Thoroughbred Logic, Presented by Kentucky Performance Products: Weighted, Waiting Aids

“So go ride, folks. And if your horse scoots out from under your aids, relax, weight your aids, take a deep breath and wait. Count backwards slowly from 100 and see how your horse softens into the soft pressure. Reward, rest, and try again.”

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 accept and relax under pressure/with contact.

Usually, when I wake up each Wednesday morning, I lay in bed for a minute and figure out how the week’s article is going to go. This week, I had a bit more time to marinate on it as I have been trying to figure out how to describe a feeling. I think the closest I can get to the description is this: Weighted (but not heavy), waiting (patient/persistent) aids.

Here’s the situation: There is a lovely mare that came into the barn a couple weeks back seeking a new sporthorse home. Well-loved by her owner, she needed fat and muscle and some additional training/tune up. Upon the first quick “what’s under the hood” ride, I found myself astride the prettiest 2×4 I have swung a leg over. Sure, she knew things and was not right off the track. But she insisted on her body being one straight line from nose to hocks. If you put supportive leg on to help craft a bend, she scooted forward. Leg coupled with a touch of rein pressure? Scoot and invert.

Ride one here on miss Scotty (Scotty’s Folly). And don’t worry, this was just an initial assessment ride. She’s now busy eating all the things and packing on the pounds. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

This kiddo — Scotty’s Folly — was smart though. She didn’t seem to be running from pain or fear — it just seemed she had learned this effective tactic to get out of having to put the effort in to use her body. She’s big (nearly 17h). And it had probably worked.

So over the next week as we packed on the pounds in the barn and muscle under saddle, I modified the ask. I’d let her wander on the buckle to warm up, but as soon as I wanted to her to go to work, I’d add some relaxed weight to my aids and then wait. My hands would hold a few pounds of pressure and my calves and thighs would be “on” and secure. I’d be careful to only add enough pressure to create a base from which to ask for work, not so much pressure that I made her claustrophobic.

Setting Scotty up at the walk by applying the aids and waiting. Photo by Alanah Giltmier

Then the patience. I’d just hang out like that until she softened enough to say that she accepted the pressure. At first, we’re talking me not moving through maybe a full minute of her trying-to-scoot and head tossing. But then she’d sigh, blow her nose in capitulation and soften onto soft contact. Praise verbally and reward without losing the contact. From there, any ask — any attempt to deepen a bend, make an up transition, or send her forward a bit more — was simply an additional application of already existing pressure.

Create a bend? Increase already existent inside leg pressure, widen my outside rein and close my fingers a little more.

Up transition? Steady hands, and add ever more leg pressure slowly, slowly until the ask is registered.

Come more over her back? Open a triangle to the outside rein, close my thighs a bit more, increase calf pressure, close my fingers incrementally more.

Getting there… Photo by Alanah Giltmier

When my body would reset after an ask, I’d reset to that light, but still weighted pressure. Any reset to leg off or slack rein would see a punctuated scoot upon a return to pressure. But weight the aids gently and wait… and that mare would take a breath and set her body so her hind end was under her and come softly over her back and into a frame.

Fantastic. I’d do very short walk, trot, and canter sets like this before giving her a walk break on the buckle. And I’ll add, we kept the rides unambitious and efficient so that she could build the muscle, have a positive experience and then go rest to do it another day.

Sorting it out at the canter. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

Working with Scotty’s Folly like this is certainly not new. And it won’t be like this forever — just until she gets strong enough and familiar enough with the job to not need as much constant support from the aids. I had to do similarly with horses like Rikki (Tiz So Fine) and Louis (Unbridled Bayou) when he was super green as well as a number of others over the years. Hell, we all do this to a degree when we ride correctly. But the interesting piece of this particular puzzle was the patience — apply relaxed weight (no pulling, no fussing, no changing the position of the aid) and just wait. Trust the process and hang tight (figuratively here, not literally).

Scotty’s Folly figuring it out right quick only one week into her training. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

Importantly, the feel of ‘weight in an aid’ is not ‘a pull.’ It is not tight or restrictive. It is just full of weight — substantial but not harsh. It is as if you make your hands and arms just a bit heavier, your legs just that much more full of pressure. It is what my dog Littles does when she doesn’t want to move off the bed — she takes her 50-lb frame and suddenly transforms into a 100lb sack of immovable potatoes, sinking down into the comforter with all her cells. It also reminds me of the game we 1980s kids played (yes, I’m apparently old), “light as a feather, stiff as a board,” where we toyed with the physics of our bodies and the magical belief in the ability to become heavy or light upon chanted request.

Ramen (Plamen) is another one who needs a bit of steady, weighted aids. While he won’t invert and scoot the way Scotty might, without steady, soft but weighted aids he might shove his chest forward and try to push through me. Stay steady, weighted and wait and that lovely redhead will take a breath, lift his back and move in a way that draws all the attention. It takes strength. It takes patience. It is all worth it.

Ramen (Plamen) making a valiant effort during his dressage test at the Big Cheese Eventing HT at Ashland Farms this past weekend. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography.

So go ride folks. And if your horse scoots out from under your aids, relax, weight your aids, take a deep breath and wait. Count backwards slowly from 100 and see how your horse softens into the soft pressure. Reward, rest, and try again. Like Scotty and Ramen, the ask will get more efficient as they get stronger and more willing to give it a go. What started as a 30 count might only be three count by day four. Thoroughbreds are smart, kind critters, and I’m always blown away by their willingness to give my methods their best shot. This way of training isn’t quite magic, but the results sometimes sure look like it could be.

Good boy, Ramen! Photo by Cora Williamson Photography

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