Thoroughbred Logic: Learning to Hang Out

“[T]he other day a new student came down to see the place and as we stood and chatted, the lovely human kept apologizing for interrupting the ride. Nope. This was helpful — this was a chance for him to just hang out…”

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 ride along as Aubrey discusses her logic on teaching Thoroughbreds to just hang out and be patient.

I think I was maybe nine years old when my childhood trainer did something somewhat unexpected: she called in the heavy equipment and built a second arena. Hers was a small but busy lesson barn full of young boarders and all the drama and ridiculousness that comes with that age group. I didn’t think about it then, but I’m sure part of that second arena and all the cost and effort that went into it were simply to get us and all the “hanging out” literally out of the way.

The second arena and all that fresh footing and retired main arena jumps were dedicated to the boarders. And while I have ample memories of jumping the half rotted ply-wood “stone” walls and a fence we called the “Riviera” or hopping on and schooling friends’ fresh ponies as the Connecticut Fall set in, most of my memories of that arena were of my friends and I just hanging out.

This photo is circa 1996-ish, and while I honestly have no recollection of what show ground/hunter pace start point this photo is from, it features fellow boarder and friend Bret Flower (on the paint) and me just hanging out on the buckle. Photo courtesy of Devon Poeta.

That hanging out was typical and probably pretty damn annoying. Hell, we would clog spaces. Ponies would stand on slack reins while mounted teens would talk about their newest crush, or that awful math test, or whatever it is that teens talk about and can keep talking about. And something I never realized at the time was how good our horses were at simply chilling.

Good ponies still need to learn to stand and hang out. BatÎste (Pentatonic) worked on this at Poplar this past weekend and was a good kiddo to teach off of. Photo by the Kivu Team.

In the fast paced, always-moving life of running a Thoroughbred training facility, I don’t do a lot of hanging out anymore. Hell, I pretty much never sit down unless I’m on a horse. Life runs at a stupid pace where a chat with friends will usually set me back in the day. It still happens, but now there is a time-based cost associated. And instead of organically learning to just hang out and chill like good, chatty kids’ mounts, my horses have to be taught to do this.

Standing and hanging out is a critical skill, though. When fox hunting (the few times I have been out), I have always been surprised at both the speed we hit on the move, and the number of minutes we spend on a hold — just hanging out and passing around flasks. When eventing, my horses have to stand while they wait to go into stadium, and when teaching/learning in groups on cross country, they must stand while instruction is given and before heading out to give it a shot.

Boomer (Vanderboom Ridge) surprised everyone with how well he was able to hold and just hang out at his first fox hunt (many thanks to Kelly Burns and Shakerag Hounds). Photo by author.

Now, those who know me and know my more notorious horses know that “stand and hang out” is not exactly in their vocabulary. Rhodie (Western Ridge) is probably the worst. Stand used to precipitate a complete meltdown — head tossing, running sideways, trying to throw himself to the ground. You know, the 1200-pound equine equivalent of throwing things off the shelves in the grocery store because someone couldn’t have a candy bar.

Rhodie’s (Western Ridge) preferred activity. Standing? Nope. Photo by Cora Williamson.

These days, he will stand… sort-of. It is getting better. But it is up to me to make sure I can read the room and keep him moving when necessary. Hell, cross-country at the very cool and informative GDCTA (Georgia Dressage and Combined Training) camp the other day saw four very quiet horses in our group able to hang on the buckle and listen to instruction, and then there was Rhodie and me, literally (not figuratively) cantering circles around them, incapable of getting his feet to safely stop moving. Fox hunting is probably not in his future.

So at home, especially with the more dragon-ish critters, I take the opportunities to teach the notion of hanging out. For many young horses, that means that I will teach off their back. For others it means that I will take the opportunity to have those conversations while the horse is in the arena. And for others, especially the new and quite young ones (though this should be done with all of them), it means I will put them in a halter and simply make them come hang out while I do other things — move jump poles, teach a lesson, stand at the mounting block, etc.

Monk (JC Sydster) learning to hang out while I taught a lesson back in the fall. Photo by Amanda Woomer.

Nemo (nope, he doesn’t have a JC name, but his face reminds me of a fish), proved his skill in doing exactly this as we were working on standing at the mounting block earlier this week. As we stood there with me half laid over his back, a huge storm blew in from the east. I could literally hear the trees coming down as the gusts picked up. Soon enough we were standing in high, sustained wind as the jump standards came down and the trees in the field leaned into the slope. Until the lightning showed up, that unbroke three-year-0ld just hung out and waited for whatever was next. What was next was a hurried departure from the arena before we both ended up zapped and charred.

Nemo is starting to look the part (of a riding horse) and has been super about learning to hang out. Photo by author.

Prioritizing the “hang out” can be an interesting challenge for the fast-footed Thoroughbred and the hyper vigilant rider. The other day I read something wonderful (thanks, inter-webs) about a person clinicing, who kept being told that she was not paying attention to her horse. “You have forgotten your horse,” she was told throughout her interaction with the mount. Thinking through each process and being present from the time we pull them from the paddock to literally the moment we lift the halter from their heads and watch them walk away is critical.

But I’d also argue here, producing a horse who can stand and temporarily be “forgotten” without turning into a wallowing, stomping, head tossing, pushing-into-your-space, spoiled brat is also critical. And to teach this, it is a lot of just “doing” very little with no micro-management. I use the same language I do on the ground when teaching them to stand. I ask them to “stand” and I drop the reins. If they move, I correct their mobility to immobility and I drop the reins again. “Stand.” I don’t hold them still.

Cryptorithm learning to be a good, immobile boy. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

The fast-footed Thoroughbred can learn to take that breath. That said, it has to be a choice they make. Forcibly shutting the forward and sideways doors and micromanaging them into stillness can lead to all sorts of explosive issues. But training it? That is very possible. Training a sensitive horse not to need to be the center of attention at all times is brilliant and makes for solid citizens who have the ability to take on new jobs quietly, transition careers, wait for instructions and simple hang out as needed and until they are needed.

If they can’t stand for long, I figure out the “count” they are comfortable with and then start to stretch it out. Oh, you can stand for a three count? Cool, let’s get to five and I’ll call it a day. Getting to the five count might take 20, patience-trying minutes, but it is worth it. Because once you hit a five count, you can usually hit 10 the next ride, then a minute, then really… 15 minutes, or a full 40 minute lesson.

Patience is hard, especially for the baby horses. Here, Tackle (JC Kampeska, right) learns to stand held by by Amanda Woomer and Ranger (Cowboy Night) as I dig Tackle’s tossed shoe out of the mud. Photo by author.

Hell, the other day a new student came down to see the place and as we stood and chatted, the lovely human kept apologizing for interrupting the ride. Nope. This was helpful — this was a chance for him to just hang out. The pretty red horse eventually took a breath and settled into the groove of “Ok human, I guess this is what we’re doing.” Frankly, those 10 or so minutes of just existing were probably the most important thing he did that day.

Post-show hanging out with the Kivu Team and some good horses (Gumbo (Bayou Prospector), Madigan (Madigan Cat) and Rhodie (Western Ridge) who were able to be (temporarily) not the center of attention. Photo by author.

Happy riding folks, enjoy the on-the-buckle time. Let’s just hope that in the process of training the “hang out” no one clogs up riding spaces so much that trainers get frustrated or have to build a second boarder-only arena option to literally keep that hanging out out of the way.