“Allowing them to sort it out and to have that support … creates a space for trust to start to knit itself together. They already know they can rely on themselves, but with regular rides of soft, confident ‘ask and allow,’ that genetic courage can bind into trust.”
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 allowing horses to develop naturally by allowing them to make choices and process the ask.
I love Thoroughbreds for their bravery. Part of it is probably bred into their genetics — the heart and drive and desire to win. But all of that comes with a side effect of confidence and courage. I don’t mean that they don’t jump sideways at the jacket on the picnic table (ahem — Crafty and Aspen) or toss their tail in the air and show off their other genetic (Arab) heritage when startled or excited.
Rather, I mean that when a rider is on their back, they are willing to take on so much — headlong through cold water, up hills, over new XC fences — and they’ll do it with gusto. And better yet, they’ll do it safely.
Hell, Uno (Hold Em Paul) has only seen three schooling Horse Trials in his short post-track career and hasn’t schooled cross country since October. He came out to the frozen, windy tundra of the Aiken Opener this past Saturday and Sunday and clicked around his first recognized Beginner Novice like it was a damn walk in the park (albeit a very cold park). I honestly had no idea how he was going to take to the big gallopy cross country track, but the handsome meatball didn’t flinch. Ears up. Knees to nose. Over everything. Brave and adjustable.
A number of conversations lately have made me think about what makes horses brave and what helps to develop them without stripping away that natural confidence. Yesterday, Prim (Pauline’s Raven) had a super ride. The mare can be opinionated under saddle, but as I figure her out and she accepts my requests, we’re finding a stride (and man, is it a pretty one).
After I hopped down, my working student, Greta, and I chatted about what made that ride so productive. Greta asked what one has to do to help horses like Prim develop while avoiding any potential fussiness. My answer had probably too many words in it, but in rethinking it, the crux of it is to “allow” — to provide a single ask gently or at the level the horse needs (Prim just happens to need gentle) and then allow.
Allow her to process and go forward. Carry on in correct equitation and allow the horse the chance to figure it out. It is literally that simple: one clear ask and then a moment of pause. No micromanagement. And of course, always reward the try even if it wasn’t exactly what you thought you asked for.
Allowing means letting the horse a) go forward, b) do so without us mucking around or micromanaging, and c) think. That last one is critical. Horses may not have high functioning critical reasoning skills like we do (though some sure seem more intelligent than some bipeds I know). However, allowing them a second to “figure it out” and to understand before adding additional asks and input keeps even the fussiest of critters willing to go forward and try.
Allowing them to sort it out and to have that support (leg stays on, hands stay out of their way, equitation does not change or mess with their balance) creates a space for trust to start to knit itself together. They already know they can rely on themselves, but with regular rides of soft, confident “ask and allow,” that genetic courage can bind into trust. And as such, “trot past the scary part of the arena” is as much of an ask as “jump the hanging hammock” fence. They’ll do both willingly and bravely because you asked and then allowed.
An important caveat here is that allowing is not about accepting bad behavior. It is about providing space to for them to make choices — hopefully the right ones. Learning which ones are right is training. You don’t have to pat them and say “good boy/girl” when they try to buck you off (though be grateful you didn’t hit the ground). But you do need to think about what the ask was, and why they responded as such. Was it clear? Did you stay out of their way? Could they go forward? And have you built the trust to be able to make that ask?
In another fun example, this outstanding diagram has been circulating around the online equine world. I love the depictions and the way in which it shows equine development to be far from uni-linear. Cindy, a friend and member of my Thoroughbred School, responded to it, asking how we know if we are training this at the right speed, or how we know if we are pushing too hard.
My response came back to the notion of allowance. Balanced, accurate equitation encourages a horse to move as correctly as it can. By riding them with progressive asks and allows, you’re not holding a horse in any position. There is no forcing this. Rather, you’re encouraging it, and they have the ability to respond to that ask.
Because one does not ride a horse down into a frame (instead, one asks them to use their hind end and allows them to reach over their back), development is largely on the horse’s timeline. Sure, no horse needs two-hour rides full of drilling, but when ridden responsibly, the ask and patient equitation team up to allow the horse to build the strength to hold the position that we reward (because it is ergonomically what they seek).
(Caveat here: Stages one through three can be developed through correct eq and asks that give the horse time to develop the muscles and figure it out. Stage four — the collection and powerful uphill movement — comes with training and asks for collection. That is definitely a space where consulting a trainer is helpful.)
Circling back to where we started… So many things contribute to equine bravery and development. But the act of “allowing” sits at the very center of how I develop horses here, and how I aim to support that natural Thoroughbred bravery and confidence. Ask and then allow them to ride forward. Ask for the half-halt and allow them to seek the contact. Ask for the bend to get past the scary thing on the side of the ring, and then allow them to figure it out. Leave them alone for just a second. Let them process. And watch over time as not only their body develops correct topline and strength, but as that mutual trust allows you to gallop down untested tracks and make easy work of all the big things.
Stay warm and dry out there folks. Kick on, but remember to always allow the response.
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