Thoroughbred Logic, Presented by Kentucky Performance Products: Confirm the Ask

“The more practiced the language of ask and confirm, the more ‘normal paced’ things can go and the better the trust and overall communication gets.”

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 ensuring that we, as horse handlers, respond to the ask with appropriate timing.

There are always parallels between my horses and my life. Things here have been hectic — I’m planning a move (horses, business and all), trying to get life in order and not go under in the process… oh and still riding all the horses, running all the programs and managing the barn. Weeee…

On Sunday, my friend was supposed to come down, help fix a few things around the farm and hang out for dinner. Right when Thoroughbred School was getting going he messaged with a super reasonable excuse for not being able to make it. Totally fine, I was midway through tightening girths and checking saddle placement for four riders and failed to respond. Teach Thoroughbred School, hustle around set up for the roundtable, host the livestream… suddenly it is 7:30 at night and I haven’t responded.

Thoroughbred School students and mostly well-behaved horses heading out for a hack in the field to cool out. And yes, that ham is Forrest (Don’t Noc It). Photo by author.

I grab my phone and see “Hey, I’m really sorry. I hope you’re not upset. Wish I could have made it… etc. etc.” And suddenly I had to backtrack. I honestly hadn’t minded. But I missed the window to have texted back to say that his action wasn’t going to upend my day. I missed the moment to confirm, “Yes, this is OK.”

After it was all clear that no one was actually upset, I chuckled — this was exactly what I had been teaching the Thursday before. If the horses check in, you have to confirm or correct. No matter how hectic things are, you can’t check out and just go offline, otherwise everything goes sideways… or more commonly with my Thoroughbreds, it all goes just a bit faster than folks might like.

Working student, Greta Colley pilots Forrest at a recent show. Forrest is a whole lot more horse off property, and the moments to confirm “slow” or “steady” become ever-more important. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography.

In well-worn partnerships, we do this all the time. It is so common that most riders probably don’t realize it. Your horse feels both contact and leg and knows to lift their back. They feel the half halt and know that they should start to sit up, prepare for the transition or change of pace. You think left lead, they take it. As a rider you come to know your horse, they know you and the language you two speak becomes one in which everyone is pretty well fluent.

But that takes time. A lot of time, training, and experience. Put the same rider on a new horse and there will be some miscommunication — some necessity to confirm that the ask was properly translated or to correct that the action wasn’t what was asked for. This sounds overly simple, but if a rider misses the tiny moments where a horse take a half breath and for a few splits of a second, waits to see if they guessed correctly — the ride quickly spins out of control.

Rhodie (Western Ridge) and I go back a number of years. The ride has smoothed out over time, but he remains one who doesn’t have a ton of tolerance for error or correction after the point of him checking in… especially off property. You’re a good dragon, all the same, Rhodes. Photo by Adela Narovich.

The more I roll this around, the more I think that the missed moments of confirmation are a significant component of what unravels trial rides on sales horses. Folks end up like me and the text — too late to the situation to confirm or correct, and therefore the partners have to guess. The more they guess and are told later that their choice was wrong (as they get hauled up for going to fast, or frightened, now ignore “slow down” aids and run around the arena or carry on too slow, or in the wrong gait…) the less they trust the rider, and the louder the rider begins to believe their aids have to be to contain or drive the horse. You see the spiral…

Ramen (Plamen) is a seriously good kid, but he is green and can get strong in the bridle. Steady, clear confirmation of “slow” keep him from reliving his quite successful race days on or off property. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography

Nope — loud isn’t what anyone wants. Rather, the timing needs to be better — more dialed in. And the best way to do that is to slow everything down. Slow down the ask so that the moment to confirm or correct is longer, more pronounced. Want a canter from a trot — don’t sit and drive quickly. Wait, set them up, add leg, see how they respond. Let a transition take longer. Hell, if that transition takes half the arena on a new horse, that doesn’t bug me.

Yep, confirmation is important, even when ponying. Here we have Forrest ponying the rapidly healing Koops. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

And as they transition into that canter, there will be a fleeting moment when they will want to know if that was the right move. Add a touch more leg if they pause, flick an ear on you and effectively ask “Is this what you wanted?” “Yes, forward.” If a rider is really paying attention, they can use that split second to set the pace — add leg to send them on, or steady by dropping a tail bone and adding a small half halt. The more practiced the language of ask and confirm, the more “normal paced” things can go and the better the trust and overall communication gets.

But when everything spins a bit out of control — whether it be the horse is jigging or the logistics of a trans-east-coast move is just making everything haywire — focusing on the points to ask and confirm seems like a good place to streamline, slow down, and iron out the chaos. Apparently I need to take my own advice.

Maddy Shumpert hopped on Neumann (Bubba Bob) for the first time at a makeshift show we hosted at home this past Saturday. Her moments of confirmation were clear and Neums appreciated the ride. Photo by Kelly Robison.

So go ride folks, and if communication seems off – slow it all down so you can find those moments to weigh in.

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