Thoroughbred Logic: Steadier Hands

“Sometimes the antidote to an unsteady head and contact is not just a softer hand, but a steadier one. There are horses … who will let you know anytime you f*-up on your contact. These horses do not just encourage you to become a better rider, they demand it.”

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 the importance of a steady hand while riding.

So, I have this mare… She is ridiculously attractive (I mean come on, her breeders/owners knew this from an early age — her name is Tiz So Fine (we call her Rikki)). She is ridiculously talented — uphill mover, soft lofting canter, ground covering trot. She is also demanding of ridiculously quiet and steady hands. Any bobble and she’ll act like she just entered the Mosh Pit at a good 1990’s metal concert and head bang her way into the next state.

Rikki (Tiz So Fine) showing off one of her many good sides. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

Generally, when horses have an issue with slinging their heads under saddle, we go through a couple of “tick the box questions:”

Have their teeth been recently floated? (In Rikki’s case yes, last month)

What bit is in their mouth? Does it fit? Is there a better, softer option? (She’s in a good fitting, soft soft Herm Springer Duo, and seems to like it other than the head banging).

Have they tried other bridle/caveson/noseband combos? (We’re working through these, but she seems to appreciate the Micklem)

And of course, since contact comes from back to front, I have to ask about the soundness and strength of their hind end. (She’s super sound behind, displays zero back pain, and is in a good fitting saddle, but like most former racehorses, Rikki needs a bit more sport horse muscle to be able to carry herself over her back comfortably)

Getting past the head slinging, one extremely elastic ride at a time. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

Ultimately, as we go through those questions with any horse, I end up telling whoever is riding to do their best to ignore all the drama occurring in front of them. Yep, just ride them from their hind end forward and completely ignore their antics. Easier said than done, of course, when the horse has gone rogue with the 1/4 of their body that you can see. That said, the ability to “ignore” the front and ride the hind end up is a seriously useful skill.

But with Rikki, the ignoring aspect is challenging at best. Because despite how little I think my hands are doing, every time she head bangs, I try to give with my elbow, but she’s faster and inevitably pulls against my hand — no matter how soft I am trying to be. The regaining of position with my hand is enough to set her off again — any movement on the reins reads as a pull, not a reset. And the mosh pit cycle continues.

Rikki mid-head-bang with me trying to keep my hands steady and I’m sure still moving more than she desires. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

So I tried super soft contact and ignoring her (that will work for some horses). She was thrilled to headbang my hands out of position for most of the ride. I tried giving her more rein (also a good option for many). All that did was allow her to run through me and require bigger corrections for speed. Nope. Not productive. I tried more steady contact and trying really really hard to keep my elbows bungee (this is a heck of a useful skill if you can master it…). This got somewhere, but I was still not quite responsively elastic enough to nix the background metal music.

Finally, a light went off and realized that it wasn’t that my hands needed to be softer… she was demanding that they be steadier. Like a lot steadier. The next ride, I got on, bridged my reins for stability and at the walk, pushed both hands into her crest at the wither. Any head bop from the mare met extremely elastic elbows, but knuckled pressed into her own neck. My hands didn’t come out of position and therefore never had to regain position. She rooted a few more times, tossed her nose at the sky for a second, then as I added leg, she softened over her back, resignedly blew her nose, and came round.

Same outfit, different week… Rikki figuring out that steady allows her to be soft. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

The best part? She stayed there. Quietly. Quiet with her head and quiet with her body. While she got regular breaks to stretch and relax, any time she tried to undo the now-steady contact, I would be able to add leg, gently bop her side with my calf, or use my voice to drive her on. Corrections for the front end were finally able to come from the hind.

Now, I ride who knows how many Thoroughbreds a day? I should be fit. One 20-30 minute ride on Rikki with my knuckles pressed into her neck would have my forearms and shoulders/back screaming. I had to laugh. By stabilizing my hands, I was forced to be even more bungee and elastic through my arms (while keeping enough pressure to keep my knuckles on the neck). All of those micro compensations for her movement are what I should be doing normally, but man did this experiment tell me how far I had to go to have not just soft, but super steady hands on a reactive greenie.

Western Ridge is another of my horses who classically demands steady, soft contact, even when patting him at the end of his training round. Good Dragon. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography.

And while Rikki is swiftly improving and I’m looking forward to the forthcoming rides where my hands can regain the elevated yet super steady position, there is a really important take-away here: Sometimes the antidote to an unsteady head and contact is not just a softer hand, but a steadier one. There are horses like Rikki and Rhodie (Western Ridge) who will let you know anytime you f-up on your contact. These horses do not just encourage you to become a better rider, they demand it.

But for many with perhaps less reactive horses, they’ll be looking at a horse who might invert, run through the bit, melt down, or lose the quality of their gaits — especially around transitions. And one of the best ways to test if a steadier hand is what is needed is to do the following: attain soft contact, press your knuckles into the neck and then without moving your upper body or arms, request the transition again keeping elbows elastic. It is amazing how much difference that a steadier hand can make, even just in the quality of the gait.

Horses like CJ’s Empire have all sorts of fancy-ness to offer, but require a heck of a soft, steady hand to get there. Photo by Alanah GIltmier.

At Thoroughbred School (check out this initiative here) the other day, I fitted everyone with neck straps and or asked them to grab mane with both hands and stay as upright as they could through their transitions. When a rider’s hands were steadier, the benefits were clear: a horse’s transitions were cleaner; the gaits they transitioned into were higher quality and more uphill; the riders stayed quiet in the saddle and were able to avoid falling off balance. Even better, when one young Thoroughbred had a slightly explosive up transition, the rider’s hands did not respond (as they never got pulled off the neck strap and out of position). The gelding took a big breath and after two quick strides, settled back to a quiet three beat gait.

Natalie Johns riding Aspenfiveoneseven, mastered the up transition with no change of hand position a few weeks ago at Thoroughbred School. Photo by Amanda Woomer.

Moral of this morning’s story: Working towards having a steadier hand is always worth it. Pressing one’s knuckles gently into the neck and staying elastic can definitely help. Yes, one needs to ride the horse from the hind end forward. There’s plenty of fantastic reasons that we repeat “leg to seat to hand” and all those fun adages. But when the last piece — the hand — is not quite steady enough, even the best ride-from-behind starts to come unglued.

So go ride folks. Here’s hoping for elastic elbows and a good forearm burn.