The Ever-Popular Brake

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.



Filed under Training Theory

17 responses to “The Ever-Popular Brake

  1. “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.”

    And to think that when I was working up the nerve to gallop in the field, you told me about the “Emergency Whoa”. I thought that’s what the emergency whoa was, and that’s exactly what I did when Vince got Strong in the field. Why, I was convinced you’d done it millions of times!! I really don’t picture as afraid of anything equine.

    Loving living vicariously by you and really enjoying hearing about your adventures!

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      You know what – it is much the same thing. I can’t quite explain how it feels different in an exercise saddle on the racetrack. Possibly the difference in stirrup length, etc., and the real lightning bolt was observing that you set your weight behind the center of gravity, which is over the horse’s withers at a gallop.

      • Sara Tardanico

        I’m not sure why it isn’t taught better. I teach beginners, and one of the things I teach is heels down, weight back and legs tight when in a downward transition. I overdo it bc I think its an important concept. I have them in a round pen or on a lunge line, or maybe on their own, but they have to learn that. Others I know teach their beginners the one rein stop. Personally, I think that’s something to be taught once a rider has leg and an independent seat, bc it won’t work unless you do.
        Mind you, I have a 7 yr old TB, tattoed, but no race record, who loves to run on after a jump. Sometimes he’ll pull down and buck, I have to dig in my heels, sit back and turn his head to go in a circle.
        You don’t have that room on a track. So you have to leverage all your weight and strength to slow your horse. That’s why fitness is important for any exercise rider. Fitness, as well as finesse and calm under fire.


      • Natalie Keller Reinert

        It isn’t taught better because most instructors don’t know the theory behind what they teach. There. I said it.

        Theoretically, I think a kid can do a one-rein stop if they can shove their heels down and in front of them to balance.

        Well, as you say, at the track you don’t have too much room to turn a circle. (Unless you just sort of find yourself spinning in one randomly, unexpectedly, not that this has happened to me!) But you do have a rail. And if you have an OTTB who seems to compulsively bend to the left, well.. I now know why. And I’m now part of the problem. Sorry.

  2. Sara Tardanico

    You know, its really all the same though. If you have a horse that’s hard to stop, be it a hunter/jumper or anything else, you dig your heels in and your weight back deep. Its a matter of leverage. Race riding requires much shorter stirrups, so standing in the irons is the only way you can get the same effect. Mind you, non-racing horse are rarely required to do flat out runs.

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      You’re right! And you know it and I know it.. We’re preaching to the choir on this one. BUT I wonder why this isn’t taught better. Kids are always letting horses tip them forward straight onto their noses. When the girl rode Final Call and he got fast with her, I told her to stand up and she had NO idea how or what I meant. All she knew was: canter means two-point, trot means post. Pull back means stop. Kids do this quite prettily on push-button horses for years..

      Anyway…. So far, exercise riding is just a rather more intense version of regular riding. 🙂

  3. Blob

    Stopping is one of the hardest things to teach any horse (OTTB or not). I remember riding a very, very quick little ottb mare at the canter, going much, much faster than I would have ever planned when my reins broke. I honestly thought we’d end up cantering around and around until she finally got tired, which wasn’t going to be any time soon.

    I’ve always found that OTTBs (well a lot of other horses also) like to drop on to their forehands and into your hands when you ask for a downward transition. Getting them to step forward and carry themselves into a downward transition is one of the few things I really feel like I have to ‘retrain’ rather than refocus. Though of course, when you watch them in the pasture running on their own they don’t drop and lean. So it makes perfect sense that the best way to stop a galloping horse is to balance against them and that they become accustomed to it.

    On a totally unrelated note, my little ottb project mare has been replaced (at least temporarily) but a giant warmblood. I feel a bit discombobulated!

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      Oh what happened to the TB? That’s such a huge change when you get put on a warmblood!

      You’re right, in the field they just change their balance back to their hind end and come downward without the slightest thought. Why is that so hard to teach? Well for one thing, they have to deal with us bouncing all over them. And for another – it wasn’t their idea! So why would they want to do it nicely! Hah!

      In one of Monty Robert’s books he describes a Quarter Horse mare (I believe) who he had to run into walls in order to stop. That happens a lot – maybe actually it should happen more often.

      Sometimes it’s very hard to remember that I’m sitting on a three or four-year-old out there. A sporthorse’s handling and frame of reference at the age of 3 is so different from that of a racehorse’s. Throwing them off-balance and saying “whoa” might be my only option, especially if it is a horse I don’t ride very often. But at least you, who are taking over for me when the horse retires, know exactly what you’re getting!

      • Blob

        You know, we had an TBx who used to take off as soon as he landed from a fence, so after awhile, we just started letting him run into the end of the arena, instead of struggling to bring him down and then taking a motorcycle turn at the corner. After awhile he learned to gather himself a bit after. But honestly, he didn’t have training issues, he was just a brat. When he felt like it, he was perfect.

        The whip can be really, really helpful in reminding a horse to step under in a downward transition, but you have to be careful to use it correctly, otherwise you end up in trouble.

        But yes, the leverage is so important in so many things. I had a major aha momment several years ago with a particularly eager OTTB. When jumping him in the field he’d get very, very strong and i’d wear myself down trying to slow him down. He’d listen and wait for my distances but he wore me out around a course. And then one day, I bridged my reins. Ta da! A miracle. I had leverage AND I had his strength against his strength. Brilliant! Why hadn’t I don’t this all along?!? It balanced him and made him so so much better.

        The idea was to make the OTTB a good lesson horse. And well, now she’s a relatively good lesson horse. Though I think I’ll end up back with her– she’s too talented to stall out. The warmblood’s great too he’s just showing me how much stronger I should be. He’s retiring from the jumper ring and is used to a curb to hold him up. I have him in a french link snaffle right now, that he’s not sure what to make of.

      • Natalie Keller Reinert

        I usually end up with half a bridge, in my left hand.. I get my right hand tangled up when I’m dealing with monkey business otherwise. And oh boy do I get monkey business out there…

        So you “made” the OTTB huh.. Don’t you love those ads for “finished” horses? Usually like reining or cutting I think. I’m always thinking, “well that sounds boring..” Jobs like those are why I’ve never progressed beyond First Level. When you’re the poor kid (and I’ve always been the poor kid) you only get on the green ones, and you always lose them when they’re going smoothly. Not that I’m complaining…

  4. Great post! You are the FIRST person experienced with OTTBs (or racing TBs) who I’ve heard echo my confusion about the ol’ “pulling back on the reins means go!” conventional wisdom. That is NOT what I see on the racetrack when I watch racing, and it’s certainly not my experience with Miles. You’re so right that it’s more complex than that! Thanks for breaking it down a little for me.

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      You’re welcome! It isn’t what you see at all, is it? Nothing is as simple as your riding instructor would like you to think 😉

  5. This post is giving me a lot to think about. Even when the horse is listening and you can halt or transition down from the seat alone you are still essentially standing up and pulling your center of gravity back, even if it’s only a teeny tiny amount.

    • Great post, Natalie.

      When I was reading Secretariat, they described how he wasn’t really ready to run until he picked up the bit himself. Hm, I thought, what about the “pull back means go” thing? Your post answers that quite nicely, adding a piece to my training puzzle.

      I have been doing a lot of plain ol’ walking with Bar–riding bareback because I only have two saddles I can lift one-handed. He and I are working a lot on the weight shift backwards meaning stop. He is actually quite good at it now, so I’m hoping it will translate under saddle. I think it will–he’s a smart cookie, that big, brown horse of mine.

      • Natalie Keller Reinert

        Well of course he is.. He’s an OTTB right? But can they honestly feel you through those big Western saddles? I ask in all seriousness. I know more about rocket telemmetry than western riding.

  6. Nicholas

    Great post, as usual. I put your center of gravity point to use yesterday. The quarter horse I was on dropped down to a trot with much less fuss and bother than usual. Thanks!

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