Thoroughbred Logic: Why “Tiring Them Out” Doesn’t Work

“These horses are bred to have ‘go’ and to have the heart to be able to reach into the deepest depths of their beings and pull out even more ‘go’ when the rest has been exhausted. And even then they are able to dig deeper and pull out even more than that.”

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 why tiring out Thoroughbreds just doesn’t work. 

Over the years, I have found one major important difference between Thoroughbreds and other breeds (yes, yes, yes, there are ample exceptions). For the most part, Thoroughbreds do not “gas out.” These horses are bred to have “go” and to have the heart to be able to reach into the deepest depths of their beings and pull out even more “go” when the rest has been exhausted. And even then they are able to dig deeper and pull out even more than that.

Own the positive side, this is part of why the Thoroughbred is my preferred ride on cross-country. They are safe, fast, brave and have enough heart to keep trying big even when tired. If I ever make it to a 5* track, believe me, I want it to be on Thoroughbred.

Hudson (Primetime Spy) gamely jumping around XC at Poplar Place Farm this past weekend. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography.

On the flip side, a rider is not going to have much luck trying to “run them down” or to exhaust them into submission. I think about this anytime I see someone trying to lunge a Thoroughbred into a state of tired that seems “more ridable.” You know what I’m talking about — the horse flying around on the lunge head in the air… and still being lunged after their nose is on the ground 30 minutes later. Then that same “tired” horse goes in warmup, takes a big recuperating breath and resumes official horse-kite status. Simply put, being tired does not exclude forward for the Thoroughbred.

So sure, one can make a Thoroughbred tired. The less fit they are, the easier it is, of course. But that does not mean that they are going to act like the sweet draft at my barn and amble to the center and want to halt and hang out and be done. Rather, as they get tired and keep going, they just get harder to balance. It becomes more difficult for them to do the proper core-based half-halt, and they might be more likely to lean forward and drag down. Many pull through their shoulders at the track; when a second-career Thoroughbred is tired, that’s a comfort zone to which they may return.

Uno (Hold Em Paul) is a big hunk of a horse who when tired doesn’t just pull up and putter, like most TBs, he just gets heavier on his forehand and less balanced. Photo by Audrey Mecklenburg.

Moreover, if they can’t sit up easily and get on their hind end, they will use speed to balance their turns, not muscle and correct rocking back onto the outside hind leg (more on that balance-speed relationship here). In other words, an actually tired Thoroughbred might just be a “faster” Thoroughbred (not race fast, but definitely more downhill, forward and hard to balance).

Uno rocking around Poplar’s Starter stadium course with plenty of focused forward. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography.

So how do we get away from the idea of trying to “tire them out” or “run/ride them down?”

Perhaps a shift in perspective is needed. If we conceptualize Thoroughbreds as being “hot” or “up,” the response is to get them to work “down” or “chill/tire them out.” Knowing that tiring them out doesn’t really slow them down, that’s not terribly useful. Rather, if we think of an energetic horse as “un-focused” or “distracted,” we can better manage their antics without trying to gas them out. Think about it this way: Thoroughbred brains work when their feet are moving. If they are distracted and presenting as “up,” it is a brain and focus issue, not a body one. You’re always going to have the energy and heart; now you just need to wrangle the brain.

Hudson in Stadium warmup, taking a moment to focus on the flat before tackling the fences. Photo by Audrey Mecklenburg.

When the aim is to gain focus by moving their feet, there is a change in how one engages activities like lunging, free lunging, round-penning, or hopping in a half seat and cantering around for a bit. The activities and the way we do them shifts from “run until you’re tired” to “go forward and do these things to focus on me and the job at hand, please.” (For instance, here’s an article on lunging for focus from last year here). There is also a clear point of success to such activities, and therefore a clear cut off. When one starts to get an ear flicking back on the rider or lunger, when a horse takes a breath and their body lets go, great — then one knows that one has the brain in focus and with that comes the body. One doesn’t need their nose on the ground to get there.

Sometimes this big powerful canter is what focus and ready looks like. Photo by Audrey Mecklenburg.

Aiming for focus allows me to point to last week’s article about warm-up arenas and individual timelines. Warmups are not about how long it takes to ride your horse down, it is about how long it takes for them to really center-in on what you are asking, physically warm up their muscles and relax. Usually dressage takes the longest for mine, while jumping phases only takes re-focusing on the quality flat work and popping a few fences.

If they are paying attention in warmup, I know that I have their brain — and therefore their body — in the competition arena. And better yet, if I got to the “focus” point and stopped before we got to “tired” point, I have their brain and a body that is still very athletically capable of sitting through all the turns, rocking back for the fences, and safely carrying oneself and one’s rider through a course/test/pattern/etc.

And when warmup gained focus but not exhaustion, they can still jump like this. Good boy, Hudson. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography.

So go ride, folk. Aim for focus and enjoy all the physical ability that comes with it.