Thoroughbred Logic, Presented by Kentucky Performance Products: Learning to Follow

“By not being in charge, I gained the perspective on how to follow — a little insight on how to horse in the game of riding. I learned that setting and maintaining rhythm meant being able to acknowledge and match the existing one.”

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 how learning to follow (while dancing) improved her understanding and approach to riding.

Want to know one major thing that has made me ride better? And no, the answer is not more lessons, or a better saddle, or stickier breeches — though all of those things (especially the lessons) I’m sure help.

Nope. The super random, but crazy helpful thing that I think about often when teaching or riding is my stint in partner dancing. Namely, I salsa danced (quite badly, I’m sure) with a team during a year of research in Goma (North Kivu), Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). I know, I know, my life is full of random things that make folks go, “Wait. What?”

Proof that this did happen. Photo by Ghislain Kisenge.

Don’t worry, I’ll make this all make (some) sense:

I grew up riding. So from the age of four — or whenever I did more than just flop about on top of a horse — I have been in control of the rhythm. I learned to lead. I learned to control the pace. I did the asking. And I did that pretty much everyday for the last 36 years (with a few random breaks).

When I took a year off from riding in the Congo and only occasionally hopped on the Kenyan Thoroughbreds up in the hills of Mushaki, dancing filled the void. The team would gather almost every day in school classrooms to practice choreography and go over new moves — different spins, steps and the like. I have no proper English names for what I learned, as it was all in a mix of French and Swahili and now resides somewhere in a vault in the back of my brain.

But what I do remember is what it felt like to follow. To state the obvious, traditionally, women in partner dance follow the man’s lead. This was something I had to actively learn. I had to be supple (hard to do when you identify more with a 2×4 than Shakira). I had to be switched on and listen with my body for the cues. I had to be patient. And I had to follow someone else’s rhythm and plans and speed. Dancing for hours in the chalk dust of the dimly lit classrooms was a pure joy — but following… this is where I struggled and where I thought about the horse. A lot.

The salsa team working on branding while also practicing some new moves. Photo by author.

When I knew a move was coming — double and triple spins were always fun — I would anticipate and try to get there just a tiny bit faster. A good leader could hold my rhythm by not changing theirs as they approached the spin. There were parts of the songs where footwork bogged me down and I had trouble staying on beat — a good leader would bring me back to the “1” count together and carry on in rhythm. On days I danced with the instructor, Eloia or my friend Freddy, I felt like I could actually move.

On other days, I danced with more demanding partners who couldn’t hold a steady rhythm and constantly threw me off, often losing me in the spins or dropping me when footwork got hard. Worse, some would never set a steady rhythm from the start and constantly shove at me to pick it up or slow it down when what they wanted wasn’t clear. I remember one such partner getting annoyed with my inability to stay at his pace (which was all over the place) and thinking, “Man, if I were a horse I would have bucked your ass off by now.”

The Goma Salsa team doing what they do best at the Amani Festival in 2014. Photo by author.

By not being in charge, I gained the perspective on how to follow — a little insight on how to horse in the game of riding. I learned that setting and maintaining rhythm meant being able to acknowledge and match the existing one. And I learned that changing the rhythm required both a clear ask and a bit of patience.

Finding rhythm when riding is a game of two-way listening. The rider sets the rhythm and the horse responds — the rider fine-tunes it or maintains it and the horse is able to settle into a relaxed but attentive way of going, to which the rider then adjusts. It’s a constant feedback loop of sorts. No micromanaging needed.

Prim (Pauline’s Raven) settling into a nice forward trot rhythm during her first ride here. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

The walk is particularly useful at exposing how a rider sets rhythm and is able to follow movement. There, a few not-so-ideal things often happen: On one hand, riders may use their seat to “scoot” the horse into a peppier pace. The mismatch of rider push and horse usually ignoring them (or getting annoyed) is pretty evident. On the other hand, the rider might lock up their hips and brace at the walk, starting to rely on their reins for speed control — especially if the horse is heading off and away faster than they would like. Regardless of whether it is a scoot or a brace, the paired rhythm has gone out and micromanaging has entered the scene.

Learning to follow at the walk, especially on sensitive horses like Lad (Megan’s Lad) can be tricky… but useful. Photo by Greta Colley.

And this is why the walk becomes a great gait to test one’s dance skills — to listen to the horse’s movement (as riders are largely forced to do, lest they get bounced off, in the bigger more impulsion-filled gaits) and follow their rhythm. Once horse and rider have “synced,” riders can set the pace with their leg and maintain it as necessary,  always finding that “one count” together.

What I love about Thoroughbreds or other sensitive horses is that they will tell on you when that rhythm-based feedback loop isn’t quite working. A walk will run into a hurried, short stepping jig or molasses around without balance and direction. On the flip side, they will also make it look seamless when it flows and riding suddenly appears more like centraur-ing than perching a human on a horse.

The new little guy, Clark (JC: Louis), has a stellar walk. Photo by Greta Colley.

Sure, this notion of learning to follow and make clear asks helps at the other bigger moving gaits too, but if it isn’t there at the walk, it won’t be there at the canter.

So go ride folks — but remember to feel enough to follow while you lead. Or you know, just blast some 2005 Shakira and see if that helps.

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