire for a slow down. I’ll pull my shoulders back and open up through my upper body while also dropping my tail bone under me and rock into a more upright position. The tail bone rolls your hips and pelvis into a position that inspires balance and weight on the hind end, not speed. From there, I can stay bungee and half-halt effectively.  This video gives a pretty decent depiction of the half-halt with an opening body position (nothing is perfect here, but it is all a work in progress…):

Think about it like this: as jockeys ask horses for more speed, they are crouched in perfect balance over their back and withers. They get lower and have good rein pressure. When they slow at the end of the race, they lift up from that position, open up in their hips and get taller and more bungee. It is of course counterintuitive when a horse is hustling away from you, but stretching tall and remembering to give the multiple two-to-three count half-halts on a big sweeping turn will help get control. Also, and perhaps the best, but hardest thing to do: don’t panic. Take a deep breath and stay bungee but effective.

One of my favorite racehorses, Twoko Bay featured here with Lindeny Wade in the irons. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Thoroughbred Association.

Zoe’s Delight and Twoko Bay slowing down after crossing the wire in the Wally’s Choice Stakes race. Note how both jockeys have opened up their position to signal the slow down. Photo by the Minnesota Thoroughbred Association.

While slowing down should be one of the easiest things to do – turns out that with Thoroughbreds (and in my case, life) it can be pretty tricky. At least on the horse side of things, I can guarantee you that it is possible. The life side, well, that is to be seen. What is that annoyingly accurate meme?… “Running a farm is like saying ‘things will slow down next week’ for the rest of your life.”

So go ride folks, avoid the pull and enjoy the magic of the half-halt.