Thoroughbred Logic, Presented by Kentucky Performance Products: How To Get (& Keep) Them Straight

“Steering and straightness have to be created and managed, not just assumed.”

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 to encourage green horses to ride straight and hold themselves up.

I recently sold a very talented, but very goofy off-track Thoroughbred to a fellow trainer/friend. At his race farm, the running joke about this horse (Unstoppable Force) was that he was lovely but a bit of a “noodle brain.” By the time the wiggly, handsome goofball went home to be Adela Narovich’s Makeover mount, the name Noodle had already stuck.

Adela Narovich on her Retired Racehorse Project Makeover hopeful, “Noodle” (Unstoppable Force) at the recent Thoroughbred Logic Clinic. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography.

I like starting with Noodle here because a “wet noodle” is also a convenient metaphor for not only some of their brains, but also what is is like to ride them early in their off-track careers. They’re wiggly. Their shoulders drop in and out off the line, and if you choose one path but don’t manage to maintain it, they’ll slip off to it and maybe wonder why you wanted them to run into the jump standard or your trainer. Steering exists on the track absolutely, but it is not always the type that is trained in the sport horse world, where we sometimes expect to put a horse on a path and that’s that.

Steering and straightness have to be created and managed, not just assumed.

Pisces (Fedora Freya owned by Jennifer Kelly) attempting to drop her shoulder to the gate and wiggle out of the idea of straight. See later pic for how nice she can go! Photo by Cora Williamson Photography

I find there are two key points that really help get one of these wiggly noodles to travel straight and, therefore, build the right muscles to eventually hold themselves on those lines:

  1. Make a tube with your legs.
  2. Contain their shoulders.

Trying to steer a wet noodle to straight is like trying to correct a car’s path on ice. You might be able to do this at slow speeds (at a walk or slow trot), but as you build up to a bigger more forward gait, straightness that comes from steering mostly through the bit will only cause them to bend, squiggle, over correct, and basically fall apart or crash off the line. Instead, riders need to get more comfortable riding what is immediately under them, the barrel of the horse and their shoulders.

Make a tube:

I don’t have a better metaphor than this … and this one isn’t great. But, if a rider thinks about their legs, from their calf through their knee and thigh up to their seat as creating a seamless wrap of gentle, supporting contact, the idea of the tube starts to make some sense. In this way, the leg is not just about left or right, go or half halt, but it becomes a soft, continuous presence that is more of a ‘guide’ for the horse’s middle. I say ‘tube’ and not a ‘ring’ because the idea has extension — it holds the whole ribcage and extends forward to the shoulders.

Ramen (Plamen) showing off the tube idea. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography

The more upright the rider, the more the tube can guide the direction of the horse by keeping more of the wiggling noodle in front of you. If one tips ahead of the horse’s motion, it is pretty hard to hold them steady with leg pressure and they’ll drop out from the line. Sit up, wrap ones’ legs into a tube and guide the horse forward from their ribs with calf and thigh pressure that is even.* From there you’ll start to have a solid steering baby horse.

*Caveat: This is not about squeezing them to death or pinching the knees into the saddle; it is more about a form of leg contact that would be similar to hand contact — soft, steady and consistent. Not suffocating or claustrophobia-inducing.

Pisces figuring straight out after riding and steering from her middle. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography

Contain the shoulders:

The tube then extends from the horse’s ribs to their shoulders. With young or green horses, particularly the wiggly off-track type, I like to simply ignore their heads. That includes where they point their nose. If they headband like a metal band groupie, or tilt it sideways and look at me, they get a lot of “I don’t care” and “C’mon, go forward.” Leave the head alone.

Instead, focus on the shoulders. Make the shoulders and your hands and elbows part of the tube that began at the leg. Make them wide enough to fit the entirety of your horse’s shoulders inside them. Yes, that wide. No, seriously. Your hands probably need to be wider — like sometimes two-feet apart. And from there, add gentle contact to create consistency with the bit.

Tetris (Not A Game) steering through a tube and wide hands while XC schooling at Ashland Farm. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography

This is a little bit of a Goldie Locks situation: Long reins risk inconsistent contact and “too big” of corrections when they are made; too tight reins encourage pulling and with the Thoroughbred, encourage flight response and speed. Perfection is somewhere in the middle where riders have a light, consistent feel of their horse’s mouth with wide hands and bungee elbows. As such, we’re basically adding length to the tube that was created with the leg and beginning to also contain the shoulders.

With forward movement, this tube that extends from their ribs to their shoulders directs the horse, maintaining their balance and holding far more than just their nose on the rider’s chosen line. It is like moving a dancer from their hips rather than dragging them off balance by their hand. But as for the horse, their head will sort itself out (so leave it alone), especially if one starts steering from their legs first and then up through the reins.

Neumann (Bubba Bob)’s steering was pretty stellar for his first post-track ride back in the late fall, and his slight head tilt seen here has nearly entirely corrected itself by now without having to fuss with his mouth or head. Just make a tube and ride the shoulders. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

This tube technique does a number of things:

  • It makes steering clearer
  • It promotes straightness through the body
  • It allows the horse (not the rider) to sort out their head (thereby keeping everyone less annoyed)
  • It promotes consistent, clear and not confusing cues.

I find it quite useful on the flat, especially when going forward in a gait. That said, I find it even more useful when introducing fences.

Ramen was a bit unsure of the 4×4 poles, so I stayed back and made a more obvious tube from leg to hand. Good brave redhead. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography.

Going back to the noodle concept, it is often quite noticeable when a horse is learning to jump that they may wiggle on the approach, dodging left or right at the last minute with their legs and trying to sneak out of the fence through their shoulders. If a rider goes to their reins for steering, the rapid corrections often distract from the need to just go forward and over the obstacle. Worse, the reins encourage a slow down and stop. A better move is to channel the horse through a tube and let the legs and hands guide. Even the wiggliest of noodles can be taught to jump that way.

Aspenfiveoneseven being a fantastic toddler in the grid. Student, Charlotte Pinckney got him through it by guiding with her legs and holding him straight with wide soft contact. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography

As a horse gets more schooled, the containing of the shoulders can of course become more subtle and hands can return to their more visually correct positions. But this tube skill is still going to come in handy, I promise. Particularly, it will help when approaching looky fences or a ditch or something new, where wiggling and dodging-around laterally become an equine go-to. The antidote is a forward going tube, created by wide hands and even, supportive, wrapped-around legs.

Happy riding folks, enjoy the baby moments even if your equine kids are full grown.

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