Thoroughbred Logic, Presented by Kentucky Performance Products: Make It Predictable

“Each day, we change it up a bit … While I fully believe that keeping it interesting and challenging their brain is a huge plus, these smart but sometimes-anxious horses also need to know how to get the answer right.”

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 certain routines can help to settle a horse. 

I used to think that things that were predictable were boring — that the standard processes of life were far from exciting. I remember mulling this all over while being in a tiny rural town (Lale, near Lake Kyoga) in Uganda while working as a photojournalist. Each day, I would wake up and watch the older women stride off to the market. Day in, day out, they did similar things, walked similar paths, and united with similar friends and customers. There were differences to each day, of course, but much of it was reasonably predictable.

I naïvely wondered how they found satisfaction in the routine. I thought my running around the globe hunting for stories and adventure was different. Yet, even in all that travel, my weeks often came to settle into a pattern… it was just the content of the days and the landscapes that were regularly diverse.

One of my favorite shots from near Lale, Uganda, on Lake Kyoga. Photo by author.

In comparison to the run-around as a journalist, farm life is shockingly predictable. Routine shapes how our hours are spent, and the unpredictable is managed in predictable ways: with grit, efficiency, and a lot of grumbling about the weather and “people.” My 23-year old photojournalistic self would never have believed that I would love this form of repeatable predictability the way I do.

But this article isn’t just about me and realizing that I like having roots and I like parts of the idea of steady and regular. It is rather about a similar situation for the horses that I love to work with.

Ramen (Plamen) likes to remind me that when I change his routine (AKA stalling him for a lost shoe) he’s not thrilled. Photo by author.

Thoroughbreds are smart by nature, but with those smarts can come quite a bit of anxiety. The track is a place of routine and schedules. Feeding at a given hour, workouts at another, a hot walker or hand walk, grooming, more feed, etc. It is all done like clockwork. The horses know the plan and they settle into it.

Early morning workouts at the Thoroughbred Training Center in Lexington, KY. Photo by author.

In their second careers, life often gets a bit more unpredictable. For many, access to regular turnout and flexible owner feeding and riding schedules compose one side of this. The other is what is expected under saddle. Each day, we change it up a bit (hopefully one is not just stuck in soul-crushing circles ad nauseam at the same end of the arena). While I fully believe that keeping it interesting and challenging their brain is a huge plus, these smart but sometimes-anxious horses also need to know how to get the answer right.

And I think that is where predictability and the Thoroughbred come together. Variation is good and stimulating for the brain — new exercises, new times of day to experience new things, etc. No, life does not need to grind within rigid confines. But, as one introduces new things, the pathway to success needs to be clear and obvious — the right answer and how to get there needs to be known. (They tried? Good, pat your pony). I suppose in many ways, that is what quality training is — a set of clear communication, predictable rewards, and consistency. And such training sets up the ability to trust. As a knock-on effect, with that comes a willingness for your horse to try at both the old things and the new.

Needles Highway hacking out for the first time in a while and showing off his ability to trust and try new things (and his awesome mane that desperately needs a trim). Photo by author.

A good example came out of the most recent Thoroughbred Logic Clinic in Ithaca, New York, this past weekend. The clinic itself was a wild success, with super organization (huge thanks to Sarah Hepler). One of the rides stood out in regards to this topic — a young mare who had been ridden a few times at home took her first off-property trip to the clinic. She walked into the arena behaving, but clearly holding it together by a thread. Tina Turk, her super-capable owner provided confidence and made it clear that she had no expectations for the mare, but wanted her to have the experience all the same (rock on — what a great mind-set).

The first exercise I offered in-hand had two goals: get the mare focused and provide success through predictability. Walking her in a big 20-meter circle, I asked the owner to halt and reward the mare when she paused even for a moment (don’t hold her in the halt as that will create more tension). Walk 10 steps and halt again and reward. We did this until the mare took a breath, was able to walk quietly on a loose rein and keep an ear on her human, halting fully and correctly when asked.

We did this for maybe five or 10 minutes, using the hyper-predictable exercise to settle the mare, set expectations and create a sense of security. Tina was able to then swing a leg over and translate all of the quiet and positive from the ground up into her ride.

Sarah Hepler and Lincoln (Auto Be The Man) finishing up a ride at the TB Logic Clinic in Ithaca this past weekend. Photo courtesy of Sarah Hepler.

Under saddle, too, if a horse gets nervous, I respond with predictability. Slow it down and set simple boundaries and systems of reward. My favorite exercises that help accomplish this include the figure-eight and then the serpentine. When a horse is up, worried, or not focused, I’ll generally settle them into one of these shapes at the trot. Each pattern contains a set of repetitive movements with built-in moments for the half-halt where horse and rider can change rein and take a breath.

By connecting turns and shifting bends (slowly), there is space to reward the effort (the response to the half halt, the bend, the coming into the outside rein), and to settle into the shape even if they are a bit too quick. I’ll stay on that figure-eight or the serpentine for as many revolutions as they need to relax and I’ll come back to it again if/when they get anxious, up, or simply feel like they need security. Once settled, I decide whether to call it a win for the day and hop off or to move on to another exercise. These predictability-centered exercises in a way create a spring board to then incorporate new concepts, training, and activities without all the stress.

Wolf (Louisiana Moon) can get tense under saddle, but figure eights help him settle at home and off property. Photo by Pacey Gilham for Cora Williamson Photography.

So when one leaves the comfort of home, these exercises can carry that predictability and security to new places and situations. Warming up for cross-country? A few figure-eights never hurt get the focus back. Dealing with nervous energy and too-fast-feet after unloading at a new farm? Go for a walk and incorporate regular, predictable halts.

I suppose this concept of quelling nerves with simple predictability isn’t that far off from humans either. When stress is high, the last thing we need is something new and unpredictable with which to grapple. But bringing routines that comfort and provide simple routes to “right answers” never hurt. Looked at that way, it is no surprise that even in all my globe-trotting and experience-hunting, I still found a way to start every day with coffee — a predictable set of actions to a clear reward, (even if sometimes that reward was just instant grounds that produced some form of coffee-ish-flavored water. Close enough.)

So go ride, folks. Create predictable systems but steer clear of the boredom.

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