Thoroughbred Logic: The Burrito Metaphor

“The silly thing about this metaphor is that it tends to work. It is super useful for getting folks to feel the win in the middle and be less discouraged as things don’t always continue an upward trajectory towards the end.”

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 how riding is like a burrito.

While teaching Thoroughbred School the other day, one of my students started laughing at the ridiculous metaphors I use. There are a lot of them and they change regularly as I try to get them to quiet their hands, find a forward feel or swing their hips in the canter. That moment kicked off this idea: delve into the occasional metaphor here. So here’s the first one: The burrito metaphor.

Anyone who really knows me knows that I like Mexican food — particularly queso. Queso, however is not helpful for this particular article; burritos are. Burritos are great — a mix of all the things you want rolled up in an edible wrapper. My thing with Burritos though is that there is inevitably a “best bite” — that perfect mix of all the fillings. And usually, it comes somewhere near the middle to the last third of the tortilla-filled delight. The end is often just pretty OK — a bunch of excess tortilla and some leaking salsa.

Long, stressful day? No problem, grab the dogs and go get Mexican. Note that the queso is, predictably, gone. Photo by author.

What the hell does this have to do with horses? Hang tight.

When riding, we’re doing 87 things (187? 1187? who knows?) at once. We have to focus, feel, adjust, manage our aids independently and balance the horse under us (to say the least). The ride is a mix of all the things. It often starts a little “unexciting” — there’s a walk warm-up and some trot and canter to get them going. Then there is the hard work of training without drilling. There’s the working on transitions, the balance in the turns, and if jumping, the ride to and from each fence. To say the least, riding is a lot.

And it is a lot all at once — kinda like a burrito.

Curry (Curlin Lane) happily plunking around in a nice rhythmic canter in the middle of his ride. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

Because here’s the thing: somewhere in that ride, you’re going to have the best bite: that one jump where you do literally everything to the best of your ability and it all comes together at once. You have the perfect distance, the bascule, the timing, and none of your problem areas (jumping ahead, snapping open too soon, not releasing, etc.) even register. Or maybe it is the best transition, where you managed to get your horse on their hind-end, ask them to lift their core and stay soft in your hands. Maybe with that greenie, it was just that one 20-meter circle that was actually round and where their shoulders kept from falling in.

Whatever it is, you know it when you have it. So does your trainer. And it is awesome.

Rikki (Tiz So Fine) having what felt like the best jump of the course on fence six. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography.

Sometimes, you can call it a hell of a win and end your ride right there. Pat your horse and proverbially cut the burrito in half and toss the other half in the fridge for breakfast. Often-times though, we’re not ready to be done when we get it right. There is still more riding to do, more jumps in a course, more strength to build and other exercises to engage. So we keep going.

And sometimes, this is where the ride becomes a burrito. There is that perfect middle bite and maybe a few super good ones surrounding it, but as we get tired, our horses get tired, or we’re just pushing the exercise too far, the ride starts to get maybe ever-so-slightly less awesome. And that is OK, but this is where the metaphor gets useful.

Curry really started to lift his shoulder and engage behind about 15 minutes into the ride. He couldn’t hold it for too long (yet) but he is getting stronger with each ride. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

Instead of watching students get upset that it was “going so well” and now is “falling apart” (or is simply just not as good as that one fence) — instead of watching them push harder and ask for more so that we can end feeling fully accomplished, I ask students (and myself) to pause when it gets good and recognize that that moment might be the win for that ride. If it stays good or gets better from there, that’s all just extra awesome. But the expectation is that the best bite is not the dry tortilla and drippy salsa that may arise if one stretches the ride all the way to the end.

And with green Thoroughbreds, this becomes super handy. See, sometimes those successful moments are fleeting. We have to recognize them when they happen and savor the progress while testing to see if it will stick around. Yay, you got a bend! Fantastic! A steady rhythm! Can you keep that the whole way around? Can you reach into contact and stay as steady when we change direction? Can you trot the poles just like that two more times? Sometimes, sure, they can! What an awesome burrito!

Not much about this photo is textbook correct, but during Tetris’ (Not a Game) first post track ride, this is the moment he gave his shoulder and didn’t drop it to the inside on the turn away from the gate. Good kid! Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

Sometimes, you just have to accept (and praise the hell out of) that one moment of amazing in the ride, and allow the rest to be OK. Because the great thing about these wicked smart horses is that the next day you swing a leg over, they’re going to remember some of what they learned and keep trying to get it right.

The silly thing about this metaphor is that it tends to work. It is super useful for getting folks to feel the win in the middle and be less discouraged as things don’t always continue an upward trajectory towards the end. I mean hell, you never feel like you run your best mile in the race when it is the last one, and you rarely are going to jump your most forward, out of stride, big-bad-bold, best cross country fence just before the finish flags. So accept the bobbles and the fatigue and always keep riding for more best (or at least good) bites through the session, but know that they are often hidden in the middle.

And when you get that potential best bite, praise the hell out of it. Photo of Rikki at her first show at Big Cheese Eventing by Cora Williamson Photography.

Hop on folks, manage the 87 things and enjoy the progress, however momentary.