Thoroughbred Logic: Ride Other Horses

“I’m here to argue that even if you own the equine version of the love of your life, you should still hunt down opportunities to hop on different horses… they will not only help to expose your challenges, but also they will make you better, stronger and more confident for your own 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 shares her logic on why it’s important to ride a variety of horses.  

Last week a young woman flew out to the area to try a couple of my horses. I’m always a little dubious when someone wants to sit on the experienced ones and the green-beans. Historically, riders are comfortable on one type of horse (well trained with all the buttons, less forward and green, more forward and kinda-green, etc). This woman, however, rode beautifully on Louis my trained but still-green five-year-old Novice horse, the forward-thinking and quite experienced 10-year-old mare Prada, and Uno, who is quite green, but ready to gain experience at Beginner Novice. I blinked, thanked her for the rides, and would happily have let her hop on anyone in the barn.

Uno (Hold ‘Em Paul) is still quite green and takes a particularly confident ride to go around enjoyably. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography.

The commonality with each of these horses was that they are Thoroughbreds and they all needed a soft seat and equally soft hands with a confident, supportive leg. While one can craft that type of ride through a lifetime of correct equitation, it is another thing entirely to develop one’s riding so that it translates confidently to multiple horses who require different “feel” and are at different points in their training. That is significantly aided by riding a diversity of horses and learning how to adjust to each.

So alright, here’s the question for you readers: When was the last time you rode a horse that was not “your horse”?

For most adult riders who are a) not in a lesson program, b) not horse shopping, and c) not professionals/catch riders/working students, etc., the answer to that question might take a second to identify. And I get it. We buy a horse or a set of horses that we love so that we get to ride the ones we trust and enjoy as often as possible. We use lesson programs — where you ride the horse you are presented that week — as a stepping stone to gain experience so that we can go out and buy or lease the horse we will love. Then in general we stop riding the “random” horses.

Pacey Gilham put a great ride in on my horse Louis (Unbridled Bayou) at a Thoroughbred Logic Clinic over the summer when her horse came up foot-sore. I was thrilled she took the opportunity to ride a different horse. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography.

It makes perfect sense. The horse you love is the one you spend money and time on, focus your energy on and want to ride well. That said, I’m here to argue that even if you own the equine version of the love of your life, you should still hunt down opportunities to hop on different horses. Why? Simply because they will not only help to expose your challenges, but also they will make you better, stronger and more confident for your own horse.

I get the pleasure of swinging a leg over any number of horses per day. On bad days, where my time gets hungry-hippoed by an array of things, maybe it is four horses. On good days, it is eight to 10. This is exactly why I do what I do. While I always want to ride “my horses” (my competition kids with whom I am trying to go up the levels), it is a privilege to ride the additional sale horses, or training horses, etc. The joy is not just in “yay, more time in the saddle,” but rather in the learning and the figuring out the others and in realizing where I need to put in some work — not just on the horse, but on my own equitation.

Unstoppable Force was a blast to hop on for his first post-track ride the other day. This three-year-old has a huge canter and if I was not comfortable with a big forward stride, the ride might have gone a bit differently. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

How much inside leg does this horse need? Where are one’s hands? How much can one hold in the half halt? When approaching a jump, what is going to happen four strides out, two strides out and on take-off? Can one feel it and work with the horse, or do old habits ride back up from the dead? Better yet, some of the muscle memory and habits that one has managed to work through / hide on a horse one trusts and knows well might come hustling back to the surface when faced with a new horse and less certainty about what they are going to do in any given situation.

If your horse never goes faster than you want, riding one who does (with instruction) will help you learn how to manage the brakes without panicking. If a horse falls-in in the corners, but yours was previously trained with perfect self-carriage, said temporary mount will help you learn to support a horse to stay upright and balanced. If one needs more leg, less leg, different leg, a pony-club kick, being able to feel these differences only comes from the diversity of experiences that teach when they are needed.

Forrest (Don’t Noc It) feels like home — I have had him for six years. And while he isn’t my main ride anymore, it’s great to feel how much the other horses have taught me each time I get back on and can be a better pilot for him. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography.

When hopping on a new-to-you horse, not all of the experiences are going to be super comfortable. They might not make you want to buy the horse you are astride. But they will help you know yourself and trust your seat, leg and hand in situations that are more foreign than your usual ride doing the usual things at home.

Put differently, the riding of other horses allows us as riders to gain the confidence across a diversity of situations. So when your usual steady-eddy is a little up on a windy day or on the first xc school of the season, you don’t have to feel worried. You can laugh at their antics and trust the seat the you know is there. And you know it is there because you rode your friend’s far less easy-going dude last week and did great.

Case and point of being a better pilot — having learned to “stay up/back” over fences on other horses sure paid off on getting Forrest to wait to the base at a recent Big Cheese Eventing show at Ashland Farm. Photo by the Kivu Team.

I have written it before, but just because someone has ridden their horse who happens to be a Thoroughbred (or insert whatever other breed here) for 20 years does not mean that they are comfortable riding ThoroughbredS. It means that they are comfortable riding THAT Thoroughbred. It is too bad that as adults the opportunities to ride a diversity of horses shrink as folks move into amateur-owner status. Taking — or making — opportunities to gain the skills on other horses is one stellar way to expose flaws, understand limits, and gain the confidence that comes with the diversity of experience.

This whole “ride other horses” thing is the backbone of why I teach Thoroughbred School at my facility in McDonough, GA on an array of my horses — which helps train the skills and confidence to ride Thoroughbreds across the green-to-trained spectrum. The pilot program watched adult riders transition from often-tense humans on new horses to excited, more confident and capable riders each time they got to sit on a different horse. I’m thrilled with the progress and excited to open up a new semester on Sunday.

A hot summer day of Thoroughbred School where riders hop on a new-to them horse and hone in on the basics. Photo by author.

But even if programs like this aren’t in your region, it is always worth it to see if you can swap horses with a barn-mate for a lesson here or there, or just channel your inner eight-year-old and play musical saddles among friends. If you take the challenges and points of discomfort on a new horse as opportunities to learn, I can pretty much guarantee that the confidence and quality of riding on your own equine will increase.

Go ride some new ponies folks, it is absolutely worth it (and if nothing else you’ll at least remember why you love your horse so much).