Thoroughbred Logic, Presented by Kentucky Performance Products: How To Stop Gripping the Go Button

“Balance means the ability to flow with what the horse tosses at you and the capacity to retain that quiet control through transitions or comical behavior. Ultimately, a balanced rider can be a soft rider.”

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 balance and being an effective rider.

I have been teaching Thoroughbred School from my facility in Georgia for nearly a full year now. I’ll have to put together a retrospective on that chapter of the project once we tie up this final Georgia semester in a couple weeks. However, one of the things I have realized is that, in general, I’m not conjuring magic to make these Thoroughbreds ridable. Rather, most of what I’m doing is reinforcing simple, foundational equitation to make the riders strong and stable enough that they can be both light and effective. That combination makes them capable of effectively piloting even the “hotter” of the equine group.

A favorite part of each Thoroughbred School class is the cool out hack on a loose rein around the pond or up the driveway. Photo by author.

A major piece of that puzzle is rider balance. I have talked about this a bunch in the past and I’m sure I’m not done exhausting the topic. The most important thing is that if a rider is balanced (I still like the classic heel, hip, shoulder in close to a line) then they don’t have to use extraneous body parts to grip and try to hold on — aka one’s hands or in today’s case, their lower legs. Balance means the ability to flow with what the horse tosses at you and the capacity to retain that quiet control through transitions or comical behavior. Ultimately, a balanced rider can be a soft rider. And a soft rider can be effective in the game of keeping these horses bred for speed to even the most lovely and quiet of gaits.

Gibbs (Muntij) is a warhorse who ran 72 times and is figuring out soft and quiet under saddle. This once quite fast fellow is now settling into a life of soft measured gaits. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

If the rider’s position is not well established, there will be the desire (especially in adult riders who have acquired a reasonable fear of equine-assisted gravity checks) to hold on. Some will grab with their hands or use them for balance (especially in transitions, or when half-seating), but the often less-noticable “grab” or “hold” comes with the lower calf. And it is that same lower calf that also encourages forward. You can see the outcome. Speed. And generally not balanced, round speed, just flat general “gotta get going” rushing speed… which then often runs literally into a panicky hand. (And thus commences the cycle of increasing both horse confusion/flight response and rider anxiety).

Neumann (Bubba Bob) is turning into a heck of a lovely ride, but out on XC he can still be a bit strong so leg needs to stay supportive as opposed to driving. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

Many years ago I had a student who held on with her heels. She turned them lightly up into Ranger’s (Cowboy Night) side at the walk — trying to hold her position in place. Ranger, being the solidly good citizen that he is, was like, “Ummmm ok.” So he just kept doing walk-to-canter transitions. He never got truly fast, he just kept trying to understand the ask as she gripped at the walk with the part of her body that translated to “go.”

Ranger (Cowboy Night) being a super solid citizen at the Big Cheese Eventing Show with working student, Alanah Giltmier in the irons. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography.

In general, a rider’s lower leg does two primary things — support and induce forward. Support comes from the mid and upper calf and has a lifting, holding effect that can start a half-halt, create a bend, help steer, and support and maintain lift and rhythm. The lower calf, ankle and heel *can* be directional, sure, but mostly they constitute a rider’s primary forward cues.

So if a rider’s lower leg — that low calf-ankle area — is being used to hold onto the horse, or even to lightly grip, the horse is eventually going to lose the “support” translation in place of the “go” cue. To be light, one must not only be able to apply an aid, but also take it off. And if that aid is part of a rider’s balance, the “off” part isn’t really going to be possible, especially when the chips are down.

Titan (Titan’s Crown) is a gorgeous ride, so long as you don’t grip with your heel — then his 12 foot stride extends swiftly towards 20. Working student, Greta Colley (featured here) has done a stellar job of learning to keep him quiet and responsive on the flat by staying soft and keeping the lower leg supportive. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

Thus, to transform the horse’s “go” to “slow” and produce a Thoroughbred that is tractable and quiet, often we just need to fix rider balance and aids first. Sure, the horse might still be a speedy one — there’s one in every dozen who really does just want to go forward. But even on those naturally high geared ones, this will help — hell, getting that mid-calf on for support and that lower calf off of these guys is even more critical when you’re riding the equine equivalent of a Ferrari.

This is where I go to two tests:

  1. Can you ride with your calves entirely off the horse and remain balanced and capable at all three gaits. Stick your lower legs out away from their sides and walk, trot and canter – don’t let them touch.
  2. If you still had balance there, apply the mid-calf at 50% but be able to lift it off the horse at intervals – no calf on the short sides of the arena f0r instance. All the while, the heel, ankle and very lower calf stay clear of the horse’s side.

Ramen (Plamen) is one of those keen, forward-going guys. He needs substantial calf support, but the go button equally needs a wide berth. Photo by Greta Colley

The ability to focus on the lower leg and recognize what part of it is ‘on’ and what part is ‘off’ is critical. Then once astride a spicy dragon, you just need to sort out how much supporting leg they need from the mid-calf. Some need a ton! But the awareness born of that balance and understanding of the multiple leg aids means that one can support and balance a forward horse with their calf while avoiding smacking into or worse, gripping that big red “GO!” button.

Go enjoy the ride folks, and enjoy the speed when you ask for it.

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