Thoroughbred Logic, Presented by Kentucky Performance Products: Crafting a “Thoroughbred-Forward” Team

“[W]hen the owner, trainer, and barn staff are Thoroughbred-forward, that’s fantastic. But it is even better if the team that surrounds the horse … [is] willing to pitch in to the process.”

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 surrounding yourself (and your horses) with a Thoroughbred-forward community.

Thoroughbreds take a community. They also craft one.

I have written on practitioners here-and-there in the past, but these past two weeks have given me plenty of moments to be reminded why I absolutely love the Thoroughbred-forward individuals and experts in my life.

Chilly morning, “wild” Thoroughbreds. Photo by author.

So what does it mean to be “Thoroughbred-Forward?” This fluffy concept is one that is hard to nail down to any succinct definition. That said, I use it to indicate people that embody a combination of patience, boundaries, and the willingness to train at all points. It is about creating correct answers for the horse and not micromanaging them as they try to sort it out. And it is about accepting that their experiences and training are part of a process that takes a while as they transition off the track.

Tricia Ann Albrecht and I reward Mike’s Little Diva at a Thoroughbred Logic Clinic in Ithaca, New York earlier this year. Photo by Daniel Cameron.

This Thoroughbred-forwardness is perhaps easiest to see in the inverse — when places and people are, in fact, not Thoroughbred Forward. The horses get compared (often unfavorably and, I’d argue, unfairly) to the Quarter Horses or the Warmbloods who have been in the sport world their whole lives. In such non-TB-forward spaces, their post-track fast feet on the cross ties, or their green-ness undersaddle are seen as a negative rather than part of a process to be appreciated and step by step trained towards a new career and lifestyle.

Unsurprisingly, the process of taking a horse from the track to a comfort level in boarding barns and in their particular discipline provides ample opportunities to positively shape the resulting horse. It is not just about the owner. It is not just about the trainer (thought both are critical). It starts with the barn help. In my barn, those who clean stalls (thank you!) also have horse knowledge. Better yet, they learn their way around Thoroughbreds as they pick around their feet, ask them gently to move out of the way, and can firmly tell Forrest (Don’t Noc It) to knock it off and get out of the doorway.

Koops being handsome, but also a cute nosey annoyance when stall cleaning. Photo by author.

Handlers who turn out know to be patient with the new TB kids coming in and out of the stalls. They walk one or two to the fields confidently on a loose lead, expecting quiet compliance. But they are also patient should today be a day of a critter that is more pogo-stick than horse. Pause, laugh at them, correct the behavior and carry on on a loose lead. Yes, a sense of humor is required.

And when the owner, trainer, and barn staff are Thoroughbred-forward, that’s fantastic. But it is even better if the team that surrounds the horse — the community of vets, farriers, body workers, dentists etc. also are willing to pitch in to the process.

Dr. Diane Febles skillfully works on the new semi-feral Thoroughbred, Sailor. Photo by author.

Is it your farrier’s job to train your horse to stand on the crossties? No. But it is super helpful when they recognize the nerves of the horse and move slowly, creating a set of small moments from which to learn and have positive experiences so that it is easier the next time, and even then easier the time after that.

Is it your vet’s job to make sure that your horse can jog for flexions without becoming a kite? Nope. But it is helpful when they are willing to accommodate the horse, factor in the chill, the new environment and be able to still look for soundness or lameness when the feet do make contact with the ground.

Uno (Hold Em Paul) requires creative farrier work, and I’m so grateful for my team who is able to take the time to get it right and keep him running. Reverse heart bars by Eric Gilleland. Photo by author.

Two weeks ago, I had a horse come into the barn who has highlighted all of this. The five-year-old Thoroughbred who goes by the name of Sailor (he’s not Jockey Club registered) is somewhat unhandled. What I know of his story is slim, but I gather that for most of his life he has hung out in a field with other horses, dodging human interaction. A contact managed to get him out of that field and to her farm, and eventually from her farm to mine (thanks, Sally).

This has meant that Sailor has had a whole bunch of assumed “firsts” in these past two weeks. First time walking in and out of stalls like mine. First encounter with a pig. First hoof trim in probably quite a while. First dental in years. First turnout and having to be caught in a new place. First crosstieing… first learning of how to be hosed down… all the things. Sure, some of these things may have happened at other points in his life, but best at this point to assume it is all new and go from there.

Sailor in the early stages of lunge training. Photo by author.

And in this, I have been so impressed with the team. My awesome barn helpers are careful in his stall, but also take time to make the experience positive with extra neck scratches and slow movements. My amazing dentist (thanks, Diane) patiently was willing to go slow, remain efficient and teach him how to handle getting his teeth floated. My farrier (thanks, Eric) was willing to trim his feet in the stall, slowly slowly allowing the handling of his hooves and legs to be a positive experience.

Let me point out that they don’t have to do this. They didn’t have to take the time and the risk to move slowly, to create positive experiences. But they were willing to try and to pitch in to his training. My barn help and stall cleaners don’t have to slow their bodies down, making all interactions productive and kind. But they do.

Tuesday barn help extraordinaire, Ashley Clarkin, taking some extra time with Sailor in the field. Photo by author.

In this crazy community that these horses have inspired, there is a huge willingness to try. Unsurprisingly, I suppose, that the concept of “try” is also one of my favorite qualities embodied in the Thoroughbreds themselves. So while these horses don’t necessarily have the agency to craft a community directly, when you find Thoroughbred-forwards folks, there’s no doubt about the quality of fit. And when the level of try of the person and the horses match, in a way, the level of community these horses need seems to be exactly what they are able to build.

Talk about try. Uno was on the hunt for the flags at the last Big Cheese Eventing Horse Trial. Photo by Rachel McGinnis.

Go ride folks, and here’s hoping that the community that your horse inspires is one that brings out all the try and all the best people.

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