Thoroughbred Logic: Strategic Capitulation Welcome

“… it is always better to catch the unsteady gait before it fails… But when the horse breaks gait and drops into the lower one, the rider has already missed their moment. At that point resistance is futile … and capitulation becomes a friend.”

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 to capitulate (and how).

A generic definition of “Capitulation” marks the term at “ceasing to resist.” A lot of what we do with horses in the saddle is about amounts of resistance: resistance through your core, your leg, your elbows… resistance to equine assisted gravity checks, you get the drift.

As I dove into last week (article about not capitulating here), there are a plenty of moments during which not changing anything becomes resistance. With unrequested up transitions (when the horse takes over and decides “we trot/canter now,” breaking the former gait) riders often immediately go with it. They capitulate to the new motion. Yet, to maintain a gait, and keep the horse from independently choosing an up transition, not capitulating and retaining the same swing with your hips, post, or general physical cadence is a brilliant fix.

Hudson (Primetime Spy) has outrageously nice gaits, but he still needs leg and support to maintain his cadence and not head up or down into the next gear. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

However, the flip side — unrequested down transitions — is a totally different story. This is a pretty recognizable situation: A horse and rider are sweetly cantering along, the horse starts to drop behind the leg and suddenly breaks into a running trot. At this point, the rider has a choice: settle the gait and try to canter again in a moment or suddenly resist and kick the pony back to canter from that fast trot.

Getting (and maintaining) quality gaits with Rhodie (Western Ridge) in dressage without “dragoning” and scooting up into trot or canter has been an ongoing process. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography.

While the Shetland might need a kid to remind them that “YOU KEEP CANTERING!” and drive them right back along, the green Thoroughbred usually does not. At that point, they need balance, quiet rider requests and quality gaits. Here’s what happens: if the rider kicks and leans and throws the now-trotting Thoroughbred back into the canter, the horse also leans, rushes, and with unsteady balance goes faster to steady themselves. The rider is then often surprised/worried and commonly resorts to pulling. This is pretty no bueno across the board.

On the horse’s end, I imagine they’re like, “What the f&#% human? Kick me forward, then yank me back, what the hell do you want?” And a confused Thoroughbred does what most do, just with a bit more speed and sass. They get frustrated, worried, or anxious, and either get the hell out of dodge, or start to not want to work with the rider, start to suck back, kick out and find behaviors that are not ideal to not have to deal with the confusion.

Curry (Curlin Lane) is a pretty simple, forward going ride if the priority is on the quality of the gate, quiet rider resistance, and strategic capitulation. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

Basically, the horse who has lost their canter and found a running trot needs to be settled into a quiet working trot. They need to be asked to resume balance and proper cadence. So, while riders get to transfer the running momentum into pushing, over-their-back spring and balance, they may have capitulated to the horse’s change of plans, but it is a productive capitulation. I’ll take it.

“You want to trot? OK, make it the best trot possible. Great. Now back to canter.”

Prada (On The Move) has been successfully learning to use her hind end and has gotten markedly better at maintaining not only her gait and rhythm. Photo by Alanah Giltmier

Once the trot is balanced and high quality, the canter the horse returns to will be more balanced and have more hind-end push. This all means that the horse is less likely to be behind the leg, and less likely to startle a rider with speed and create a situation where pulling is involved. And hell, if you think about jumping, the priority is always the quality of the canter to the fence. So if one throws a horse back into the canter, the act of resistance sacrifices the quality of the gait. And with that, one is likely to sacrifice the next jump… or three.

Hudson (Primetime Spy) has one of the roundest jumps around, but it is even better if he approaches the fence with a quality trot or canter. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

In other words, it is always better to catch the unsteady gait before it fails. Better to feel a horse start to drop behind the leg and add a kick and a “nope” and carry on. But when the horse breaks gait and drops into the lower one, the rider has already missed their moment. At that point resistance is futile (well… counterproductive) and capitulation becomes a friend.

So the rule(s) of thumb here:

Undesired up transition? Resist with one’s body and don’t capitulate to the new gait.

Undesired down transition? Stop resisting, settle the gait, and provide a quality up transition back to where you were.

Do. Not. Pull.

Forrest (Don’t Noc It) is the king of duping riders into running him back into the canter. But this also makes him fantastic for training them how to sit up and balance his trot to create the better canter. Photo by the Kivu Team.

It seems really simple, but these few rules of resistance make it possible to ride even the most goofy of baby Thoroughbreds without creating additional drama. And of course, as with everything, horses like consistency and predictability. (Oddly, it has taken me 39 years to realize that I also value the same thing — go figure). So the more one practices the “rules” of capitulation or non-capitulation, the “easier” the Thoroughbred becomes (well… at least they’ll be more balanced and steady).

So go ride, folks. Enjoy the moments of harmony as much as those of comical resistance.