Thoroughbred Logic: To Capitulate… Or Not

“The process of not capitulating to equine-suggested up transitions is outstandingly awkward but it pays off in the long run.[…] When a rider negotiates (as opposed to accepts) the horse’s request (‘we canter now, right?) with their body, their hands can stay soft and the horse learns to listen to the seat and leg. They also begin to learn that gaits are dynamic…”

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 when not to capitulate (and how).

I talk to my horses when riding … a lot. Yes, yes, I know to keep my mouth shut (or at least act like a ventriloquist) when I head into the dressage arena. But if you listen while I ride around at home and filter out all of the “good boy/girl” chatter, what you get is a fair amount of, “Ok Ok, fair enough” or “Nope, not what we’re doing.”

Riding green Thoroughbreds is pretty much a constant flow of physical (and verbal) negotiations. It is about accepting (or capitulating to) some of what they offer and redirecting the other stuff. And because nothing is simple, it is about trying to do all of that fluidly and with clear communication. On good rides, those “conversations” are pleasant and easy. On complicated rides, they vacillate between the comical, “nope, not quite the right answer there, sir” and the “oh hell no” sides of things.

Tackle (Kampeska) being a super good boy who understood the assignment for his fifth ride post track. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

Knowing when to accept their actions / decisions and when and how to redirect (or in the case of dangerous behavior – correct) is often a matter of feel. That said, there are a few trends that are helpful for teaching it. All of these come in around the idea of breaking gait / rhythm and maintaining balance.

One of the first things most riders try to establish is rhythm. Bend and collection and all that jazz come later. So at the point where a green horse is learning to march at the walk or go forward at the trot there are inevitably going to be points where they break gait. A walk will become a jig or a slow trot. A forward, in-front-of-the-leg trot will break into the canter. Since riding forward is rarely a bad thing, these “errors” are bound to happen and become stellar teaching moments.

CJ (CJ’s Empire) learning to march at the walk. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

When a rider puts their leg on and asks for more swing at the walk, the horse takes a guess: “So you want me to trot…?” Or at the trot, the rider asks for more than a short-strided putter, “You must mean canter. Alrighty, off and away.” When this happens and the rider isn’t ready for it, a common error occurs: Riders often go to their reins at the same time as their bodies capitulate to the new gait. When I say the rider “capitulates,” I mean that as the horse trots off, the rider begins to post. Or should the horse canter when not asked, the rider stops posting and either sits or hops in an accommodating half seat. That creates a clash: they accepted with their bodies, but denied the gait change with their hand. A green horse will commonly then channel their inner giraffe and run back into an unbalanced trot.

I’m here to make this process a whole lot more awkward. Because here’s the thing: A rider can avoid using their hands if their body continues to insist that in fact, they did not ask for a change of gait. So, if the green horse canters off under me without being asked, I just awkwardly keep posting through their canter. This takes an annoying amount of core control, but it is so awkward that it doesn’t take long before the critter realizes that in fact you never asked for three beats, as you are still clearly operating in two. And they will bring themselves back to the trot, usually without hollowing.

Rikki (Tiz So Fine) is a super green bean who is learning that leg does not always mean up transition. That said, this canter was intentional. Photo by Kelly Robison.

It is funny how fast they figure it out, especially when there’s no pulling involved. They might break gait and canter off fifteen strides the first time while you try to maintain the post. The next time, maybe seven strides. Then three. Then if they don’t feel your body capitulate to the transition, they don’t leave the trot. “Oh maybe you just wanted more a forward trot” …huh…

Crypto (Cryptorithm) being his super photogenic self and maintaining a quality, forward trot. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

It is a similar process at the walk. If I want a walk and my horse trots off under me (ahem, Rhodie), I just keep sitting and swinging my hips like I’m walking. My hands don’t move. They might take ten mince-y trot steps but they’ll be back in the walk in no time and I won’t have had to pull. This keeps the dragon happy, and we don’t have to fix our balance or carriage once he’s back in the land of four beats.

Rhodie (Western Ridge) holding it together at the trot at Poplar Place Farm a couple months back. No, there is no walk photo because while we try to maintain a quiet rhythm and roundness, at the walk the Dragon much prefers his ideas to mine. Photo by Cora Williamson.

The process of not capitulating to equine-suggested up transitions is outstandingly awkward but it pays off in the long run. In short, when a rider negotiates (as opposed to accepts) the horse’s request (“we canter now, right?”) with their body, their hands can stay soft and the horse learns to listen to the seat and leg. They also begin to learn that gaits are dynamic. When the leg is on and the hand stays steady and soft through the elbow, the horse keeps constant connection. That then avoids the classic inverting giraffe move and gives the horse a chance to remain over their back while they try to figure out what this non-jockey-like human actually wants.

Added benefits: Non-capitulation by channeling the awkward posting (or sitting) instead of going to the hand helps build confidence. It sets a horse up to not only stay in front of your leg and connected through your reins, but it also keeps them wanting to try. And that desire to try and trust makes them brave enough to take a guess knowing that if they don’t get it right, they will get gently educated, not reprimanded.

Prada (On The Move) is quickly learning that forward is good. Consequently, her willingness and bravery are increasing with each ride. Photo by Kelly Robison.

On the flip side, when do you capitulate? More on that next week (Spoiler alert: it is when they fall out of gait from the canter to trot or trot to walk).

In the meantime, embrace the awkward and avoid the hand. Go riding folks, enjoy the sun and the heat while it is here (because I know that I’ll sure be missing these 90-degree days when it is raining and 55).