glenatron: (Iris)
[personal profile] glenatron
There are relatively few horse trainers I am interested in learning from that I haven't ridden with by this point, but until this autumn Harry Whitney topped that list. I was first introduced to him by reading some of Tom Moates' articles in Eclectic Horseman and later his books about learning with Harry, which are well worth reading. At the same time I was reading Ross Jacobs' work and that also referenced Harry on a fairly routine basis. Sari and I rode with Ross in Australia a few years back and he strongly recommended that we visit with Harry if possible. Last winter was supposed to be the last time Harry was teaching at his place in Arizona, but ( luckily for us ) the sale they had lined up fell through and he is teaching there for one more season. As we have worked hard this year I thought we qualified for a bit of travel.

Consequently we found ourselves with a five day clinic at Harry's gorgeous Arizona set-up with some charming borrowed horses for us to ride and a couple of mules taking part as well. An excellent proposition.

If you want an introduction to Harry's approach, which looks more similar to what other trainers do than it is, you could read this article on round pen work (pdf) and this book. In essence Harry's work starts from a single point- learning to direct the horse's thought. When you are directing the horse's mind rather than their body, there is no resistance and they will work as well as they possibly can. Most problems we run into come from trying to make the horse physically do something rather than asking them to act mentally.



Day 1


On day one, most people started by turning their horses loose in the round pen and doing a bit of work on catching and holding their attention in this environment. This is not a case of driving them around the pen ( something that is very common in certain schools of horsemanship ) but in using a bit of noise or energy to draw their attention to us so that they could find comfort in being with us rather than focussing on their concerns about the surroundings or the whereabouts of their buddies.

This brought out some points around effectiveness- the importance of being briefly effective rather than begging ( I don't believe there has ever been a clinic where I didn't get picked up on this ) and Harry pointed out that it would be better that the horse get scared and run a while than spend time practicing ignoring us begging. The important thing is to insist on the horse being present, to make it their responsibility to stay with us, rather than constantly asking them to be with us. This is the same thing I do with a horse who wants to graze the whole time, but for some reason I have only made the connection that this can be generalised as I write this.



Harry observed that when a horse doesn't feel good about the work they are doing everything else becomes super-interesting to them. This reflects clearly on my experience with Iris.

Most of the work was closely associated with developing focus, a term I have only this minute connected to it's conventional photographic meaning, which is important. I asked Harry about the use of frequent changes of direction to keep a horse's attention and he observed that you can use it that way, but if you don't get the focus you are looking for, it's actually more likely to stir up trouble. In some cases you are better asking for a single precise step than giving the horse a lot of work to do. I think I was getting to this point in my own thinking, so it was nice to have Harry put it so clearly.

Sari was working with a big reactive horse called Bubba who everybody agrees is the most adorable gentleman. He was very concerned about people after some bad experiences and it seemed that working with a big reactive draft horse might be helpful for Sari in preparation for more work with her small reactive mule.

One thing that was interesting to me was that Harry got her doing sudden and unexpected things in working with him, so he suggested suddenly skipping a few steps, or turning around suddenly and reaching up to pet him. On the whole the opposite of the kind of things that one would expect to do with an anxious and reactive horse. The important thing is not to be hesitant.

I was working with a horse called "Shazam!" and he is very mentally diffuse, ready to tune out at the slightest notice. I think it will be a challenge for me to be sufficiently aware and on the case to keep him with me the whole time, so developing that will be my project for tomorrow.


Day 2


We started day two talking a little about the problems we had seen the day before, the way that the horses were tending to be unfocussed and more interested in their friends and what was going on outside the arena. Harry explained how you can think of it as the horse's mind going out to where their attention was directed and that it works like elastic- the further apart the two ends were, the more tension there is in the system. If we can bring the horse to be present then they will be calmer and more comfortable.

Our horses need us to be adequate leaders, but their standards of adequacy are high, it's a lot of work for us to get there.


One of the elements that came up a few times was around following a feel on the bit- both Lana the mule and Brownie the little arabian were having trouble with following a feel. Lana had become heavy on the bit and they worked on it by having Robin ( her rider ) pick up the inside rein and lift it, asking Lana to disengage. Lana spent a lot of time trying to walk forward through that, moving forward with her shoulder rather than around with her hind feet, but Harry just had Robin wait for a change. Instead of trying to do anything more she just needed to let Lana search for a solution- once she finds it she will take ownership of it in a way that she couldn't if Robin just showed her what change to make. Harry talked about the way Lana kept moving forward as the mule hanging on to the thought of moving forward. The disengage of the hindquarters is asking them to disengage from that thought and when that happens properly it indicates that she has let go of the thought she had. This doesn't mean that she will accept another thought from her rider however- this is why in this situation Harry was asking for a disengage followed by a step across with the front end of the horse- the disengage is asking the horse to let go of one thought, the step across is asking for them to accept a new one.

With Trixie mule, she was working a lot better than on day one but she was still quick to put her attention elsewhere if possible. One thing Harry pointed out was that when you are making a fuss to bring their attention back, you are often better to do it further away from them- if you are too close you are more likely to scare them and send them away, a little further away and they will bring their attention around to you.

They also did a lot of work on making sure that Trixie was looking where she was going before she set off- if they're not looking where they are going then their thought hasn't gone in that direction, so Harry places a lot of store in asking the horses to look where they are going before they set off.

When you need to intervene to bring back a horse or mule's attention it's important not to overdo it - so if they are going around the outside ignoring you, you might stamp your feet or slap your rope on the ground, but as soon as that has happened you allow them to turn and face you and pet on them a little, otherwise you are just drawing their attention to send them straight away again without ever giving a place where it feels good- you need to offer a good spot. If you ask them to move and their attention and relaxation aren't present, you can forget the movement - attentiveness and relaxation are way more important than completing the circle.

A thought can be immensely heavy if it is against you ( most wars were the result of thoughts people couldn't let go of, after all ) but if it is with you, a thought will weigh less than nothing. The goal is to keep them with us the whole time.

Sari, working with the very reactive Beau ( who was called Bubba yesterday, but appears to have been renamed because he is such a grand looking horse ) was preparing him for his saddle but he wasn't content to accept the saddle pad. Harry suggested that Sari swing it around him and against him quite vigorously, sufficiently to cause him to move then just to rub on him once he was moving. If his movement was anxious and tense then the work needed to continue, once he moved in a calm, steady way, he was in a better place. Rather than working with the very heavy saddle pad, Sari used the coils of a lariat to do the same work. I haven't seen the quality of departure used as the criterion for evaluating the horse's response before but it makes perfect sense.


Sari continued the work with the lariat which provoked a very similar reaction but was a lot easier for her to handle and control than a big saddle blanket.

Interestingly Harry recommended that when Sari asked Beau to move forward and he looked at all rushed, she just stick beside him and rub on him a little bit. That really helped him to feel confident in moving off, because he knew he wasn't in trouble.

I found Shazam to be a lot more tractable today but for all that I was sharpening up my act I still wasn't doing as much as he needed - Harry stepped into the round pen to demonstrate some changes I needed to make and because Shazam has met him a few times before, the horse was absolutely perfect, focussed, careful and connected. It was humbling to realise how much better I needed him to get, but we can get there- the biggest thing I needed was just to see what should be available to me.

Day 3


Over breakfast we talked a little more about what I had experienced with Shazam, that he needed me to be an adequate leader and I realised that I really needed to avoid making excuses for him - which is easy to do because he is a weird horse. Regardless of that, he can work with me and think through what I am asking, he doesn't need to be focussed on the distance and it would make him feel better if he was with me instead of out there.

A question came up about situations where you took a horse out of their familiar environment and lost all the positive things that you thought you had. Harry observed that if things fall apart away from home it shows that they weren't good enough at home, but most of us don't notice the things at home that will become a problem when we get away from there. Most horses are not close to sufficiently responsive.


When Gilda was getting started with Trixie the mule was tending to kick out at her when she moved out and Harry pointed out that although most people get bothered by that kind of behaviour, it is only another way for them to say that we're in the way of their thought. She had said the same thing several times more quietly but as Gilda had persisted, she was making her point more emphatically before she was ready to give up on her idea and accept Gilda's.

When Gilda really needed to grab Trixie's attention Harry suggested that it was more effective for her to make a fuss a little further from her mule- his analogy was that if a horse was tied to a tree and the tree fell down, they would be doing whatever they could to escape, but if they were tied to a tree and another tree in the field fell down, they would want to turn and face it. If you're too close when you do something attention grabbing the horse may need to leave or even to try and defend themself, but if you're a little further away, they will probably turn and face you, giving their full attention.

Beau was a little less confident in this session, so Sari had to spend more time coming in to capture his attention and then direct him. Although he is very gentle and likes being around people, his anxiety would mean that it would be easy to set him back and what might seem like a small setback to most horses could take him a long way back.


Working in the saddle, Sari was doing some of the basic work on steering that most of us used at some point on the clinic, which is to ask for a turn using the rein alone, offering for the inside front foot to step across. If that didn't happen, the next step is to shorten and lift the rein to disengage the horse. Once they had stepped across behind without the front feet moving forward ( which often takes some time ) you can offer the inside rein again to ask for a step across and repeat the process until you get one.

That is a fairly standard process, but what caught my attention was Harry's explanation of why you work that way- you are beginning by offering them your thought of turning, if they don't take it then you need to disengage their thought, which is usually to move forward, and finally offer them that turn again. Having disengaged one thought doesn't mean they'll definitely accept your suggestion as a replacement, but until they have let go of the idea they had before they certainly won't be able to. I found this a very interesting explanation of why this exercise is important and explained a lot of why Harry places a so much emphasis on making sure it is good.


When Rob was working with Lista the whole of the plan was about bringing her mind into the pen and trying to keep it there for any length of time. The little mare was very determined to think about everything outside in the world and although she would take direction from Rob, she always seemed to treat it as less important than her own considerations. Harry pointed out a lot of the patterns that Lista was following, like the way she would stare off into the distance and when Rob asked her to bend and come back to him she would have to move her feet as well. When Rob began to reach down the rein she would speed up to try and get ahead of the rein.

I rode Shazam during our session, but the first time I got on it wasn't a whole lot of fun as he kind of lurched around a little and I hopped off again because I'm not a big fan of sitting on a horse for the first time and them being totally weird. We figured out that he probably just wasn't used to carrying a portly gentleman such as myself around the place as the largest person who had ridden him was likely to be Harry. We did some work on getting him to brace up against pressure on the saddle and get used to supporting me a little and then I got back on, whereupon he did a lot better and started to feel like a nice riding horse.

Day 4


Breakfast question time on day four got onto the subject of focus- Harry told us that if we allow our horses to be concerned about the little things, we won't be able to ask for them to stick with us on the big things. We need to be able to judge what is important to them and teach them the habit of giving up a thought they were carrying and picking up a thought we are offering. We may not need to be their primary thought the whole time, but we need them to be able to switch over and make us their primary thought any time we ask for it. As long as they are ready to come back to us, we're in a good place. We can certainly ask to be the most important thing in their world while we're working them- they get to practice tuning us out the other twenty three hours of the day.

Shaczam and I worked first and he was doing really well. One point that came up during groundwork was that when I backed him up I was drifting with him a little, which meant it didn't mean as much in his mind. If he was drifting back to avoid me then staying with him makes sense, but if I'm asking him to back up then the distance between us should increase.

Under saddle I was picking up the rein a little too much - Shaczam doesn't need much at all in the hand, when he's paying attention. Harry has a very definite way of using the reins with horses who are less experienced about following them and I'm going to relate it here because it's very useful:

Suppose I am turning right. I want to take the rein out to the right and lengthen my left rein to give plenty of space for the horse to move into it. If I was to start with both hands in the middle of the rein, I would hold the centre of the rein in my left hand, slide my right hand to the right creating the opening rein but not holding at all, and draw my left hand equally left. This shortens the right rein through my directing right hand, lengthens my left rein and means my hands are centred and equidistant in front of me. As a technique for guiding a young or confused horse while staying centred and balanced, it's pretty great.


I spent much of the rest of the day practicing moving my hands across a lead rope in the way that I would while manipulating my reins.

Lista was still hard to keep inside the pen. Harry worked with her and even for him it took some time until he could hold her attention- she was very determined to be elsewhere. Rob got her to a better place than yesterday, but she still had a lot of unsettled feelings about her and so he asked Harry to ride her a little. There followed an extended session where Harry mostly just worked on asking her to steer and sometimes to back up and bring her attention back to him. Lista was determined not to do anything of the sort and Harry really had his work cut out to bring her back consistently for any length of time. She improved a lot over time, but it will be hard to evaluate the complete outcome of the work until day five. Very interesting to watch, though.


During Bill and Brown's session, the topic of getting big/creating energy came up and Harry talked about how a lot of people find it hard to be that assertive. The intensity required to get a change is a feeling often associated with anger in many people, in fact Harry suggested it wouldn't really matter if there was some anger in there as long as it was gone the moment the horse got things right. Apparently one of the regular students on his clinics is an actress and she sometimes gives acting lessons in the evenings to help people get the feeling of acting as though angry without actually being angry.


Apropos of nothing, a picture of Sari and Beau because I like the photo.

Day 5


On our final morning we started out with quite a few questions- one topic that came up was the difference between a cue and an aid which, from what I recall, concluded that a cue is a way of triggering a recalled response and that an aid is something that helps to guide the horse to a response. Of course there is a large area of crossover between the two, but thinking about those definitions and where they begin to apply was interesting. It also tied in a little to something I had noticed previously about the way that Harry will sometimes deliberately avoid helping guide the horse towards the thing he is asking for if they are actively seeking it, because the horse that searches for an answer and finds it for themselves has a different kind of ownership of that knowledge and the concept will tend to "stick" a little better.


The first pair to work were Robin and Lana, who went down to the playground beyond the arena- mostly we had worked in a round pen until this point, but Harry has a large arena and then an area with various obstacles set up for students to work around. The challenge with Lana was that she had been here before and knew how to do things. Being a mule that meant she was going to do them, but she wasn't prepared to pay attention to Robin when she did, so she was performing them as something closer to a routine rather than paying attention and keeping focus- if Robin asked her to stop or change the pattern, Lana considered this quite objectionable.

In a circumstance where there is a job you want to get done, you need to be prepared to forget that if you lose the horse's mind. You will have to do whatever is necessary to bring them back before you can start working on the task you had in mind again.


After her conversation with Harry on day four, Lista was a lot calmer; she wasn't rushing and she didn't need to charge about in pursuit of her own ideas, she could stick with Rob. This was a massive change and Rob did a very good job of maintaining it.

Over lunch Harry answered a question that had come up regarding horses that fall behind the bit. He observed that it's the same problem as pushing against the bit- in both cases the horse wants to move forward. If they are willing to push against the bit they will do that, if not they will tuck back behind the contact and move off the same. Either way the solution is the same- you need to bring their mind back to where their body is and keep them with you.


In the afternoon the next team of Bill and Brown were doing groundwork - Bill is relatively new to horses and doesn't yet have his own, so this was a great opportunity for him to learn some important basics in a very positive environment. Harry pointed out that it wasn't enough to keep interrupting Brownie's thought, you need to get a change of thought, which is often reflected in movement and in where the horse is looking. At a basic level, if a horse isn't looking where they are going then their thought and their body are going different directions. Until your horse looks where you direct them, and will come back to you whenever you go to change their direction, you need to work on that. Once that is in place, you have a lot of other good stuff you can gain.

When Sari worked Beau they were working on some of that twitchiness. Harry held Beau's rope through the arena fence and got Sari to use a flag to move him left and right, then to rub on him. Then he got me there as well with another flag moving him from the other side and then both of us moving in together to rub on him with the flags at the same time from opposite directions. This was a way to work on the concerns he had about different things happening on different sides of him. The exercise developed until there were four of us with flags moving around the pen with Sari and Beau travelling in between us. Finally we held flags in pairs a bit like a salute between us so they rubbed along Beau's face and down his back while Sari lead him through and the same in reverse when she backed him the other way. It was a very gentle and progressive exercise that really helped build up his confidence and left him feeling a lot braver.


Shazam and I were last up and he was feeling a lot like a good riding horse, albeit one who was quick to take his attention all over the place. I was mostly interested in practicing using my hands more correctly and just getting his thought with me more consistenly under saddle, something I think we mostly achieved. The change in him between day one and day five was extraordinary.


It was a really good clinic. Really good. Harry is as good as people say he is- he has a depth of knowledge and an aptitude for explanation that make him an excellent teacher and by the end of the clinic I felt as though I had so much more understanding of the reasoning behind a lot of techniques that I was already using or that I knew to work but had never seriously thought through why they worked. That underpinning is probably the biggest part of what I will be bringing home with me from this clinic and I can't wait to begin introducing it to my horses and seeing where it will take us. I can already see numerous ways that I think it will help Iris to feel more confident in me and in the world. It feels to me that this was a thing I was ready for in my horsemanship and also something I needed. If you ever get the chance to see or ride with Harry, you should take it. You will be pleased that you did.
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