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.
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.
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.