Thoroughbred Logic: “Under-Riding”

“I think the main idea is to step out of one’s comfort zone, hop on new horses and little by little learn to quietly ride through the potentially nerve-inducing behavior… Be effective and stay safe, but also under-ride until you know what the perfect, bespoke ‘just-enough ride’ feels like on each new horse.”

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 being able to under-ride a horse until you know what it knows and how it responds. 

To dive into the concept of “under-riding” I guess the easiest thing to do is to describe what it is not. Its analog is of course “over riding.” I’m pretty sure most folks know what that looks like — too much. Too much driving leg and seat, too much hand, too much tension from locking joints, too much forcing a frame, too much anything and everything. Over-riding is loud and uni-directional (the rider tells). It also carries expectation — in response to said tell, there is an expected answer, go, stop, round, bend etc.

Whether because one is being demanding, or because one is struggling to be strong and soft at the same time, over riding can have some big results: scoot, bolt, hollow and giraffe, buck, head bang, kick out, and eventually the attempted take over by the horse with a big ole NOPE attached.

This stunning creature (CJ’s Empire) has been a long work-in-progress of “under-riding” in order to craft quiet confidence under saddle. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

We get a lot of Thoroughbreds in here who come from places of totally unintentional over-riding, and they come with the attached issues above. Often they just need a but of a sensory detox in the saddle — light and soft and wait. That said, sometimes (as I’ll get into in another article soon) there are medical issues that are influencing their flavor of “no” and that’s a bit of a different game. Despite being far from perfect at it, the idea of under-riding has helped not only nix many behavioral problems, but also allow me to get on most horses confidently and assess as we go until I learn what their “just-enough ride” feels like.

Tamie Smith explaining how to try to ride even quieter on Rhodie (Western Ridge) during her clinic at Go With It Farm last month. Photo by Amanda Tozzi.

I have written articles in the past about doing less in the saddle, like “Steadier Hands” and “Do Not Move.” I am also pretty sure most things that show up in this series ask folks to take a breath and be soft and patient. OK fine — there is a trend. This concept of “under-riding” is another way to look at those things and think through how we make progress towards our desired result in the saddle, especially on sensitive, green Thoroughbreds.

So here’s a stab at what “under-riding” means: It is a way of being on a horse (especially on one that is new to you) that allows the horse to let you know how much aid they need and how much they know. That said, the intention isn’t that you become an overly empathetic sack of potatoes. Rather, under-riding is incremental and patient and more of a conversation than a directive. Set them up gently to use their hind end and be straight, and then ask, ask a little more, ask a little more than that, and then stay there, don’t move/do less and wait to see how they respond. If they don’t respond enough, sure add a little more pressure until you get them going where everyone is happy. (This is the same concept if you’re trying to leg them up into a quality trot or slow down a sprinting canter.)

Prada (On The Move) is a classic case where under-riding has allowed her to gain confidence and shine. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography

Trial rides (where folks come and take sales horses for a spin) are places where I often see either over-riding (eeeek) or really successful under-riding (yay). Trial rides come with the concept of ‘testing’ — riders want to make sure their mount not only is compatible, sound and fun to ride, but also the rider is testing to see if the horse has the experience and potential they’re hoping for. Great trial rides come with patient riders who feel out the horse before asking or demanding transitions or bends and roundness. Ask, ask a little more, ask a little more. OK, cool, we can do that. Can you do more? No…? Too much? Ok, let’s toggle it back. Frustrating trial rides see riders spin horses up into a tizzy, yank, pull, blast off, haul up. Well f*&$.

Recent trial rides on this guy (Uno – Hold Em Paul) have gone great, as riders have been quiet and patient. THANK YOU! Photo by Cora Williamson Photography.

I actually started Thoroughbred School at the farm to try to provide confidence to folks when riding new-to-them Thoroughbreds. As a direct result of  watching these often-nerve-ridden trial rides, it was clear there was an experience gap concerning green, often young off-trackers. The Thoroughbred School, which provides lessons and rides on an array of all shapes, sizes, and experience levels of TBs, aims to address that gap, while also trying to understand the riding challenges faced by professionals and non-professionals alike (when on this type of horse). So… we also do monthly round-tables.

Theory time in the ring at Thoroughbred School. Photo by Amanda Woomer.

The first round-table focused on exactly this topic: “under-riding.” Student and experienced dressage rider, Emily, noted, “Its strange. It is like you get on and the horse seems green — like 30-days restart green — but then you just keep adding leg and staying quiet and wait, and suddenly they’re correctly in your hand and you realize these are broke, like super broke horses.” Staying light and soft allows them to figure out the rider, trust that they can and want to do the job and then allow them to perform quietly. Cool. (It’s not always that easy, but it is nifty when it works).

The first Roundtable discussion for Thoroughbred School addressed “under-riding” and brought about some fun findings. Photo by Amanda Woomer.

The interesting thing about that discussion is that while it started around the idea of “under-riding” even when nervous, it finished around the idea of “emergency brakes.” At first I thought we had taken a bit of a conversational left turn. But in thinking about it, we hadn’t at all. Turns out, a rider can only confidently under-ride if they trust their skills to brake, turn, sit through shenanigans and ride out all the ruckus that might arise. This is similar to my common statement about riding new-to-me horses or sitting quietly through equine pandemonium, “I don’t have to trust them, I just have to trust my seat.”

I’m not saying that one needs to be a bronc-rider extraordinaire to confidently ride a green Thoroughbred. But both having and trusting one’s emergency skills bestows confidence. And that confidence can give space to let the horse respond to one’s aids, not just demand and over-ride. In other words, quiet is confident. And confidence comes from knowing that all those emergency skills are securely tucked in one’s back pocket.

Hudson (Prime Time Spy) is a ridiculously fun, totally talented powerhouse of a horse who nonetheless requires being ridden quietly and confidently. Clearly, I’m not having any fun at all… nope (can I keep him please?). Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

So this then poses the question: how do we as professionals teach this — these emergency skills? How as riders do adults gain these capacities? If one wasn’t blessed with a demonic bucking pony as a fearless child, how do we get adults to learn to trust their seat and stay light through the shenanigans? These are questions for which I’m still working on answers. But I think the main idea is to step out of one’s comfort zone, hop on new horses and little by little learn to quietly ride through the potentially nerve-inducing behavior… one new horse, one head flip, one minor kick out, one little bolt at a time. And each time, go back to soft and go back to quiet. Be effective and stay safe, but also under-ride until you know what the perfect, bespoke “just-enough ride” feels like on each new horse.

Go riding, folks. Enjoy the heat, borrow a friend’s pony (or Thoroughbred) and give under-riding a shot.