I am not by any means an expert on thoroughbreds, I have actually only owned one! However, owning a thoroughbred after primarily owning and riding warmbloods has shown me just how different these speed demons are from most other hunter jumper horses.
I like to think of warmbloods as the “dumb jocks” of the equine world. That is not to say that I think they are dumb, far from it! Warmbloods just have that way about them. They are laid back and chill, but athletic as all get out and they know it! The majority of the warmbloods I have ridden just have that air about them, even the more sensitive ones. My old horse, Espresso, was sensitive and hot but once he walked into the ring he knew he had a job to do. He would do his job a little too fast at times, but never second-guessed himself like Chance sometimes does. Perhaps it was simply because he was very broke when I owned him. However, he had been a high level dressage for much of his life and the girl I bought him from had ridden him as a jumper. I did him in the hunter ring. That horse was seriously amazing at all of his careers! He was feisty, but he was rarely nervous. He was sensitive, but he rarely worried. When he felt my nerves, he would take the reigns. Literally, he would drag me around the course. I could get in his face, and while he might not listen, he would not be bothered by it. Last I heard he is living the school horse life and teaching little kids how to ride. I have ridden countless other warmbloods in the years I spent catch riding and working at horse farms, and I found that most of them were pretty laid back about life. They seemed to know that they were athletes and needed to just do what their riders told them. Some were hotter than others, but none of them had the sensitivity I have experienced with thoroughbreds.
Thoroughbreds seem to question everything and feel everything. Chance picks up on the slightest change in my mood. He questions differences in his environment. He worries. He becomes stressed relatively easy. And he even loses confidence easily. I have recently realized that he needs me to believe in him, and he needs me to trust him. My trainer moved the jumps around last week, and as we cantered to one for the first time in its new spot he balked. About four strides out, he did his side scoot but I kept my leg on and got him over it from a trot and didn’t make a big deal out of it. The next time around he was fine, and he was fine at the other jumps. I really don’t think he was trying to get out of doing it, I think he was unsure and when I showed him that I trusted him to go over it he was like, “okay I can do it.” I have also discovered that when he is acting frisky, if I stay relaxed and soft he does not come unglued. It is as if I have to tell him, “I trust that you will behave,” and so he does. When I tense up and worry, he feels that mistrust and he no longer feels confident. I truly think that at least a part of his behavior issues stems from lack of confidence, rather than rebellion.
In my experience, I have found that riding thoroughbreds not only takes a different way of riding than riding warmbloods, but also a different way of thinking. They are highly sensitive to everything: their rider, their surroundings, the weather, everything. Being aware and sympathetic to that has really helped me to have some breakthroughs with Chance. Also, making sure he knows when he is doing good has helped. He gets a lot of pats throughout our rides! Riding softly, not just with my hands, but my entire body is important; for being too abrasive, or sloppy, tends to bother him. Most importantly, I must keep my mind calm and steady – and my emotions well under control. He feels every thought I have. He knows if I’m distracted, nervous, anxious, angry, and he hates it. Maintaining a steady focus and calm mind makes all the difference.
I know all of this is important for riding all different types of horses, and I know that there are laid back thoroughbreds and wild warmbloods. However, it has just been my experience that the breeds are very different, and while it is important to be soft and level-headed on all horses, I find that I must be even more so on thoroughbreds. I truly believe though that everything I have learned through owning Chance will help me so much with any other horse in the future!