Thoroughbred Logic, Presented by Kentucky Performance Products: The Try and Its Anxiety

“99.99% of the Thoroughbreds I have swung a leg over respond with utter enthusiasm and a golden-retriever-like sense of ‘sweet!’ and ‘did I get it 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 a Thoroughbred’s level of try can also be linked to some of its anxiety (and how to deal with that).

Thoroughbreds are full of “try.” I am reminded of this when I work with a number of other breeds and they’re like, “Meh, alright, fine” when asked to do something. In contrast, 99.99% of the Thoroughbreds I have swung a leg over respond with utter enthusiasm and a golden-retriever-like sense of “sweet!” and “did I get it right?”

I’m sure there are some neat genetic markers that correspond with the notion of “try.” We aim to breed speed all day long through well-calculated dam and sire matches. However, I’d be interested to see if in doing so, we’re inadvertently breeding for “try” too. Because it is not just the fast horse that wins, but the horse who truly wants to compete/win and has the speed. That is commonly referred to as “heart” on the track. And I’m pretty sure a horse with heart also has a world of try for the human-designed games we ask them to play.

Gibbs (Muntij) is a warhorse who ran 73 times. And yet here he is learning how to quietly plod along on a loose rein while the geldings get to play in the field. Photo by author.

The “try” is that “want to learn” — it is the gameness and enthusiastic willingness to do the crazy things we require: cross the bridge, walk under a veil of pool noodles, hop over the poles, chase the polo ball, halt square at X,  jump that skinny brush when it would be easier to go around it and so on and so forth. Always pat your pony. Always praise the try.

However, when I say that a Thoroughbred is full of “try” I don’t mean to imply that they a) will always get it right, that b) that try does not sometimes breed anxiety and that c) they are not also damn smart and slightly “lazy” (probably better explained as “efficient”).

Forrest (Don’t Noc It with Greta Colley in the irons) and Uno (Hold Em Paul with Alanah Giltmier in the irons) may actually be slightly lazy, but there’s no lack of try once you get them going. Photo by author.

Asking a half-ton creature to sort out what we are asking them to do with their body doesn’t always work seamlessly. Often rider communication could be clearer and equine comprehension can’t always be assumed. In other words, the right response (the right “try”) usually needs to be trained. And all effort in a close-to-right direction needs to be acknowledged and rewarded. For instance, want them to move their shoulder over? They may need to learn that moving away from pressure in general is a desired response. Ask them to guess and it might not work out the way we intend as they lean with increasing pressure and enthusiasm into the aid you’re trying to move them away from.

On another level, that heart and try and desire-to-get-it-right have a sometimes less-ideal side and can amount to increased anxiety, especially when they have to guess. Some of these equine kids remind me of my former college students. Sure, there are some students who read the assignment and produce work that is approximately, kinda, sorta in line with what was required and really pretty OK, but not great. But more often than not, up-and-coming grads worry about the fine-print details, the word counts, the formatting and the “am I doing this right enough?” They lose sleep, ask a million questions and feel anxious. But with enough clear answers or re-readings of the prompt, they produce work aimed to get an A… There is a lot of try, but man if there isn’t a lot of anxiety too.

Uno up and over the Training level ditch at Ashland. He’s committed to getting the right answer and the anxiety stays at bay when explained clearly. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

These young adults remind me of my Thoroughbreds when they are transitioning from track to sport — they can get anxious and ‘up’ when the stakes appear high, or communication is chaotic. To combat this, make the ask clear, break it into component parts and train the desired response. If you go over the details and praise the tries in the right direction, Thoroughbreds (and their college student counterparts) are usually more than happy and willing to jump through the hoops in search of that A.

But finally, one of the things I love most about these former runners is that speed and heart apparently come with ample intelligence. They are smart enough to figure out what we are asking, smart enough to try in the generally correct direction AND smart enough to do so efficiently. I cheekily look at efficiency as a smart form of lazy. If they can get it done with minimal effort, they’ll do that until a rider asks them for more. Sure, they’ll lean into their turns and avoid stepping under with their hind ends: turn completed efficiently, check. But if you get them on the outside rein and ride through the turn asking for their hind end, that try will kick up and they’ll step under and sort it out. The more you ask (clearly), the more they will try.

Ramen (Plamen) is all heart and try… and forward. This good racehorse knows his job and has to be asked to be a little bit less efficient as he learns to use his body on the flat and over fences. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography.

Let me clarify one thing here — we Americans usually conceptualize lazy as slow. This would be akin to the draft horse plodding along, expending no more effort than needed. In the Thoroughbred world, fast is efficient. Fast is… perhaps… lazy. Slow often requires quite a bit more work, core strength, control and effort. With that line of thinking, speeding along, leaning through turns, getting on one’s forehand is all a form of efficiency. It is a ‘try,’ but one that needs more support and a little bit of a ‘try harder’ to get it correct.

So to close up, when I think about it, I’m pretty sure it is the Thoroughbred’s desire to do it right — to try to get that proverbial A — that keeps me wanting to train them. Day in and out, if I was pushing against “I don’t want to” resistance, I probably would have quit by now. But the heart that these horses bring to their retraining, to learning how to do new and difficult things, keeps the training more than pleasant — perhaps it is even heartening.

Good kid, Uno. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

So go ride folks, praise the try and enjoy all the effort these horses bring to well… literally everything they do.

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