The number one complaint people seem to have about their OTTBs (besides their bad feet and their seeming inability to stand tied to a trailer) is that they are hard to stop. And I think that most people, when they’re riding a horse, like to know that they can stop. It’s just comforting.
I have to admit that I was a little concerned about stopping a fresh racehorse out on the track. And with good reason – we already know that they put their head down and pull against the bit, right? The elementary explanation that a trainer will give a student with an OTTB is often, “They run faster when you pull back harder.”
Well, if you’ve ever watched the end of a race, and seen jockeys pulling up horses, you know that they’re not just dropping the reins and letting the horse come to a halt of its own accord, right? And there are plenty of win photos where the jockey has thrown away the reins completely and is urging the horse on with his hands near the horse’s ears. So clearly, that simple answer isn’t the end of the story. There’s more to it than pulling back and expecting speed.
The first step to teaching your horse to brake quietly and gently, by closing your fingers and sitting deep, is to understand the way that your horse already comprehends downward transitions. And it isn’t pretty, or elegant, and it won’t get you any ooohs and ahhhs from the peanut gallery (unless you were really hauling ass and you impress a bunch of kids who didn’t think you could ride that tough TB.) But it gets the job done, and you can always teach pretty later.
So here is me. I’m out jogging a horse who feels pretty pleased with himself, and knows how to get plenty light on the forehand. We’re going clock-wise, and every horse that goes galloping by on the inside rail sends him into transports of ecstasy. I must gallop, I must spin around and chase that horse, I am racehorse I am racehorse I am racehorse. Even racehorses need light exercise days. But try telling them that.
My initial response is to drop my hands and sit down, push my legs out in front of me, discourage him from going forward. But, as I say, he has a tendency towards lightness. And all I get is a hopping skipping sideways bounding blush-inducing sweat-on-my-brow profanity-laced series of moments that feel like hours.
Then a girl went skipping by on a tough-looking horse, hugging the rail. She was standing in her stirrups, weight braced back against the horse’s gaping mouth, and the two seemed held in perfect balance against one another – he in a slow-motion canter, forward motion thwarted by her weight high and behind his center of gravity. Then she dropped down, put her hands to his neck, and let him spring forward.
It was an a-ha moment. I stood up and bent my elbows, leaning back against the bit. And for a few moments I was like a roman rider, so high I was nearly standing on the horse’s back, and rocked back to feel his stride shorten and his back round, before we dropped gently down to a trot again.
Once at the trot, I was able to start posting again. Not everyone posts, but I still find it an invaluable tool in regulating a horse’s rhythm. I didn’t give him more rein, but I did open my ring fingers to aid in releasing pressure – a reward for coming back down to the trot. And I kept my left ring and pinkie fingers firmly wrapped around the neck-strap of the training yoke. Pulling back on the neck-strap hearkens back to a horse’s first lessons in backing up, and is a useful tool in slowing a horse without touching his mouth.
So – we can stop a racehorse. I know I feel better.
I got a question on horses getting strong at the canter, and I think that going back and teaching the horse to “WHOA!” With a verbal command attached to this command which he already knows is the best bet. More on that later.