Summer Camp with Harry Whitney

By Lasell Jaretzki Bartlett


In June 2005, I hauled my 8-year old Morgan gelding from Vermont to Tennessee for a week long adult learning camp with Harry Whitney. I went to this clinic with the hopes of finding out how to help my horse, Rusty, to feel better deep inside himself. Despite all of his good qualities, he is busy in mind and body, has a worried look to his eye, and seldom comes to a full rest while around people or out among other horses.


On Monday we worked in the round pen, with Harry directing me step by step as I learned to wait for Rusty to make a decision on his own. Allowing a horse to make a decision increases his self-confidence, his sense that he is competent. My intention that morning was for Rusty to come “hang out” close to me in a relaxed and friendly way. Harry asked me to resist the urge to move him around while he was trying to figure out what I wanted. He encouraged me to refrain from using body language to influence Rusty to come to me.


So I stood in the middle of the round pen and when directed, waved a “flag” (a lightweight rod with a noisy piece of plastic or fabric attached to one end) in the air over my head. Unlike other times when I waved a flag to make a horse move off or face me, my activity was purely to get Rusty’s attention and stimulate him to wonder, “What does she want?”  I have come to believe that horses can use their cognitive abilities to problem solve, and given a dilemma, they will look for an answer, and that morning, Rusty started to mentally search, wanting to know why I was waving the flag. I was acting in an unusual, unpredictable way. After he figured out that I did not want him to move away or face me, his curiosity grew. He began to try something different after I waved the flag signaling him to look for something else because he had not found the answer yet. He trotted off to the left, he walked off to the right, he stood with his head over the round pen panels looking off, he stopped half way across the round pen from me and cocked a foot. When he made the choice to walk quietly toward me, stopping to stand near me in a waiting frame of mind, I figured our time in the round pen was a success.


I learned much about Rusty’s subtle (and not so subtle) facial expressions that day—a twitch of a nostril, a glance to the side, an extra wrinkle over an eye—and noticed that his face and body relaxed more and more as he discovered he could try out his own ideas, and by the end he was more willing than ever to stand calmly near me without fidgeting, nuzzling or glancing off.


Thursday, I wanted to ride, but I felt I “should” do some ground work first. I told myself I was checking out how Rusty was listening, but on some level, I already knew. Whatever I asked of him, he dove for a bit of grass in response. I was angry but working hard not to show it. I got more and more bothered. Rusty was getting bothered, too.


I mounted, thinking “OK, things will get better because I’d rather be riding than messing with groundwork right now”. But nothing got better, and in fact, I felt progressively frustrated, disappointed, and unsure of what I could do differently. I struggled to figure out what was at the center of the difficulties I was having.


Harry was aware of what was going on and asked if I wanted help with anything. At that point I told him “Yes, but I don’t know what my question is!” I was aware things didn’t feel right (NOT AT ALL!) but I hadn’t figured out what was the core issue here.


I was growing increasingly aware that I was finding no enjoyment whatsoever in my relationship with Rusty, and that was distressing. I value good relationships. I try to focus on thoughts and activities that support people, and people and horses, to feel good together. And here I was in a bummed-out state with my favorite horse who was NOT at that moment my favorite horse by any means. Nor was I my favorite me! And from all indications, Rusty was as displeased as I was.


So I “sat with the distress”. I rode around aimlessly, silently asking myself, “What is going on? What do I really need help with?”

Nobody tried to rescue me from my angst, or change how I was feeling. It was all mine to figure out. I think the impact was greater because of this. I know Harry trusted me to figure it out, and his trust helped me trust myself to define my elusive question. Once I slowed down and felt how bad I was feeling, how “off center”, cranky and impatient, I was able to find words that described my condition, and then words to form a question so Harry could help.


I wanted to know how to keep it fun and feeling good, even when I had a goal in mind—a problem to solve, a lesson to teach my horse, some expectations for us to fulfill together. For example, backing up with “life” (impulsion) or an effortless transition from halt to a lively walk—really basic stuff that I was struggling with that day in the arena. And in my struggling, I was so intensely focused on trying to do something perfectly, that I lost the pleasant connection I often enjoy with Rusty.


Harry’s suggestion was simple. He suggested I alternate between expecting that my horse go along with my idea—essentially do or try to do what I was asking—and that I go along with my horse’s idea—basically going along for a ride more as a passenger. It might be after two strides or ten strides that I switch from directing Rusty to letting him think he’s in charge for a change. Rusty’s idea, my idea, Rusty’s idea, my idea.


Harry’s perspective emphasizes that horses are thinking, feeling beings, and in order to get the best from our relationships with them, we need to acknowledge that they have opinions about what we do together just as we do. When I was handling and riding Rusty with a serious, focused and critical attitude about how he responded, I failed to give him a moment to enjoy our time together. My approach that day had been “this is what we’re working on now and we’ll work on it until it’s really good.” Rusty and I were more successful—accomplished more and felt good about it—when I took many short breaks from my schooling frame of mind.


Friday I was contemplating some of the question and answer times we students shared with Harry after each meal. Mentally, it all seemed to come together that day with these particular points from Harry; don’t be critical of your horse. Don’t hurry your horse; give him time to think for himself.

Once home, I started going out alone on Rusty for trail rides, something I’d never dared before. After my time with Harry, I practiced waiting for Rusty to feel OK about proceeding down the trail if he started to get anxious. First this meant I had to recognize and accept when he was worried about something. I had to see and feel his worry (head up, eyes and ears and mind “glancing” back toward home, breath shallow, stride shortening, back tense) and allow him to stop and regain calmness before I asked him to move forward again. This required that I give up my hurry to get something done. In exchange, I gained confidence that we can stay emotionally connected and ride down a trail together in a safe way. I let him decide for himself that he was safe, which helped him gain confidence in my judgment and in his own decisions.


Rusty still worries at times, but has many more times of peacefulness, walking along with his head low, body rhythmically swinging, willing to following my suggestions in a relaxed manner. I’ve learned that self-awareness is at the core of improving one’s horsemanship and building a stronger, cooperative relationship with one’s horse. I’m confident Rusty would agree with my latest self-assessment of what I’ve learned. I’m a better horse owner!


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