“Ever see someone assume that they can just kick into the trot on a spicy horse? I bet that went… interestingly. Incremental asks folks, incremental.”

Welcome to the next installment of Thoroughbred Logic. In this weekly series, Anthropologist and trainer Aubrey Graham, of Kivu Sport Horses, will offer insight and training experience when it comes to working with Thoroughbreds (although much will apply to all breeds). This week ride along as Aubrey discusses her logic on asking for responses incrementally.

Ever use a little too much leg but live to tell the tale? Ever be shocked that you need to carry a crop or wear spurs with a former racehorse? Good! (now keep reading)

At the recent Thoroughbred Logic Clinic, we addressed horses that ranged from four to twenty years old, hot to sluggish, mares to geldings. The great thing about addressing them throughout a single day was that despite a wide range of differences, clear trends surfaced in how to approach successfully riding each one. This week, we’ll take a look at how to be incremental but effective when in the irons.

Six-year old Mountain Holiday, with Anna Sasser aboard, showed off his trot (and need for steady contact and leg) at the Thoroughbred Logic Clinic. Photo by Cora Williamson.

At the clinic, as akin to when folks trial ride sales horses, I was constantly asking riders to do things incrementally. I often remind them that while they figure their horse out, I don’t care if it takes a half of the arena to get the canter or 30 seconds to make sure that the horse’s hind end is under them when they do a down transition. Ever see someone assume that they can just kick into the trot on a spicy horse? I bet that went… interestingly. Incremental asks folks, incremental.

So yes, ask gently at first. If the horse understood and did what you asked perfectly, then you know that is the amount of cue/pressure needed. If they didn’t respond, or didn’t respond correctly, ask a bit more, give a bit more direction. If again they didn’t respond, make sure that you’re asking in a way that is understood and not confusing (you’re adding leg, but not pulling back at the same time, right?), then increase the ask. How someone answers the question “how much leg does it take to get this Thoroughbred to pick up a good trot?” is usually a good gauge of how incrementally one rides.

Leslie Durham pilots Dottie bit by bit into better contact and a more uphill trot at the clinic. Photo by Cora Williamson

This process is like walking into a new store and not finding an employee. Maybe they are in the back… maybe there is no one. Usually, cultural protocol is to softly say, “Hello?” and then wait a few seconds and then increase volume slightly after waiting and making sure you’re not missing something. If you walk in and immediately shout, “Where the hell is anyone?” your proverbial pony might be off to the races. But once they respond, you know the appropriate volume to use next use when you ask, “Are you actually open?”

The annoyingly imprecise thing about figuring out how to be effective when riding Thoroughbreds (or any horse, really) is that the amount of leg needed for forward or the amount of outside rein to balance them onto their hind end might be a whole lot less or more than you expect. Add to that that each day a horse might be a bit different from the day before, and that this might change with the weather, the venue (oh you’re at a show, that dull horse might not be such a kick ride anymore), and your energy (yes, how you show up matters).

Mountain, who is usually pretty quiet, came out for his first show with a bit of energy, and needed a slightly less loud set of cues for the day. Photo by the Kivu Team.

Moreover, add to that, that not every horse rides like they appear. We have some here who look clunky but are light on their aids, others who are hair-trigger-y on the ground, but need so much support that your core and legs are burning within minutes. That said though, if a rider is consistently incremental in their asks, they’ll know what type of horse they have right then and there — every ride, every venue, every hefty wind gust.

At two opposite ends of the spectrum you have two handsome red-heads: Beans (Giant’s Gateway, 2018) and Forrest (Don’t Noc It, 2014). When nervous, Beans only needs a bit of a gentle squeeze through your mid-calf to increase his walk and gently lift into a trot. Any more than that and you might have his head in your lap and an unnecessary and awkward amount of two-beat speed. He requires a steady suggestion of an outside rein and a ton of balancing inside leg to keep him from leaning — but again, with Beans, everything has to be soft, consistent, and quiet. Once you know that, you’re golden.

Beans being good and clearly trying to listen, and me apparently still talking. Photo by Cora Williamson.

Forrest (Don’t Noc It), on the other hand, is far from a sensitive ride. Ask for a trot with just inside calf and he might flick an ear in your direction. Squeeze both legs, nada. Kick a little and he might putter into an on-the-forehand shuffle. Sit up, steady your outside rein, and legitimately pony kick into the trot and he will reach over his back and impress you with his movement. He needs your whole core to hold him onto his outside rein and over his back. That said, if you pull, he’ll enjoy the ability to lean his hefty forehand into your hands. Incrementally figure out how much pressure he needs, and the big red slug who looks like he can’t do more than slowly hulk around will be showing off his initial forays into light canter pirouettes.

Forrest back in his showing days when he really only needed the snaffle rein until the jumps got a bit too exciting and he decided “freight train” was his chosen speed. Photo by Kassie Colson.

Do both Beans and Forrest need supporting leg once they get to the speed you want? Hell yeah. But they take different asks, and if you asked Beans like you need to ask Forrest, one of you might get hurt. Ask Forrest like you asked Beans and you’ll think the horse has no motivation or ability to truly produce a quality trot. Truth is, they are both lovely horses (yes, I’m biased), but it takes riding incrementally to figure out what they each need and to access to the requested quality of gait.

So this is where the “but effective” part comes in. Incremental riding allows the horse to inform the rider about how much core they need in the half halt, how much leg to transition up or down, or how much outside rein is needed to hold their body straight and steady. From there, it is up to the rider to ask at, or just below, that “volume” and then be effective enough to keep adjusting if they aren’t getting a desired result.

Beans on the buckle. Photo by Cora Williamson.

Effective riding is great because it becomes efficient. It is clear, not confusing, and — in this case — completely tailored to the needs of the horse. Having figured things out by being incremental, effective riding then allows you to accomplish the ‘ask’ at the right volume and then get out of your horse’s way. There is no nagging (continued asking at too low a volume to get the result) and no punishment (asking too loud and then having to immediately correct the blast off).

Effective in the case of Beans means that you can make a hot, sensitive horse trot and canter as quietly in hand as on the buckle. Effective for Forrest means he gets a sharp, “now” kick and is thence forward, alert, and light. He is a stellar example of how a rider’s constantly nagging (not enough volume) leg only produces ignorable noise. Annoyed and likely unimpressed, he’ll tune said rider out, pop a shoulder and do whatever he’d like at literally his own chosen speed.

Forrest might trip over cross-rails, but ride him up, be effective, and he’ll answer with an enormous amount of ‘try.’ Screenshot by Alanah Giltmier.

But coming full circle, one of the main reasons for why I love Thoroughbreds is that they overwhelmingly want to work. And moreover, most of them want to get “it” right — whatever that “it” you are asking for might be. So if you can incrementally figure out the amount of pressure needed to be effective (and then get out of the way and stay soft), make your asks clear, not nag or micromanage, they will literally try all day every day. And it is that same heart that got them around the track that will get them to develop the quiet, lofty trot. So kick on (at the right “volume”) and enjoy the ride.

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