Thoroughbred Logic: The Disappearing Triangles…

… or another way to think about “inside leg to outside rein.” Read on for more.

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 getting horses to bend properly and come over their backs.

The “disappearing triangles” ask might be the single most effective tool in my shed for getting green Thoroughbreds (or any horse who prefers to act like a 2×4) to bend properly and come over their back. Read on and give it a shot.

Sure, some Thoroughbreds have it naturally — that ability to push from behind and engage their hindquarters, core and back to create “the look.” And of course, the desire for that round, over-the-back image is not just because we as equestrians deemed it pretty, but because it is powerful. It is a position from which a horse can move out or collect, go or stop, turn without needing speed to balance. It is the shape they take when playing in the field and the feel that we aim for under saddle when they are “in front of the leg”.

Wolf (Louisiana Moon) looking a “fancy” at the Retired Racehorse Project’s Makeover this year. Photo by Lauren Kingerly

I find it funny that we call horses who travel well over their backs “fancy,” as if they sauntered in in stilettos and some chic outfit. I think I quite prefer to call them “powerful” or “correct” or perhaps most nail-on-head: “effective and efficient.” Because when they are using their core, they are so much more capable of doing the things we ask and doing them gracefully.

As a re-seller there is a lot of pressure to get a horse over its back ASAP — best if one can do it on the first ride post track. Buyers need to see it to be able to imagine what the horse might look like when correctly developed in the future. It is our job to provide those inklings, and that can be tough. While some horses are like, “Cool, is this what you want?” as they lift their back and drop gently into contact, most are still trying to figure it out. Their bodies might still be tight from the track and they often don’t yet have the core strength to lift and hold themselves up. Keep in mind that the racing industry generally does not train them to have a big pushing, uphill stride — their reach needs to go forward to cover ground. Asking for slow(er), suspended, and “up” as we retrain for second careers is often going to be all sorts of new.

Neumann (Bubba Bob) figuring out how to push from behind during his first post-track ride. Screenshot from video by Greta Colley

Sure, we could do the equivalent of buying a Rolex from Chinatown and see-saw them down (*not recommended), or we can use quality equitation and subtle tools that clearly request the use of their hind end and help them build the muscle and suppleness they need to get themselves in sporthorses shape. Engaging the concept of the ‘disappearing triangles’ can be huge help here. (Step by step instructions below.)

For those early rides as well as when I teach my students how to get a horse over its back, I focus on riding the horse’s ribs and shoulders. When you move a horse into the outside rein from the inside leg, you ask the horse to step through behind and balance over their outside hind leg — the leg that carries all the impulsion. To do so, you need a quality rhythm first and a steady pace. AKA they cannot be sucked back behind your leg for this (go ahead and kick on and get them forward). Then I move my outside hand over 6-12 inches away from the neck. This creates a triangle between the neck, the rein and one’s outside hand.

Creating a triangle with the reins when the horse is stiff or inverted. Thanks for being a good demo pony, Tetris. Photo by author.

Once you have the triangle established, you ask the horse to “disappear it” and fill the space you have opened. As one adds gentle pressure from the inside leg to the outside rein, one aims to move the horse’s ribs and shoulders over into the open space. In this process, the inside hand needs to stay out of the way — AKA no holding, pulling, or flexing into the neck — just keep it gently in line with your inside hip. If done correctly, the horse will create a bend, soften over their back, push from behind and disappear your triangle. Reward by softening the inside rein and leg while retaining gentle support on the outside rein (AKA if you’re going to pat or scratch them, do so with the inside hand).

The successfully disappeared triangle. While hard to see here, the softening of the jaw and lowering of the head is indicative of him stepping through behind and moving his ribs over. My inside rein also now carries more slack. Photo by author.

Once they disappear the triangle, their gait (especially evident at the trot) will gain suspension and simply feel more powerful (as they’re now using their outside hind leg to push and engage their back). At the same time, their head MAY come down. My recommendation is not to evaluate success by their head and neck — sometimes letting go at the withers and base of the neck is the last thing they do. You might be doing the exercise right, but not get the head-neck position yet. That will come — pay more attention to their ribs, shoulders, and back.

While trying to teach this, I realized that it is hard to visualize how to make the triangles and move one’s arms, so I stuck my phone in my teeth** and tried to video the process. THIS IS NOT PERFECT, but hopefully it is helpful.

**If anyone wants a challenge, put your phone on wide angle, shove it in your teeth and try to stay steady and film your hands and their ears while trotting a baby TB in rapidly dropping temps and solid wind — eeeeesh.

Tetris came to me tight and quite body sore from the track. His letdown has been slow, but going well. While his first few rides were just about getting pace, steering and rhythm down, he is now on his 11th post-track ride and rapidly learning how to disappear the triangles and give me his back. Consequently the rides have gone from looking like this:

Tetris on his first post track ride being his cute but exuberant and inverted self. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

To this:

Tetris learning how to use his back on his maybe 6th or 7th ride post track as he worked through the disappearing triangles. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

Here’s the important catch — when training, one has to be able to feel when the right response is coming and reward it by softening almost as it happens (if not immediately after). One cannot move the goalposts (make the bend deeper) without relaxing the inside rein and praising them in a way they enjoy. Once they hollow again or drop their shoulder back to the inside, one can ask again and equally reward again when they make an effort in the right direction. Then see how long they can hold that push from behind and keep the triangle out of sight. Rinse and repeat without drilling.

Watch Tetris process all of this here (sound on if you want to hear me talk through the process). This video is not perfection, but it is how we train. Give this horse another month and he’ll be able to hold the quality shape the majority of the time. Consequently, his topline will change and so will the power and shape of his walk, trot and canter.

Sure, like Tetris, a horse learning to bend might go too far and become over-bent, dropping their shoulder too far to the outside. That is totally OK. Always reward the try and then try to catch them a bit more effectively next time with your outside leg to hold the line of the circle. Keep in mind that this is all a process and that for many of these horses, this is the equivalent of their first class of pilates. They are strong enough to give it a shot, but they can’t hold it forever. Aim for effort and I can pretty much promise that their try will arise time and time again as they realize that riding “over their back” is a much more comfortable way to carry a rider.

As proof that this works on more horses than just Tetris, I’ll leave you with a video of Neumann’s (Bubba Bob) first post track ride showing where he started and where he ended up. I was in the saddle for a grand total of 20-minutes and he was a willing, kind partner for the whole go-round. Using the disappearing triangles tool, he moved from stiff and inverted to soft and round. Does he still have a head tilt and a ton of work to do? 100%. But by getting his body in the correct position, he can build the muscles that will allow me to fine tune the rest of the ride later.

So go ride folks, and if you feel like you have a 2×4 under you and not a soft, supple, balanced parter, give the disappearing triangles a try and see how they work. Stay warm out there!