Thoroughbred Logic, Presented by Kentucky Performance Products: The Shopping Cart Feel

“The cart idea not only keeps people from pulling, riding backwards or balancing off the bit, but also it actually helps improve equitation and sets up riders to be subtle.”

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 pushing a shopping cart can be analogous with riding a horse.

Shopping carts are not something I ever expected to be talking about in the horse world. Though, to be fair, neither are elbows. And both of those two things go figuratively (and almost literally) hand in hand.

To wax anthropologic for a second, shopping carts play an oddly interesting role in American society. We judge other people’s moral qualities by whether or not someone pushes the buggy back to one of its assigned stalls at the store. Hell, this has gone so far as to be a self-advertising tactic in the world of online dating. More than that though, when left out of place, the carts tend to be a heads-up about what part of town one just entered. Once one was pushed up against a privacy fence of a house I was looking at in Atlanta. It acted as a makeshift “hop-over” to get to the backyard and the cute Pittbul mama who had been stashed back there. (No, I didn’t rent the house, but I did try to pet the dog).

I was trying to find a cute picture of the house I moved into instead of the one with the cart and the pup in the backyard, but no dice. Enjoy a photo of Gibbs (Muntij) trotting around on his first ride here with forward feel (at least on his outside rein) instead. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

Shopping carts are actually interesting. But I digress. Back to horses.

Pushing an imagined shopping cart remains the only way I know to explain how to create a forward feel on the reins. I did not create this concept. I think I saw it in one of the sketches from a Practical Horseman post a number of years ago. But it stuck. I mean, think about it — when you walk at the grocery store, you put two hands on the cart push bar and you lightly engage your core. As you mosey around the store, over curbs and out to the car, the cart remains forward-moving at a consistent distance in front of your body. Your elbows become springs that absorb the shock and you probably never whack the cart into your knees or stomach. The cart also probably never flies away from you. Nope, you just naturally contain it with forward feel and constant contact.

Here’s another version of the same concept from Dressage Today:

So when riding on contact, you basically just need to push the proverbial carriage around. The only change I’d make the image is that the bar sets your hands to be flat-backed — I’d yell to put your thumbs up and let your elbows hang at your sides.

This is of course easier said than done. In the saddle, there is no actual cart in front of you, and the bar is two separate reins attached to the bit in the mouth of a 1200-pound prey animal with its own thoughts on how things should be done. But here are the benefits: The cart idea not only keeps people from pulling, riding backwards or balancing off the bit, but also it actually helps improve equitation and sets up riders to be subtle.

Needles Highway managing to stay lovely and quiet in the contact. Photo by Alanah Giltmier

By creating this shopping-cart contact, the elbows are able to do their job. They stay bungee, absorb the difference of motion and shock between horse and rider and the pressure to the bit stays as constant and quiet as possible. To do this successfully, no less, one needs to be in an approximately upright position — heel to hip to shoulder in a line and with one’s hands at a proper height. Thus, good equitation formed through a strong, balanced position. And from that position and that bungee contact, one can be subtle.

And that whole subtle thing is important. This of course applies to all horses, but even more so to those often labeled as “hot” or “anxious” — AKA the Thoroughbred. If you have bungee, forward-feeling contact, you can guide their movement without getting in the way of it. You can increase the tension in your elbows or close your fingers slightly and shift direction, engage your core for a half halt, widen a rein three inches to move a shoulder over and set them on their hind end. These movements become smooth and connected, and they flow even if the horse is doing who knows what with their head and neck like the greenies love to sometimes do.

Uno (Hold Em Paul) was shocked at being allowed to go fast, but he still stayed steady in the bridle and on a forward feel. Good kiddo. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

But if a rider’s feel goes backwards — reacting to the horse’s movement as opposed to pushing forward into it — it will yank the horse’s head up. With a rider balancing (even in part) off the bit, their equitation will likely tip forward or back out of the centered position and the “back feel” on their reins (which would pull the cart into one’s knees) will check their horse’s forward stride. This of course kicks off the whole slew of negative potentials for the sensitive horse — head tossing, ignoring cues to slow the hell down, inverting, loss of quality steering, and a ride that seems to force the rider to be more and more aggressive with their hand as opposed to the very opposite.

When thinking about contact and Thoroughbreds, it is worth remembering that rein pressure is not necessarily a request to slow down. Contact is an added intensity. With rider leg, it gathers their hind end under them and asks for added power. And for many coming off the track, increasing that rein tension can provide the “go faster” cue the sporthorse rider may be patently trying to avoid, especially if contact is an effort to slow down. A while back I wrote an article on trying not to go fast on the Thoroughbred (find it here) and another on holding not pulling (here). Apparently this is a topic I have a lot of words for.

Forrest (Don’t Noc It) being good and forward without getting fast. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography

But, if one can find that flow, make the elbows bungee and create the steady, soft type of contact needed to push the shopping cart, one can ride a sensitive, forward horse. Better yet, from there, one can learn to ride them well — subtly, kindly, and hopefully joyfully.

So go ride folks, and if you forget how to create the forward feel, sounds like the grocery store is a good place to do some practice.

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