Thoroughbred Logic, Presented by Kentucky Performance Products: Hold Don’t Pull

“Reward the try, and as the situation arises again, ask again. The half-halt through a full-body hold, allows them to learn. Pulling takes that opportunity off the table.”

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 holding a horse, as opposed to pulling on it. 

A common complaint about Thoroughbreds in their second careers is, ironically, exactly what they are bred for: their speed and power. I often hear, “They run through me,” “I can’t get them to slow down,” “They are too strong,” “I need a bigger bit,” and so on. Sure, some horses are just going to test a rider. But most just need clearer communication (in the same light bit they’re in). In the effort to slow down, I think the nuance between what it means to ‘pull’ and what it means to ‘hold’ needs a bit more emphasis.

Meghan Crout creating a soft, forward feel on Freddie (Bohemian Ruby) during a recent Thoroughbred Logic Clinic in Ithaca, New York. Photo by Daniel Cameron Photography.

Forrest (Don’t Noc It) is a lazy dingbat, albeit a smart one. He is big and burly and very red, sauntering around with his dad bod and all of his 1400lbs of OTTB momentum. While this jug-headed (technical term, seriously) goober was a poor racehorse and a decent event mount, he is a fantastic school horse. Sure, he’ll teach you to use your leg and mean it. He’ll teach you to wait for the fence. But most importantly, he’ll teach you the difference between holding for a half halt and pulling for slow.

Forrest (Don’t Noc It) with Eric Kasowski in the irons for Thoroughbred School here at Kivu. Photo by author.

See, Forrest isn’t the sensitive type. Hell, my students usually have to carry a dressage whip to make him realize they’re serious him having to do more than plod. But once you conjure up the momentum, he’d rather just keep trucking along than have to use his hind end and his core and sit to slow down. If you pull, he will do what most do (but likely with sound effects): He’ll hollow his back, lift his head, shove his chest and shoulder in front of you and begin to run. More pulling? Faster. Longer. More strung out.

Forrest in beast mode at his annual return-to-eventing show during the Big Cheese Eventing Halloween Three-Phase. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography.

Thankfully, Forrest almost never panics, so when he has transformed himself into a runaway freight train, he isn’t going to get unsafe. At that point though, it’s time to convince the rider that they need to take a breath and try a different tack: hold, count to three, release. Say woah, trot. Suddenly there’s Forrest, lifting into a pretty, over-the-back trot waiting for his favorite “woah, walk” cue and likely veering to the center to steal ear scratches.

So what’s the difference? Well… ‘Hold’ works. ‘Pull’ doesn’t.

Forrest being particularly good in dressage. Photo by the Kivu Team.

A ‘pull’ will bring your hands and arms out of position, it yanks back on the mouth, but often only temporarily. In other words, the arms jerk back but are then hurried forward by the horse. Often when one pulls, one also lets off their leg, so there’s nothing containing the free-flowing half-ton of equine, just pressure on their face. The solution on their end is to lift their head, hollow their back and run into or through that pressure which is now disengaged from the rest of their body.

A ‘hold’ on the other hand keeps a rider’s body, legs and hands mostly where they are. To hold — to apply and maintain pressure — requires a heck of a lot of core (and might necessitate some regular trips to the gym). It requires that one’s abs, elbows, biceps and back become immobile for a moment… two… three. Release. A rider doesn’t have to change their balance. They haven’t ripped the horse’s face off. Their legs have not dropped their support, and thus the horse is still over their back, still balanced, and still strong enough to sit, slow, and step into whatever pace or gait a rider is asking. Hold, count, release.

Megan’s Lad is an exercise in hold, count, release. And when you get it right, it really is lovely. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

In effect, this is an exaggerated half-halt. Tighten your legs, your glutes, your core, your arms and close your fingers. Do not pull back against the pressure, just for two-to-three counts stop giving as much as you had been. Hold (count) Release. And I need to over-emphasize that while this article is about ‘holding’ not ‘pulling,’ a true hold always has a release. Release allows your elbows to move freely and your body to follow the flow of the horse. Sure you may need to hold-count-release again soon, but without the release it’ll be quite tough for the horse to hear the ask to sit and slow.

On very forward horses or those prone to grab the bit and go, this self discipline not to pull/not to just keep holding and not to release can be seriously tough. But the more you are able to apply pressure and then let it go, the more they’ll swivel that inside ear onto the rider, and be ever more willing shift the train out of runaway freight mode. Moreover, this teaches them to be light in the bridle, to travel without exhausting you. So while the rider might need to pony-up for that gym membership to gain the core strength for the ask, once the communication is clear, the ride on a forward horse will become far less exhausting.

Holding and counting in process here with Lad. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

I suppose in many ways, this goes back to the challenge of not micromanaging the horse. Thoroughbreds are smart, kind, mischievous creatures. But if they feel like you’re managing every ounce of every step, things can go sideways (or very forward) quite quickly. There has to be a modicum of trust – a moment when you ask and don’t just tell them what the right answer is, but allow them to figure it out. Reward the try, and as the situation arises again, ask again. The half-halt through a full-body hold, allows them to learn. Pulling takes that opportunity off the table.

Ramen (Plamen) has been a fun puzzle with this whole ‘hold don’t pull’ thing in mind. Ramen came off the track quite pleased with his race record and $200,000 in earnings. When I hopped on the first time, he wasn’t twitchy or sensitive. He wasn’t reactive. He was simply fast. He knew his job and he knew he was damn good at it, thank you very much.

Ramen (Plamen) learning to wait and stay at a reasonable clip on XC. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography.

This kind, super-smart Curlin offspring has taken a while to convince that his job has changed. That said, he’s no less talented at the new one. Ramen just had to find a way to listen through the noise of all the new asks – “move your shoulder over,” “engage your core,” “slow down,” “use your hind end,” “stay light in the bridle”… The way to his brain — and, therefore, to his body — has been the hold-count-release. Sure, having to regularly do so makes him a bit of a core workout, but he has learned to stay at a non-racehorse speed, use his hind end, come over his back and, frankly, make a hell of a nice all around mount.

In the two months between his first and second xc schools, Ramen has become a steady eddy, and the absolute best horse to teach off of – featured here being awesome at Chatt Hills. Photo by author.

I’m excited to see where he ends up in the future. But hey, if he sticks around long enough, you’ll be able to see Ramen and I hold, count, release through the field hunter and eventing divisions at the Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover in Lexington in October.

So go ride folks, ride forward but know your brakes are in the hold and release, not in the pull.

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