Life is Not a Dressage Test

Nor is it the cover of Practical Horseman.

I’m sure that the horses on the covers of Practical Horseman these days are lovely, well-trained animals, and I have nothing but love for them. But when you are starting an OTTB, you are not riding a Breyer Model. So don’t pose.

Your hands will be high, your hands will be low. Your wrists may or may not be straight. Your elbows may find themselves perfectly straight or in acute angles like you are a chicken aspiring to flight. Ride to stay on, ride to make your horse happy, never ride in a pose.

Here is a perfectly content jockey and Thoroughbred working on the racetrack. Notice the horse is pulling just as hard as he can on the reins. This is his job. He is on his forehand. This is his job. I am in danger of repetitive stress injury from repeating this mantra to people struggling with their OTTBs. They run on their forehand. Incidentally, your event horse should be allowed to do exactly the same thing in the gallop lanes. But that is another post.

Notice in this picture (below) what my hands are doing. My outside hand is much higher than my inside hand. I’m sure there’s a rational explanation for this, especially since in every single picture taken in this corner (just past the gate, coincidentally)  my hands are similarly uneven.

Follow his movement with your hands - your center must maintain its own balance.

Most likely he is beginning to cock his head to the outside, and my hands are going with him. If I lock my hands and keep them even, I just have a pulley yanking on the inside bit. Let’s all swear a blood oath right now: I will not pull my horse’s head into place!

Why? Well, because when you pull on the bit, you give the OTTB a racetrack cue: Put all your weight right here in my hands, friend, and I’ll counter-balance your stride.

On the other hand, your primary goal with your OTTB is to help him find his balance on his own. So stay out of his face!

One more look at my hands (below): my fingers are wide open. Every dressage trainer I ever had, save one, is ripping their hair out as they observe this. But the one that taught me to ride with open fingers had the gentlest hands, and the most quiet-mouthed Thoroughbreds, in the business. She was right, and I hate to say it – but this is a blog and they are supposed to be controversial, so – everyone else is wrong.

Your fingers are so sensitive. More so than your wrists and elbows could ever be. All those tiny bones and joints and delicate tendons and ligaments – they can feel the mouth, and go with all the little movements of jaw and tongue and throat, so much more easily than can your arms. Many dressage instructors will tell you to feel with your elbows and shoulders. This is great advice on a schoolmaster. This puts your seat into balance. How often will your seat touch your OTTB in the first few weeks? Probably never. He wouldn’t understand anything you told him with your seat, anyway.

Notice my ring finger is actually laying on top of the rein at this point - only the very tip is hooked around the rein.

On your OTTB, ride with your ring fingers. If that isn’t sensitive enough, ride like a jockey, with your middle fingers. Follow your fingers, as if they are spring-loaded.



Filed under Dressage, Final Call, racetrack life, Stereotypes, Training Theory

8 responses to “Life is Not a Dressage Test

  1. I have battled “open finger syndrome” for quite a while…but the only instructor I’ve ever had who didn’t make a huge deal about it was a dressage instructor who rode OTTBs. She understood my hot, sensitive OTTB mare and didn’t say a thing about me riding off my ring finger. All it took was one twitch of the tip of my finger to get her attention.

    My goal with Gabe has to been to ride with the lightest touch possible, so, there go the open fingers, the end of my ring finger guiding him. I won’t be winning any equitation classes any time soon, but he definitely appreciates it!

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      Jenn, thanks for stopping by!

      You teach us all a valuable lesson: avoid the eq classes, you’ll be happier for it. The sooner we learn to ride the way it works instead of the way it looks pretty, the better off we will all be.

      Everyone: go read Jenn’s blog, immediately. She has the muddiest horses ever.

      Also, punctuation. One of my favorite things ever.

  2. Great post!
    Blogs are supposed to be controversial?? Who knew?

    Your fingers ARE spring-loaded. At the other end is an OTTB.

    Gawd, he’s cute. He’s got such an intelligent face! “Hmm, very interesting”, he’s thinkin’..
    “Lookit where her legs are! I’m STILL not running? Weird!”
    He’s sure thinking about it:)

    Love the jockey shot. Such balanced balls of energy they are.
    First, with distinction?
    OH, I owe ya a link.
    Thank you!

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      Just thinking about the exercise rider pic again. .

      I was reading something once and a rider described her horse as outstandingly clever for understanding bit contact within two rides. Let’s all look at the pic again and think about that. These horses invented contact. It’s softness they don’t understand. And those open fingers will teach it.

  3. Natalie Keller Reinert

    Hardy har har har.

    Spring-loaded OTTB indeed. LOL

    He is a thoughtful young man.

    You’re welcome. I noticed people are clicking on it, too 🙂

  4. and I wasn’t even first. I am such a slacker these days!
    You’re lovely/soft on him. Hands are the toughest to teach to people. The horse does a much better job, if your own fingers are sensitive enough.
    To Sensitivity, at both ends of the reins.

  5. Very interesting. I know zip about how racehorses and ex-racehorses are trained so reading this blog has become a great learning experience for me. I initially was taken aback when I read that Final Call wouldn’t understand seat aids, but then I looked back up at the jockey photo. Duh! They’re probably horribly confused the first time you actually sit on them.

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      Well, I suppose I am over-simplifying just a tad. Jockeys do sit. But if you observe the saddle you will see that they’re sitting more in a “chair” seat, and their seat bones are having little or no real contact. The pelvis is rocked back too far.

      So, changing balance can slow or speed a racehorse: such as sitting down and deep on a quickly moving horse can slow him. But the little nuances of seatbone and shifting weight will not affect him very much, just large gestures.

      And of course it is much the same with leg pressure.

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