Thoroughbred Logic: Making (Productive) Accommodations

“… sometimes, getting them to understand what you want means finding creative ways to ‘make it work’ for a while until you can slowly, and carefully train in that ‘right’ answer.”

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 accommodating fresh off-trackers to get them to where they need to be. 

Story time:

As I was hauling to Aiken this weekend, Amanda and I hit traffic. This wasn’t the stopped type (thankfully), but the awful slinky traffic that bunches up on hills and spreads out after a mile, repeating the scrunch up, spread out endlessly down I-20. We were fully loaded with three horses in the rig.

About halfway up a hill, red lights in front of us meant I had to hit the brakes. As I went back to the gas, the engine coughed and sputtered. There was no power coming from the truck. I muttered a few predictable things, hit the flashers, and pulled over. As we coasted on the shoulder, the engine came back to life and we could move again.

This happened two more times before I got the hang of it: As necessary, shift into neutral and then back to drive; the RPMs go higher as we drop to a lower gear, and we’re good to go. By the time we drove home, I had it down: keep the rig at or above 1500 RPM, especially uphill and we’re fine. (All figured out …for now… and the truck is currently sitting in the shop ready for pick up).

Titan’s Crown was soaking wet at Stable View this past weekend, but he happily clicked through his first BN in a long time. The dogs were perhaps less amused with the rain. Photo by author.

You all are probably going, “why the hell are you recounting a truck trouble saga?” Well, at some point during the day at the show, I was telling someone about the iffy trip down and started laughing — “wait, I think this is why I am comfortable riding green Thoroughbreds.” They thought about it and were like, well you know… that makes sense.

Here’s the thing: Green, off-track Thoroughbreds know things. They have already had a professional career. They know how to walk-trot-canter on both leads (though they may like one a lot more than the other). They know how to steer around a track. And they certainly know a lot about the world around them from the productive chaos of the back-side.

All three of these handsome knuckle-heads (Bubba Bob, Not A Game, Needles Highway) require their own mild accommodations (and 1200+ denier turnout rugs). Photo by author.

What they don’t know sometimes is how to put all of those experiences to work for what we are asking in the sport horse world. Their transitions are not going to be perfect right away. Their cadence at the slower speeds may struggle to hold a steady rhythm for a while. And sometimes, getting them to understand what you want means finding creative ways to “make it work” for a while until you can slowly, and carefully train in that “right” answer.

Curry’s (Curlin Lane) canter transitions are a great example. Curry has taken a while to fully let down (I’ll get a proper article on that out soon) and trust. In the last two months though, this goofy, handsome redhead has absolutely blossomed. His trot is stretchy and lovely; he is reaching into contact and has a metronome for rhythm to and from fences.

Curry (Curlin Lane) being an absolute charmer on his left lead (Photo by Alanah Giltmier).

That said, his canter transitions can still get tense. I could set him up like most horses and “ask” but he will become worried, lean a shoulder away from pressure and scramble. So instead, if I set him up softly, make all cues as light as possible and don’t try to trap his shoulder but work with it’s movement, he will step into the correct lead, quietly. The more he does this transition with minimal stress, the better he gets at coming closer and closer to being able to handle the *usual* rider ask when I pop someone new on him.

Effectively, figuring out how to keep Curry happy through the canter transition is like figuring out how to still get to the horse show in an iffy-at-best hauling truck.

  • Step one: Figure out what the immediate problem is/what it cannot handle. (Truck: the engine is cutting out when slowed on hills… but then goes back to working in a lower gear; Curry: too much containment with leg and hand makes him worry during transitions).
  • Step two: Figure out what it needs now-now to still get the job done. (Truck: keep the RPMs up; Curry: let him drop his shoulder and over-bend a little but still let him step quietly into the lead and sort out the bend once cantering).
  • Step Three: Streamline the necessary accommodations and work towards getting closer and closer to “correct.” (Truck: Accommodate how I drive up hills and have a plan for when I have to brake on them; Curry: Work towards progressive training of his canter transitions with no stress, each time getting a bit straighter and straighter through his body).
  • Step four: Dig into the more long-term issues and work to fix those progressively. Truck: Send it to the shop for assessment and immediately change the air filter (I might be able to drive funky-acting vehicles, but I have zero skills to mechanically fix them); Curry: Over the last nine-months, he has gotten let-down time in a field, body work, and progressive strengthening at the trot to help build trust and stability through his transitions.

Curry being plain handsome post-jump school. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

As with Curry, for many Thoroughbreds, “fixing” these points of stress or difficulty is about providing confidence while sorting out longer term issues. Are they tight behind? Are they sore? How are their hoof angles? Do they understand how to calmly move away from pressure both on the ground and in the saddle? Each horse will be a bit different, but the important point is that the immediate day-to-day accommodations also ought to come with an eye to the longer view.

Unstoppable Force (featured here on his first post-track ride) has a fantastic, powerful canter, but sometimes needs to flying change onto the left lead as opposed to demanding it from the get-go. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

It is never: This horse doesn’t know how to get a right/left lead — and keep drilling the “normal” way. It is rather: OK, so they struggle with their right/left lead, but we can quietly flying change into it once we have a counter canter. So what is it about tracking a particular direction that is harder? A weak hind end? A sore right/left hind set of joints? A difficulty moving the ribs over and creating a gentle bend? All of those issues can be sorted out over time with body work, let-down, good shoeing, a quality vet, and kind, progressive training focused on strength and confidence. In the meantime, you can still get that lead and go do all the things — it just might take some creative accommodation.

So go enjoy the rides through the holidays, folks. And if they don’t go to plan and something is tough or not working, make room to accommodate (… and I bet this works just as well with holiday parties and family as it does with trucks and horses).