“Six Colts, Two Weeks” - An Excerpt
An excerpt from a novel that illustrates a once-in-a-lifetime horse-training experience at a colt-starting clinic with distinguished horsemanship clinician Harry Whitney.
By Tom Moates | July 16, 2017
Editor's note: This is an excerpt from “Six Colts, Two Weeks,” written by frequent America’s Horse contributor Tom Moates. This unique memoir will give you insights on young-horse training straight from clinician Harry Whitney.
Day One, Afternoon, Bailey at the Stall
“If in every experience we share with a colt we establish the kind of communication, consistency, relaxation and willingness Harry did with Bailey when simply going to fetch her from the stall, just consider how all the big things might go when it is time to approach them.”
After lunch and the discussion that followed, we headed outside and across a large, open parking area from the bunkhouse, round pen and arena to a set of pipe stalls situated under a large roof. Each morning, we fetched the colts from a pasture at one corner of the property and put them into the stalls so they would be close by for the day’s work.
Bailey was the second horse to go on the first day. She was one of the larger horses in the group. Harry decided to start her session at the very beginning most point, entering the stall, haltering the horse and exiting the stall.
Harry puts the halter on Baily in the stall at the beginning of her first session. Photo ch04-01.
I had witnessed Harry help people at his regular clinics many times with the seemingly simple task of getting their horses from the stalls. Sometimes, a whole session ended up unfolding at the stall and never getting to the round pen or the arena due to the work that got done there on those “simple things.” I greatly appreciate that this happens at Harry’s clinics because it points to the fact that the trouble our horses experience can be present in all the things we do with them, big or small.
If somebody comes to a clinic with a horse that isn’t thinking forward and has been having trouble with the walk-to-trot transition, for example, there’s a very good chance Harry can address this holding back of their thought in the stall, on the walk to the arena, or pretty much anywhere. So often, people don’t see such troubles in the microcosmic moments until they are pointed out to them. Finding the trouble with horses in the smaller presentations always has fascinated and challenged me, and has prompted me to improve my awareness to look for such things in my own horses. Thus, I was eager to see what Harry would find in this young horse in the stall environment, since she would have far fewer established people problems than the older horses at clinics I’d seen before.
Interested in hands-on ranch horse training articles, competition coverage and helpful show tips? Subscribe to the Ranch Horse Journal, our quarterly magazine that is dedicated to the American Quarter Horse ranch horse and ranch horse competition!
What unfolded at the stall took very little time, less than 10 minutes, but I found it to be a great lesson. Harry entered the stall with a halter and met Bailey who was towards the back, opposite the gate. He had no problem approaching her. He offered the halter and she was fine about sliding her nose into it, and he tied it in place.
Next, they took a couple of steps together and Harry centered her up mentally by asking her to back a step, stop and then look him up. They moved around a little bit more, and Bailey was looking pretty good. But when they headed to exit through the gate, the mare crowded him and went to rush through it.
Harry was ahead of the situation and quickly got pretty big with the lead rope asking for a back up. Bailey’s head flew up, and she staggered a couple of steps back as this sudden intervention on Harry’s part interrupted her strong forward thought. The scene repeated with Harry needing less and less “bigness” to break the crowding/rushing thoughts in her mind. The result was threefold: she got her mind centered in the stall, following Harry’s feel rather than her mind jumping out of the stall before her body was there; she got more light and responsive to Harry’s request on the lead rope; and she got more soft and relaxed throughout her body.
Harry "got pretty big with the lead rope" asking Baily to back up rather than rush through the gate. Photo ch04-02.
Once she realized Harry was going to block any rush on him or the open gate with a request to reverse, she started thinking about this situation. That also set up a search in the young horse to try other ways to get this deal to work out.
Within a couple of minutes, Harry was on the other side of the open gate in the aisle facing her, lead rope in hand and offering a feel to come forward - but only if she was relaxed, calm and ready to stop, back or step forward at any given moment. She had the ticket. At first, Harry set it up so she could step up to the open gate but not step through it, and he’d stop her there and pet her on the forehead. Then he would ask her to take a step through the gate and stop, back up and come forward again … basically just be mentally available at every moment, regardless of where she was in relation to the gate.
What a wonderful thing to instill in a colt. How many big problems are the result of a horse getting a strong thought of her own (like running through the gate or through the bit) rather than being with us and following the thought we present? Well, pretty much all of them. And how many people just completely overlook how they approach a horse in the stall? People don’t seem to consider that something as mundane as putting a halter on the horse and walking out the stall door has meaning to the horse, but it surely does.
I’ve heard Harry talk many times about how a person thinks what happens in the round pen is important and that he or she must take great care with how to work the horse when in that space. Then the second that person walks out of the round corral gate, he or she ignores the horse and undoes everything they just worked on. The person can seem to punch off the clock the second that person is out of the round pen, but the horse never, ever punches out. Every one of our interactions with horses has the same level of meaning and influence, and if we’re not nurturing with-you-ness, we’re allowing the opposite, not-with-you-ness, to build into the relationship.
This few minutes with Bailey sticks with me as profoundly important. Here, in the second session of the clinic, it was obvious that for whatever reason, the young horse was pushy. Certainly, horses are pushy with each other and constantly jostle around to see who can move the other around. But, as this example showed, people must be careful to not only consider moving a horse’s body when it is time to, but to consider the mental aspects of moving the horse.
Get the Guide to Versatility Ranch Horse ebook! Subscribe to the Ranch Horse Journal and get the Guide to Versatility Ranch Horse for FREE.
With Bailey at the stall, Harry was very careful to not only back the mare’s feet away from the gate when she went to rush through and crowd him, but to back her until she had a change of thought. It is possible to back a horse who still hasn’t changed the mental aspect of pushing, in which case you haven’t affected a true change. You’ve momentarily moved the horse, but mentally she can be pushing every bit as hard as before if you don’t get a mental shift, and that will again become a physical push at her first opportunity.
Harry gets to relax and nit rush the gate at the stall as Anna Bonnage watches intently. Photo ch04-03.
Harry was very particular to be certain he made his presence useful and effective by getting big enough so that she let go of her pushiness and relaxed and became quite willing to follow his feel to mindfully step with him. Honestly, before long, that became the situation with her wherever she was. The gate became irrelevant. In the stall, in the gate, in the aisleway between the stalls, in the parking lot area, or in the pasture … it no longer mattered where she was located once Harry had her mind centered with him and she was following the feel of whatever he presented.
This stall session with Bailey, which happened before her main session, although short and dealing with a seemingly routine task, seems to me to perfectly represent the idea Harry is fond of saying, “so they’re started, so they go.” If in every experience we share with a colt we establish the kind of communication, consistency, relaxation and willingness Harry did with Bailey when simply going to fetch her from the stall, just consider how all the big things might go when it is time to approach them.