Jess @ Spotty Horse News officially blows my mind by being a psycho – I mean a psychic – because she knew I was going to write about taking your mad, crazy, wild, insane Thoroughbred for a nice on-the-buckle hack, and address some of the stereotypes (albeit, some deserved) about trying to just chill out with a racehorse beneath you.
Now, she is one of the more brave people in the world, obviously, because in addition to trail-riding a Thoroughbred, she also rides a paint mare. Not exactly a trend-setter. Where are the gaited horses? I suppose we are old-fashioned.
Anyway, at some point you have to loosen up on your scary racehorse. You just have to. If you don’t, people will point at you and laugh. (I get this all the time, for a variety of reasons.)
Admittedly, there is a long period of time there where if you loosen up the reins, you get a jog. Just achieving a flat-footed walk can be the subject of entire training manuals. Sally Swift writes a lengthy essay on getting a spooky horse to walk slowly in Centered Riding (coincidentally, the horse was in the indoor at Claremont Riding Academy – you would think you could just run the horse into the wall to slow him down. But horses have a funny way of going faster in tighter confines. It’s that “Where is my open meadow?” claustrophobia kicking in.)
Sally Swift sits and breathes, and may I humbly second that approach.
I took Final Call for a hack around the paddocks yesterday. I would have cheerfully taken him down my driveway and down the road, but my neighbor pastures her lamentably intact palomino beast next to my driveway, and “he’s super-nice with mares, but he attacks geldin’s.” (Remember kids, you can’t hug a Thoroughbred, but evidently you can hug out-of-shape stallions that attack your gelding.) So we’re limited to the confines of the farm.
This was the first ride I’d ever taken with the intent of doing nothing. I’m not good at nothing. Trail rides are excellent opportunities to work on your laterals, in my opinion. I don’t relax by doing nothing. Doing nothing makes me tense.
But in this case, it would be interesting to see how Final Call would react to the concept of just chilling out. Can a Thoroughbred even do that? To be more specific: a five year old, very fit Thoroughbred?
We started out with firm reins, as usual. The barn is on a hill, and as we came out of the stall, he jogged down the hill, his head held high, surveying the terrain. He still finds it a novelty to be ridden out of the barn and around the front of the property, instead of being led to the back paddock for a longe session. I like his attitude, ears pricked and at attention, and it makes me want to take him for a gallop down my long driveway. Just that pesky stallion at the end… too bad.
Going back to channelling a jockey, the quietest place to sit on a Thoroughbred is on your seatbones rocked back, and very close and firm from seat to knee. I think that you communicate your calm body and breathing to them most clearly in this seat. Sit back, breathe, and be cool. If your horse jogs, your horse jogs. Is that the worst thing your horse will ever throw at you? Highly unlikely. If you get twenty minutes of sideways jogging, and five minutes of flat-footed walk, you’ve both accomplished something together. You’ve relaxed your horse. That’s a win. And, you’ve relaxed yourself. Major win.
Also – notice this in the picture – if you are riding with loose reins and are at all nervous about a sudden leap or shy, consider either a neckstrap or a good grasp of mane. The neckstrap (if you don’t need or like martingales, just take the attachment off and voila, you have a neckstrap) usually sits just in front of the withers and I like to wrap a couple fingers of my left hand around it when there is potential silliness in the air. It is an excellent anchor and will keep you from reacting so strongly with your reins that you send your horse into the stratosphere over a simple spook.
And so we explored the yard, investigating interesting and mildly alarming items like some children’s toys long-abandoned to the wasps in between the buzzing bottle-brush bushes in front of the house. I gave him his head, and kept my connection by seating deep. I kept him walking by sitting deep and breathing. Gradually, his neck grew longer, his stride grew slower.
It took about ten minutes to bring Final Call to the point where he was on the buckle, nose on the ground. Then, because I really can’t help myself, I started teaching him to neck-rein. I mean, he already knows how to turn with my body. And the reins were loose. It wasn’t like I was asking for anything hard.
“Crazy Thoroughbreds can’t relax.” Scratch that. Their riders can’t relax. The horses are all right!