There are lots of terms that are not exactly accurate in equestrian sports, particularly when it comes to describing riding principles and techniques. One example of this that seems to cause a lot of confusion is “the hold” when riding racehorses. Sometimes those learning about riding racehorses mistakenly think that the rider is taking hold of the racehorse. In truth, riders do not initiate the “hold”. The horse chooses the type of hold he will take. The rider gives the horse a place to take hold by putting his or her hands down on the horse’s withers. It is true the rider decides the length of rein, but that decision is based on the type of hold the horse prefers. Once the horse takes hold, the rider can never take or shorten the reins unless he or she wishes to accelerate, Taking tells the horse to go. We can encourage the horse to soften the hold by relaxing our body.
How then do we ride the racehorse?
The answer is with our position. As with most other riding disciplines, correct riding position allows the rider to stay in the center of motion and apply the aids accurately. Just as in dressage and showjumping, the hands are not the primary means of communication with the horse. In fact, home position of the hands in racing is down on the withers of the horse. We put them down and allow the horse to “lean” on them. The main use of the hands as an aid is to tell the horse it’s time to “GO”. When I first started working with Jim Wofford he told me “Kim, the reins are accelerators”. Exactly, in racing we use them to signal to the horse it’s time to run. The horse is not trained to do this; it is a reaction to pulling on the reins.
How then do you stop or slow a racehorse? It’s actually based on the same principles of any classical riding discipline. The major difference is that exercise riders and jockeys don’t sit on the horses back.
The center of motion/gravitiy is in the same place on a moving horse at the walk, trot, canter, leg yield, jump, piaffe, gallop, buck, prop or any other movement. The differences in position for individual disciplines are to make the work easier for the horse and for the rider to stay in the center of motion whilst the horse works. In racing we don’t sit on the horse while he is working. We do sit on him while walking to the track or home, but not during the work. We stay above the horse because it allows him the freedom to gallop. If we were to sit on the horse while he galloped, no matter how fluid we are, we will encumber him.
Dressage uses the most contact with the saddle, jumping a lighter contact and racing no contact at all. However, let’s take collecting and lengthening the horse as an example. In dressage, you sit up higher and use more leg to push the horse into the bit to “collect” him. In the lengthening you use a driving seat, press lightly with both legs to signal your horse to express his energy forward over the ground in longer strides, and soften your hands a bit forward, keeping contact with the horse’s mouth.
In jumping, you sit deeper, and use more leg to push the horse into the bit to compress him. To lengthen the stride the rider softens his lower back and shoulders, but still applies leg to open the stride. Watch upper level riders going to fences and you will see good examples of this.
In racing, when preparing to breeze, we “collect” the horse as we drop down on the rail. We begin to increase the speed, keeping our body behind the vertical of the horse’s motion. He begins to compress his body, at the pole we soften our body and go into the center of the motion which allows him to lengthen his frame, covering more ground instead of taking more steps and “running”. The obvious difference is in racing the horse is on the forehand while in dressage and jumping he is not.
Let’s look at the half halt. In dressage, the rider braces the lower back and briefly stops the hips from following, at the same time adding slight rein pressure, although sensitive horses will respond simply to a deepening of the seat. When jumping, particularly in two-point position, the rider instead applies the restraining aids by sinking down slightly into their heels and bringing the shoulders more upright, adding slight rein pressure as needed. Obviously, in racing the goal is not to rebalance the horse onto his hindquarters, but it is to rebalance him. The rider puts his weight behind the vertical of the motion of the horse and tightens his body for a moment to “half halt”. This is particularly good to do if you are on a horse that is very tough. On some horses you can lift one rein within a stride as you shift your weight back. You would only lift the rein a fraction of an inch and the timing with the shifting of the rider’s weight is important.
While there are many differences between riding disciplines, there are many techniques that are based on the same basic principles, just to achieve a different goal. After all, horses are horses and they are more similar than they are different.