Thoroughbred Logic, Presented by Kentucky Performance Products: Rider Balance and the Thoroughbred

“I spend an inordinate amount of my life thinking about what ‘works’ when riding and training Thoroughbreds … they all share keeping the rider effective but out of the way of the 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 the importance of balance — especially when it comes to riding Thoroughbreds.

I spend an inordinate amount of my life thinking about what “works” when riding and training Thoroughbreds. There are a lot of catch phrases and concepts that I come back to — things like “let them go forward,” “ignore the antics,” “soften the inside rein,” “Do Not Pull”, “ask effectively and then leave them alone,” and “get in your half seat and don’t move.”  These are all well and good — and hell, they work.

If we distill all those things down to a commonality though, they all share keeping the rider effective but out of the way of the horse. The more I teach, the more I put people on new horses either through in-house horse trials or through Thoroughbred School, the more I realize that absolutely none of those things are possible without what we glibly call “a good seat.”

Curry (Curlin Lane) riding soft and deserving of his pat (which also removes a rider’s hand from the aid and tests balance). Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

That “seat” jargon is really just a gloss for solid core strength and rider balance (so that the seat can stay light but also stay in the saddle when chips are down). Without rider balance, it is practically insane for me to encourage riders to let a horse go forward. It is also potentially physically impossible for them to ignore a horse who has decided that today they’re rocking out to some 80’s metal music in the mosh pit instead of focusing and staying over their back and in contact through their 20-meter circles.

Sometimes it be that way. Photo of Pisces (Fedora Freya, owned by Jennifer Kelly) having a baby moment at a Thoroughbred Logic Clinic. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography. *The pretty mare took a breath and settled in not long after.

Balance (predicated in part on core strength) allows a rider to give up an aid without feeling like they have become unstable. Should a rider lose a stirrup or a rein, that shouldn’t matter. Should a horse toss their head or bolt into a canter transition, a balanced rider can still give and allow in order to settle a horse, not grab. Guys, this is stupidly hard both physically and mentally. And here’s why: balance is linked to confidence. The inverse is where things get dicey: The loss of balance is therefore linked to fear so with the idea of losing it comes anxiety. And fear and anxiety make it really difficult for a rider to stay out of the way of the horse.

Pisces having figured it out and able to be productively ignored. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography.

This is not to say that riders who have foundational balance issues cannot or do not ride. Hell, everyone has some of this. Everyone just creates “accommodations” to get by. Locked joints (like locking at the knee, ankle or shoulder for instance), learned habits (like gripping with a knee or ankle, or pulling to slow down) all help create a “sense” of balance.

However, that type of balance is as precarious as it is contingent. Contingent on the horse behaving, contingent on both stirrups, contingent on hands staying in a particular position, or the horse going only an expected speed. I would wager, too, that some of the reasons riders micro-manage horses has to do with that same balance issue — it is about keeping them perfectly in the contained space (literally and figuratively) where the rider is confident riding and feels in balance.

First rides are my favorite because you never know how they are going to go. But that is largely because I only have to trust my seat, not the horse. Clark (JC: Louis) featured here looking anxious about mounting turned out to be a total quiet rockstar under saddle. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

So if everyone has balance accommodations, why does this matter so much with the Thoroughbred?

Put simply, Thoroughbreds are sensitive and responsive. And as such, they become mirrors for rider balance issues. Well… mirrors with consequences (that metaphor doesn’t work… but roll with it for now).

Thoroughbreds (like all horses) can feel the balance snafus and reactions to losing balance. However, akin to any sensitive equine of any breed, they often don’t choose to ignore the issues. So when a rider locks a joint or pulls, they can feel the flow of bungee stability interrupted. Nine times out of ten, that pulling or locking will encourage especially the greenies to hollow and go faster — to tap into their bred-in flight response and speed.

Rhodie (Western Ridge) is always a great example of mirroring rider balance issues. If you mess up, he will tell on you all day long. Photo of him clicking around Stableview by Adela Narovich.

When a rider retains balance by staying loose and soft (but still strong), it is like someone turned the volume of the room down. Thoroughbreds slow down and listen. Sure it is all counter-intuitive, but there’s an important feedback loop here: The stronger and more bungee a rider, the better their seat (aka balance), and therefore the better horse listens, the more confident the rider becomes, and the more the rider is able to actually laugh through any antics that may arise, and therefore less ridiculousness surfaces and quieter and better the horse goes.

Neumann (Bubba Bob) got to test balance and quiet riding through a ton of trappy footing and water crossings on his first fox hunt out with Shakerag Hounds. He was awesome. Photo by author.

So often the accommodations that riders create to find a sense of balance in the saddle are aided by riding the same horse on repeat. When we increase the variables by putting a rider on a new horse, all of the habits that create a precarious balance become clearer. This is why trial riding horses for sale can be so terrifying (to both do and witness).

This knowledge is also a side-effect of teaching Thoroughbred School, where students ride different TBs each class. I find that while I spend a lot of time talking about race records and track jewelry and individual horse proclivities, I spend more time going back to the foundations of equitation — back to creating better balance, to more correct positions, and to creating more physically forgiving riders who can allow a horse to go forward or laugh at the equine Michael Jackson impression because their strength and balance are solid.

A Thoroughbred School class cooling their horses out and looking quite prosaic. Photo by author.

I could go on and on and on about why balance is important, but let me cut off my rant here and recommend some ways to improve balance, or to check in and make sure yours is in fact as solid as you think.

How to test your balance:

  • Ride without your crutches. If for a second we consider stirrups and reins or neck straps to be a tool in creating balance, one needs to be able to do all their movements without them. So, can you walk, trot, canter, turn, jump, half halt, etc. without one or two stirrups? Can you do the same movements without reins? It may not be November, but working without stirrups at least a little bit on a regular basis also will help build strength and test if you truly are sitting in balance on the saddle.
  • Trot in half seat. This is one of my favorite modes of torture. It works to not only test core strength and balance, but also builds both back as you go. While trotting in half seat, check in and make sure you’re not hanging on the horse’s mouth or too reliant on your hands. Then… can you tie your reins and trot in half seat without them?
  • Hop on a new horse. Having the opportunity to ride more than just the horse you are used to is often quite eye opening for riders. Rider balance needs to be able to accommodate the horse, so being adjustable and strong enough to follow the flow of a new equine is key.
  • Have someone video your ride on the usual horse or a new one and with a trainer pick apart where balance went shaky. Were you able to complete up and down transitions without pulling or pitching? Were you able to change direction and tempo inside a gait without bobbling? These things sound so simple. Believe me. They. Are. Not.

Learning to trust your seat, not the horse, and ride in balance on new Thoroughbreds is a tough, but a super fun pursuit. Featured here is Charlotte Pinckney on Needles Highway while Diane Djlelaty waits astride Aspenfiveoneseven. Photo by author.

And then there are ways to improve your balance:

  • Work in small sessions without stirrups, or without reins or bareback. This will improve strength and check in on your balance. *Doing so in intervals over time will also keep from making your horse’s back sore.
  • Check your saddle fit. Saddle fit is critical to horse comfort (obviously) but also rider balance. If you are riding in one that doesn’t fit your horse or yourself, it’ll be harder to get in a half-seat, and harder to, well… do all the things.
  • Get stronger so you can get softer. I suck at having good recommendations for out-of-saddle strength training, because I ride so much I don’t do as much of that as I should. But, there are two things there: 1) Ride more. Literally more saddle time, more trot, more working on the balance and strength and doing it correctly will build that muscle memory balance that is grounded through your equitation. 2) And I have heard that activities like Pilates and Yoga can help increase core strength which can help you rely less on your aids than on your seat.
  • Have a trainer check your equitation. Make sure that when you are logging the saddle hours, you are doing it in balance — with your heel to your hip to your shoulder in alignment/equally proportioned over their back in the half-seat (hips back).
  • Do lunge lessons. This will both check your balance (canter with no reins, etc.) and increase your strength and balance.

Each one of these goobers is a totally different ride, but being able to hop on any of them and log more hours and adjust to their needs helps build all that balance, strength and confidence. Featured here (Tetris’ blanket (Not a Game), Hudson (Primetime Spy), Neumann (Bubba Bob) and Needles Highway. Photo by author.

There are a ton of additional ways to build strength and increase balance and that is far from an exhaustive list. And, hey — if you have made it this far in the article, why not add a comment on what has worked well for you to improve your seat.

So go ride, folks — hunt down the accommodations and aim for better balance. No matter the breed, your horse will thank you.

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