A Conversation With Harry Whitney - Part 3

This is the third of 4 parts of a conversation I had with American horsemanship clinician Harry Whitney in June 2017 in Tennessee, USA.

In this video we discuss the differences between a horse's primary thought and secondary thought and how we use sympathy versus empathy in the training process.

You can find out more about Harry and his clinic schedule by going to his web site: http://harrywhitney.com/

 

A Conversation With Harry Whitney - Part 2

This is the second of 4 parts of a conversation I had with American horsemanship clinician Harry Whitney in June 2017 in Tennessee, USA.

In this video we discuss how an understanding of a horse's thoughts can be applied to the training process.

Harry is in my opinion the best horseman in the world at the moment and his approach on working with a horse's thoughts in the training process is far in advance of anybody else I have come across. I believe he is the closest thing we have to Tom Dorrance these days. So if you are a fan of Tom Dorrance, then attending Harry's clinics is a must for you.

You can find out more about Harry and his clinic schedule by going to his web site: http://harrywhitney.com/

 

A Conversation With Harry Whitney - Part 1

This is the first of 4 parts of a conversation I had with American horsemanship clinician Harry Whitney in June 2017 in Tennessee, USA.

This first video mainly deals with clinic format and teaching. Subsequent videos will focus more on horses and training.

Harry is in my opinion the best horseman in the world at the moment and his approach on working with a horse's thoughts in the training process is far in advance of anybody else I have come across. I believe he is the closest thing we have to Tom Dorrance these days. So if you are a fan of Tom Dorrance, then attending Harry's clinics is a must for you.

You can find out more about Harry and his clinic schedule by going to his web site: http://harrywhitney.com/

 

The Picture In Our Mind

If I had no idea what a horse looked like, what is the likelihood that I could draw an accurate picture of a horse? There is probably only an extremely slim chance the drawing would look like a horse. But what if somebody told me a horse had a tail, two ears, four legs, long neck, eyes set to the side of the head, long face, what are the chances the drawing looked like a horse? Well, probably somewhat better, but still very unlikely it looked anything like the horse.

 

Yet, we often ask a horse to do something with only the smallest idea of what it is we want it to do. In our mind, we have a general picture of what a halt may look like - such as the horse’s feet stopped moving. But the image is so broad that if we take that as the definition of a halt, then we would reward the feet stopping with the horse leaning on the bit or stopping abruptly or dribbling to a stop or stopping with an upside down top line or swinging the hindquarters to the outside etc. Any of those stops would be acceptable if we only think of a halt as a stopping of the feet.

 

To complicate things even further, because we don’t have a set of specifics that define our halt, sometimes our halt will look like one thing and other times we reward when it looks like something else. There would be a lack of consistency as to what we want our halt to look like. Imagine how distressed I would feel if the person asking me to draw a horse kept telling me different details about what a horse looked like. I would end up not knowing what to draw to keep them happy.

 

In my book, The Essence Of Good Horsemanship I devote an entire section to the concept of clarity because along with focus and softness it is one of the pillars underpinning good horsemanship. A large part of this clarity is consistency. In fact, it could be argued that consistency is the most essential element of clarity. It is impossible to convey our intent during training without it.

 

This entire ramble is building towards emphasizing the importance of people having a clear picture in their minds of what the task they are asking a horse to do will look like when it’s done.

 

It is such a common issue that when somebody asks a horse to do something their own understanding of what they want is so vague that they don’t know what they are looking for. At clinics, many people will try to get a horse to do something, then stop and then turn to me and ask if that was okay.  I try to impress on them the importance of knowing what they will reward before ever asking anything of their horse.

 

Without that clear image in a person’s mind they can’t convey the same clarity to their horse. They won’t reward for the same result each time, but for different results. This will often create a huge stress in a horse’s life and make situations worse. Horses need clarity in order to have confidence and if we are not clear in our mind what we want we can’t communicate the clarity that a horse needs because we will lack consistency.

 

So the first part of the asking a horse to do something begins with knowing what it will look and feel like when a horse gets something close to being right, even before we ask.

 

But there is a second part that is equally important.

 

When a rider or handler is working with a horse I want them to ask themselves “was that okay, what could have been better, was it better than last time” in everything they ask of their horse.

 

We need to compare what a horse gives us with the image of what we wanted. It is the only way we can be sure if we need to do more or do less and what we need to change in how we ask the second time.

 

Many times at a clinic I will ask a student how a transition felt or how a turn felt and the answer will come back “I don’t know.” That lack of awareness will get in the way of progress.

 

I think people often lack the focus of keeping track of several things at once and so when they are thinking about say a walk to trot transition, they notice how much effort they needed to push the horse forward or how fast the trot was. But in doing that they are unaware whether the horse leaned on an inside shoulder or flew his head up or ground his teeth or swished his tail. Having more than one thing to be mindful about seems to be a big ask for many riders.

 

However, if we are not capable of asking ourselves “was that okay, what could have been better, was it better than last time”, there is no point in keeping a mental picture of what it should look and feel like before we present a job to our horse. Both sides of the equation of knowing what a change should feel like and knowing what it felt like are inseparably linked. Keeping track of one is useless without being aware of the other.

 

I know this is often hard for people who are struggling with awareness of what is going on under the saddle. It is normal for a rider to be unsure of what they want and be able to compare it with what they got. But it is a learned skill that every rider who strives towards progress must learn through making the effort to keep remembering to ask themselves “what do I want it to feel like and what did it feel like?”

 

Photo: Do you think this rider is keeping track of the resistance in her horse?

 

 

Home From the Horse Breaker

In a recent discussion, the topic came up of taking a horse home from a trainer’s care after it has been started under saddle. Most of the time people are concerned with the question of should they spell their young horse or should they continue the work without a break. After that, the next question they have is either what type of work should their horse get or how much work is okay for a young horse?

 

Like most professional trainers who have been in the business for awhile, I have started too many horses to keep track of but a significant number of those horses have gone home and been rested for weeks or months and then sent back to me to be restarted without the owner doing much at all between visits. I think it is largely because either the owner does not have the confidence to ride their green-broke horse at home or they don’t know what type of work they should do or thy fail to make time to work their horse. So here are my tips for what should happen when a horse goes home from the breaker.

 

I believe that when a horse finally comes home the owner should put enough rides on their horse for them to figure out and gain confidence in their new relationship. I think it is a mistake for a horse to be immediately spelled after being at a trainer. Owners need to know what they brought home and have confidence that they have a horse they can feel safe riding and they are satisfied with the job they paid for. I usually recommend 20 to 30 rides is enough to give an owner a good gauge of their horse and how they feel before deciding to spell their baby. But the actual number depends on the horse – some may be great with less than 20 rides and some may need significantly more than 30.

 

I also recommend the rides are not long and definitely not hard work. Short rides that involve mental connection and consolidating the clarity of the reins and rider’s legs rather than physical exertion are far more valuable. I am not from the fraternity that believes a sweaty saddle blanket is the way to go for a young horse.

 

Once an owner feels confident in the horse they brought home, I am all for spelling a young horse for a few weeks. In fact, I like to spell horses regularly until they reach about 5 to 6 years of age.

 

However, many people don’t take my suggestion for getting 20 to 30 rides before resting their horse. I believe this is either they are not confident they have a safe horse or life gets too busy and working the horse takes second priority.

 

If it’s a matter of not enough time to ride your green-broke horse, then I suggest you put off sending your horse to a trainer until you can be sure you will have time to ride when the horse comes home. It may mean planning several months ahead or even a year ahead, but it is worth doing.

 

If the problem is a lack of confidence, then I believe the best way around it is two-fold. First, make sure you get plenty of experience handling and riding your horse while it is at the trainer before taking it home. When I was training full time I use to insist owners came along as often as possible to watch my sessions with their horse to observe and ask questions. As the horse’s education started to progress, I would have the owners do ground work under my guidance for a few sessions. When the horse was in a good enough frame for the owner to ride, I would give them lessons in the round yard, arena and on the trail (with and without a companion horse). It was my view that a horse should not go home UNTIL the owner and I both felt that things were working well enough between them that it was time to take it home.

 

The second part of helping owners with a lack of confidence was for me to visit them or have them come to me for semi-regular lessons. This seemed to help a lot of people because it meant I could keep them on track with the education, but also knowing we were going to have a lesson would encourage people to actually ride their horse.

 

These simple tips helped keep more people motivated to work with their young horse once I had finished my part of the training. It wasn’t a certain guarantee, but I saw a significant improvement in the success rate months later when an owner became involvement in the training process and later take up my offer of follow-up lessons.

 

My suggestion to anybody looking for a trainer to start their horse under saddle is to search for someone who has good communication skills and wants to get owners involved in the training AND offers after training service as you and your horse get to know each other.

 

It is a big change in a horse’s life to transition from purely a lawn mower to a riding horse. It alters the dynamic of the relationship we have with our horses that sometimes requires a little help and commitment to putting in the time.