Tag Archives: exercise riding

Not The Prettiest, But – Equitation the Racetrack Taught Me

Most of us have one or two special riding instructors in our past who taught us some invaluable lesson. It might be that a-ha moment when you realized where your seatbones actually were, and how they worked. It might be when an automatic release finally clicked for the first time. It might have been a person, or it might have been a clever horse, who taught you that lesson.

I learned my most valuable riding lessons at the racetrack.

They may not be the prettiest forms of equitation, but six months on racehorses at Aqueduct taught me a couple survival riding skills that I use all the time now. Here are my two favorites:

The Half-Cross

A “cross,” as I understand it, is when you hold both reins in both hands. It’s what event riders do when we “bridge” the reins over a horse’s neck for long gallops or a particularly strong horse.

A half-cross is when you hold both reins in one hand. When I am riding in any sort of uncertain situation, I nearly always have my reins in a half-cross like this: right hand on right rein, left hand on left rein, extra loop of right rein in left hand as well. It’s a wonderful feeling of security.

The Sort-Of Racetrack Half-Seat

Exercise rider on thoroughbred

An exercise rider at Stampede Park. Slightly exaggerated version of my sort-of half-seat. Flickr: nikki_tate

I think there’s been some hate going around Facebook about some kind of pose where theoretically advanced riders balance their hands on their horse’s neck instead of maintaining an independent upper-body position, like a little kid when they first learn two-point. This isn’t the same thing. This is pressing one’s hands into the withers, just in front of the saddle, at either the trot or the canter, and letting your weight fall both into your heels and your hands.

This is a happy secure place if you keep enough weight in your lower leg, and keep your lower leg in front of you. This is approximately how one gallops a racehorse, except that you aren’t high up in short stirrups, and bent at the waist over your horse’s neck. The security comes from the weight in your leg, ahead of the motion, and the weight in the withers, a spot that tends to be pretty stable even if the horse stumbles.

I use this when riding big, strong horses with a tendency to fall onto the forehand and stumble. If they do stumble, my leg catches me. If they are just being strong and pulling, my anchor at their withers ensures that they are pulling against themselves.

No, I won’t be winning any awards when I use these techniques. But I haven’t been in the showing business for a long, long time, and I’ve found that for me, anyway, the riding that counts is real world riding — security first!

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Racehorses Make For Tough Bosses

As a teenager, I spent some time as a – no, scratch that – as the groom at a private dressage stable. It was, to my mind, a primo gig: mornings only, sole responsibility for four laid-back Warmblood geldings, a beautiful little barn and dressage arena along the Indian River, a stall for my horse. I had a boombox that myself and the owner, a retired woman with a passion for the German School, alternated between NPR and my Depeche Mode collection. (She liked the beat of Violator, said it was interesting to ride to.)

It was an ideal job, but like any job it wore on me, and my favorite mornings were the ones where I awoke, begrudgingly as always, to a dripping, dark, dreary dawn. That was the best news of the century. Because on these mornings, the little barn would be empty when I arrived, and there’d be a note on the chalkboard outside the tack room: “Day off today!” (Smiley face).

filly taking nap

This little nap is all the vacation I need, thank you very much. You-back to work!

I’d hustle through my stalls, give everyone a grooming and extra hay, and breeze out after an hour, free free free. Usually to go back to bed, but free nonetheless.

Forward we go to dripping wet mornings at the racetrack, and the desire for an easy day, practically a day off, is now warring with my practical instincts for, you know, survival. “We’re walking today!” is received, by me, with a mixture of extreme pleasure (I won’t have to take anyone out in the pouring rain! Do you know how hard it is to ride in the rain when you wear glasses? Not to mention – walking horses takes way less time than exercising them!) and extreme trepidation about the following day (tomorrow is going to suck.)

Fact is, Thoroughbreds are tough bosses. The toughest. Hey corporate types, you know how you dread Mondays because your entire Monday morning/lunchbreak/most of the afternoon is spent emptying the e-mail in-box? It’s like that, only it’s a racehorse and it’s had off one freaking day and the world is about to come crashing down around your ears, if they have anything to say about it. Thoroughbreds don’t want days off. Or vacations. (Unless it’s all-expenses paid to a pasture upstate for a month, and then they’re all over that.) Staycations, the kind I tend to take, the kind where you stay home, preferably indoors, preferably asleep, are not the Thoroughbred way. Racehorses want out. They want to work. And they will punish you for giving them a day off.

And so this morning, several dozen pent-up, explosive, three-days-of-rain-oh-my-GOD-LET-ME-RUN racehorses converged upon the muddy, sodden racetrack all at once. Hilarity ensued. Or, to put it another way, lots of horses performed lots of haute ecole manuevers that were unasked for and there was a lot of cussing and shouting as a result.

Mine didn’t, thank goodness. A bolt here, a spook there; a rear here, a spin there, nothing too terribly spectacular. And yet somehow, I ended up with mud on my glasses. I guess something interesting happened out there. I’m just learning to ignore it.

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Mummy’s Little Racehorse!

In the rather frantic realization that I’m about six weeks away from riding quite a few horses every day, in a fashion I haven’t done in some time, I decided it was time for some working out. Running is in the works – hey, that takes real resolve. First things first.

Today was scheduled to be an easy day for Final Call – we spent quite a lot of time the past two days working on up-down transitions and canter departures and leads, so I figured a nice long hack to stretch his muscles would be just the thing. But what about MY muscles? (Turns out I don’t have any, but that is skipping ahead.) Time for a work-out.

Someone, and I am fairly certain Someone was Ralph Hill but it has been a while, said a great way to get back into shape before a three-day event was to do your trot and gallop sets in two-point, with your stirrups hitched up to race length (or an approximation). He suggested draw reins but I was going to go a little more accurate and bridge my reins across the neckstrap of the martingale. Call it a dry run for the rides to come.

This is a delightfully fun way to hack out a retired racehorse, let me just tell you!

When I was a bad teenager, out on my bad OTTB, being all – bad, I guess, I would hitch up my stirrups, stand up, and fling the reins, hoping for a good gallop – which I never got. Of course, I wouldn’t find out until later that I wasn’t asking correctly.

Final Call brought back my bad teenager memories, but this time I asked and I received!

As we trotted around the paddock he grew round and arched into the bit, and kind of distracted me from the beating that my thighs were taking as I got used to the cramping position I was in. My hands, wrapped around the reins and neckstrap, held my upper body against his neck. It is a surprisingly secure feel, although at first I felt ahead of the center in a way I never like. I got to test it out when he brushed my stirrup iron against the wire fence and it set the fence pinging and rattling – he darted forward and I stayed with him without effort.

The canter was best, of course. His canter is often very round and collected, and it has been hard to get him to stretch out. But in this position he knew exactly what was expected of him. We went careening around, his head low, his ears back and listening carefully, feeling the lack of space and banked turns keenly. It was as fast and as dedicated a gallop as I have experienced with him, business-like and single-minded.

When my legs couldn’t take any more, I stood up and he whoa’d quickly, coming back down to a walk so I could sit down and relieve my screaming muscles. A few turns and then off we went in the other direction.

We were both blowing at the end, but I’m afraid I was rather more exhausted than he was. He looked comfortable and happy; I looked (no doubt) red-faced and wiped out.

I have a lot of working out to do in the next few weeks! Running, for sure! And more gallops like this one. They’re good for both of us. Thoroughbreds were born to run. I’m fairly certain I was born to do it with them!

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Filed under Final Call, Training Diary, Training Theory