Thoroughbred Logic, Presented by Kentucky Performance Products: Lifting the Core & the Ruler Metaphor

“Simply put, to ‘come over its back,’ a horse must engage its core.”

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 getting horses to engage their core.

One of the most lovely progressions that off-track Thoroughbreds go through is moving from a slicked out, greyhound-like 2×4 to a softer, bungee-er, sporthorse. This early-on process (and how long it takes to really see progress) depends on the horse’s conformation, how tight they are from the track and how their body handles the let down. It also depends on how they are ridden as they transition into their second careers.

In the past month, I have been extremely fortunate to be able to host two Thoroughbred Logic Clinics and get to travel to Maryland to teach another one (one upcoming in NY in a week as well). The wonderful part of getting to teach all of these different horse and rider pairs is that I get to think through the commonalities. While folks often bring in vastly different Thoroughbreds at different stages of their careers, there are a few concepts that apply to most of them. Things such as “go forward” and “widen your outside rein” have broad application that I’m sure I’ll circle back around to in other articles soon.

Sarah Williams finishes up a productive ride on green-bean Felix (Feliciano) at the Thoroughbred Logic Clinic in Harwood, Maryland earlier this month. Photo by Rayna Erasmus.

In addition, the idea of convincing the horse to lift its core is essential — and that is where I want to focus today. Simply put, to “come over its back,” a horse must engage its core. While the neck arching and the head descending are tells that the horse *might* be using its back, the real measure is if it has stepped under itself, is pushing up with its hind legs (not just pulling itself forward). If a horse does this, its head and neck naturally will come down. From the side, the horse’s shape will resemble more of an arc than a straight line.

Uno (Hold Em Paul) trying his best to use his core at Stable View in January. Photo by Adela Narovich.

With green Thoroughbreds (or hell, even many not-so-green ones), they usually prefer to poke their noses out and pull with their shoulders and leave their hind ends hanging a bit out behind them. I joke and call them lazy when they do this, as it is easier for them to just paddle along than to get themselves together and push. Lazy? Not really… most Thoroughbreds are not truly lazy… but efficient? Yes. When they raced, most pulled their stride forward from their shoulders, digging in behind and shoveling the dirt out of the way. A big, bounding, round, core-engaged stride will rarely get them around the track and to the finish line first.

So when they come off the track and a rider feels like they’re riding a singular 2×4 from nose to tail, one needs to not only train this hind-end and core engagement, but build their strength to be able to hold it. To get a horse to “sit” and engage behind and lift their core, they need enough leg to figuratively kick their hind end into gear and step under themselves, and enough direction with the rider’s position and hand to keep them from just running onto their forehand.

Ramen (Plamen) trying very hard to learn to lift early in his second career. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

Either way, a rider must be balanced in the saddle and generally upright in quality equitation — heel-hip-shoulder is sure old-school, but it is helpful. Too much leg and the horse just leans and runs. Too much hand and they slow down and take choppy steps behind, refusing to engage. But if you can balance between the amount of forward leg (usually with the lower calf and ankle), supporting and lifting leg (with the mid calf up to the thigh), core engagement in staying upright, and light but steady hand to encourage that momentum to become impulsion, they will try to lift and bounce over their backs.

CJ’s Empire rocking the core engagement. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

In watching riders sometimes struggle with this, I have come to explain it like an old plastic ruler from elementary school. Yes, I’m somehow aging myself with that comment. If you lay a ruler on a table and put one finger at either end, you can do a few different things: move it left, move it right, push the ends towards themselves in a small arc, push the ends towards themselves until it snaps. So what the hell does this have to do with riding?

Amazon apparently carries these in all colors these days… 

Well, if you imagine that one finger — your right– on the ruler is your hand while riding and the other — the left — is the leg. The ruler mimics the horse. Too much pushing with your left finger and no right finger to contain the ruler, and it will simply slide across the table at whatever speed, unchecked. That is what happens when a rider puts leg on without a seat or hand that contains the momentum or lifts.

On the flip-side, if a rider puts heavy hand on to try to round a horse, AKA all right finger on the ruler and no left finger to push it forward or up from the leg, the horse will slow, stop, lift its head and protest the heavy hand. But if you add just enough encouraging forward and lifting leg (left finger pushing the ruler) and just enough containing and gently lifting hand (right finger), the old-school plastic ruler will begin to lift its middle off the table and create an arc. Of course, too much pushing from both sides — aka kicking and pulling all at once — and that arc will get too big and snap (rear, buck, kick out or generally communicate that the ask is too much).

My badly-done drawing of the ruler concept.

Thus, it is a finesse game. Each horse will require a bit of a different balance of leg to seat to hand. And if they understand the process and ask enough, the hand can become extremely secondary to the rider’s seat and core — or disappear, as in quality bridleless riding, etc. However, working through the usual, fully tacked process, horses will need a bit of both to get started. Importantly, the leg needs not only to encourage the “forward,” but also it needs to lift from the calf up into the seat — so a rider needs to be quite upright and balanced over the saddle.

The hand, equally, does not pull down, wiggle, see-saw or break at the wrist to get the horse’s head down. Instead, maintaining a straight, elastic line from bit to elbow, it lifts and supports from above the wither. Wide hands help the greenies here immensely. Doing so with light contact and a bunch of leg will encourage the proverbial ruler to create an arc and begin to engage the core. Yep, you read that right — even green Thoroughbreds need a whole bunch of supportive leg.

Clark (Louis) being a perfect kiddo for his first post-track ride and sorting out how to move forward in balance from his hind piece by piece. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

Like anyone who has had to ‘plank’ in pilates or done any new-to-them core-engaging exercise, your fit, fast, former racehorse will not be able to hold this position for long. Reward all efforts in the right direction by softening the inside hand a tiny bit forward (like an inch) toward the bit. If you reward with the outside hand, this isn’t going to work as that one is your main support onto the hind legs —  so inside hand slightly forward and praise, scratch, pat, verbally tell them they are good. Hold the position for a bit and then let them relax. I will usually ask a little more each day I ride until this becomes something they can do easily and willingly — and they become able to lift and carry themselves over their backs.

Lad (Megan’s Lad) has been making stellar progress with core engagement. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography

For some horses this proverbial arc and act of de-2×4-ing takes a few weeks. For some it is a few months, and for those who struggle, it may be years. There is no forcing this — but encouraging it productively can create not only the right visual shape but a whole positive domino effect. For with the right shape comes the building of the muscles needed for a Sporthorses career and healthy movement, soundness and topline. Therefore with time and good training, a rider helps strengthen a horse who is more capable of moving with balance, power, adjustable speed, and the ability to stay in front of a rider’s leg (therefore able to half halt or move out as asked).

So go ride, folks  — and aim little by little for that slightly arc-ed ruler.

About Kentucky Performance Products, LLC:

Choose Neigh-Lox® Advanced when digestive health is a top priority for your equine athlete.

Neigh-Lox Advanced provides a scientifically advanced blend of ingredients that work synergistically to maintain your horse’s digestive tract in peak condition by supporting both the gastrointestinal tissues and the beneficial bacteria that populate the gut. Maintaining a healthy digestive tract reduces the risk of colonic and gastric ulcers, colic, laminitis related to hindgut acidosis, and oxidative stress that damages digestive tract tissues themselves. Horses with a well-balanced GI tract have good appetites, absorb more nutrients from their diets, maintain a strong immune system, and stay healthier.

The horse that matters to you matters to us®.