The motions of emotion

I spent few days with Harry Whitney last week. I hope I will never be the same.

I have been to a handful of horsemanship events and clinics ranging in size and popularity and I did not know what to expect from a Harry Whitney clinic. Harry doesn’t have much media out there to get a detailed understanding of what he is doing, though it’s not difficult to get the basics, so if you want to learn from him, you’re going to have to go find him.

Brandea and I did just that and we flew across the country to catch him in Southern California on a week we both could manage to get away. It was well worth the investment.

I was surprised and soon delighted to find how intimate the group was. Harry does mainly one-on-one sessions and the clinics are limited to 5-6 horses. Auditors (or fence sitters and rail hens as Harry chuckled at the different terms for a clinic observer in other parts of the world) are also limited, but this clinic was below even the limit. At any given time there were less than 12 of us gathered around a round pen close enough to touch the master horseman hardly having to raise a voice to have a question heard.

Intimate group around the round pen

I have been in clinics where questions were “legal” but I’ve never seen anyone else address questions so willingly, easily, graciously and genuinely as Harry Whitney. He seems to invite questions because in order to learn, I think he wants those engaged in the process to be seeking and if we are seeking we should have questions. Harry creates a safe environment to ask any honest question, never leaves the human feeling stupid or embarrassed though he might lead you in a direction that brings a good natured laugh from everyone but always in a way that keeps us from Ftbecoming too serious about ourselves or the horses and his puns, jokes, and teasing take a potentially long exhausting day of mental heavy lifting and bring some lighthearted joy to mix into the kettle (pardon the vulture reference… one day to break things up Harry let us know if he could be any bird it would be a vulture and why).

Possibly the thing I will remember the most in my first experience of Harry Whitney is the way his face can go from an attempt at very very serious to the grin that spreads so far and wide it always reaches his eyes. In a world of frustrated, annoyed, exhausted, exasperated, disillusioned master horsemen, the environment around Harry is true lightness and joy mixed with a weight of wisdom and experience. Where many well known horsemen seem to have compassion for the horse and disdain for the ignorant people who ruin them, Harry appears to have as much concern for the people who come for help as the horses who brought them. 

I won’t try to encapsulate his approach in one blog post, however in some ways I could. There is an integrated core that roots beneath everything he does, and if one could get a handle on that it seems there isn’t anything that wouldn’t be possible. It reminds me of the “seek ye first” idea because when you sort out what that thing is… “and all the rest will be added unto you.”

If I were to attempt a boil down to that core treasure it is about the mind and emotions of the horse. If you seek a present, calm, integrated mind and body (which will mean the horse feels good, has peace or in in a good emotional state), then you can have it all. There is nothing you couldn’t do together.

The bad news is also the good news: it’s a lifetime in how to get there.

In four full days of notes I skimmed through them to see if I could organize something out of the many hours of conversation and observation of Harry working horses and Harry walking others through working their horses. One quote seemed to rise through the roundpen dust:

We must get more familiar with the motions that come with good emotions and the motions that come from negative emotions.

Harry Whitney

What Harry Whitney offers to those who have the patience, is a vision to see what a horse looks like when it truly feels good and how to see the signs of when a horse is doing the thing, but doesn’t feel good about it.

I might have said before that identification of the problem is key, but today I will go to another place and say identification that there IS a problem is more key. We have so normalized… no… we reward and celebrate getting things done with horses when they are worried, shut down, or elsewise functioning in tension through the highest international levels, that I wonder how many people actually even have the eyes to see what it looks like to have a horse moving freely, in balance, with it’s mind and body aligned to commit willingly to the work it is engaged in. I long for the day when it is unusual to see a troubled horse in work instead of unusual to see a relaxed confident horse competing or even pleasure riding. 

Lest anyone take this statement to suggest that I have sorted this out and point the finger around me, I will clarify that though I have been desperately seeking this without even knowing it was possible for years, I saw even today just how far I am from bringing my horses forward a shining example. But we will take ground together in this because I am committed to it. I am dedicated to learning and disciplining myself to the shifts necessary to be the one who is able to make my horse feel better about everything we do together.

I have never been to a clinic where someone made what I’ll call an adjustment when I didn’t see a horse move a nose hair or whisker. I have previously thought (maybe I made this up, but I think I got some help from many sources over a few years) that if a horse didn’t move in their physical space then we don’t have anything to correct or adjust. And yet as I watched Harry in the round pen with a particularly bothered gelding the first day, I saw him knock the coiled up lead rope against his chaps making a decent striking sound and I hadn’t even seen the horse move.

I had some ideas but I don’t want to assume. So I asked. I wanted to understand.

Harry explained he created a kind of interruption or distraction at the point he saw the horse’s thoughts begin to move from present in the round pen with him to back to his stall and buddy in the shed row. He wasn’t trying to punish or correct the horse for a change of thought, he was interrupting or even blocking that thought because the horse had basically two options available: he could be present and calm, or he could allow his thoughts to meander (or lope directly!) back to his stall which would mean his mind would not be present with his body. When this happens he will be anxious until he is able reunite his body and mind. Considering we had no plans of taking his body back to his stall quite yet, bringing his thoughts back into the round pen and keeping them there bringing peace to the horse and all of us was Harry’s aim.

Furthermore, it is preferable to reconnect that mind to the body at the soonest possible opportunity. It is exponentially more difficult to bring back a mind when it has gone far or gotten very hard in it’s direction. Harry Whitney is a master at helping a troubled horse come back to being present and feeling better about himself, and he has developed the understanding of noticing when a horse has just begun to have it’s thought leave to ask the horse: Hey there, let go of that and stay with me. He does it in a way the horse feels better about things.

The things that can come from this cornerstone is infinite. People are so used to horses working while they are troubled that it takes a special circumstance to get a good look at what untroubled looks like. Compliant, obedient, slow, or snappy to give us what we ask for – these are not in themselves signs of a horse that’s untroubled. Horses can do very high level activities even without a rope connected and still be troubled on the inside about the work. Many dull shut down horses who are so troubled they have “gone away” when humans are present are considered perfect bomb-proof kid horses of high value. This horse might be quiet and basically compliant but it doesn’t mean it is relaxed and happy in the work. And that bomb proofing creates its own kind of danger. Someone will in time be hurt by it- the human or the horse.

On the other side of the coin horses that wear their emotions on their outsides and who begin dancing around in giraffe mode every time they are asked to do anything are not shut down the way the dull horse is, but snappy reactive activity even if it’s responding to our cues does not mean willing and feeling good. Horses are fantastic at avoiding us in a myriad of ways and yet convincing us they are “on board” in order to get us from bothering them more. They are incredibly smart and as Harry said more than once through the week:

It’s amazing they haven’t killed us all off by now.

With so many examples of troubled horses competing and winning across the board of horse sports. I have wondered if I was just being overly sensitive, or if I was not reading things clearly, or if this is necessary if one wants to do things with horses.

I have wondered if it might just be true that horses want in their hearts to be left alone to graze and be in their herd and feel safe and everything else we do is going to bring trouble…

If so, maybe the best we can hope for is to do our things with them and then apologize and set them free again and at least try to give them as much horse life as we can in between the work?

Now I don’t believe that. I do believe much of what we do troubles them, but from the glimpse of what I saw, it IS possible to actually be a force for peace when the horse gets anxious. The question as Harry put it is:

Can we actually be effective at going into a situation where the horse is bothered and help the horse feel better?

I saw that yes. This is possible. But it’s not for the faint of heart.

Not because it’s a dangerous process at all, in fact Harry joked one day one that he doesn’t get a lot of auditors because his clinics are too boring for people to sit that many hours and watch. I thought he was kidding… he might have been, but there was more truth in it than even I realized. In fact there were many hours of things getting done and getting addressed at a level where you’d have to be watching closely to understand. No one is discouraged from getting firm or having a meltdown in order to do what needs to be done to bring a horse back to present with us. So these moments did occur- there is no tiptoeing around a horse allowed- however once the horse returns the moment is over and the leading onward continues in a quiet and relaxed thoughtful way. Harry took horses that were feeling scattered and fragmented (hot) and helped them relax into beautiful transitions that were soft but had life, and he helped horses that were dull and shut down to bring up that life without driving them around with force and pressure that worried them into the movement.

The reason this is not for the faint of heart is because I observed the people present all had a very LONG view on their paths. They talked over years not days yet without losing track of the day to day and what can be done in a short time if done with quality, feel, and a quiet mind. This both takes a ton of patience because real change (which absolutely has to begin within the human and that is a process too!) takes real time, yet also once the shift happens it is astounding how other problems melt away without focusing on them. It is both a painfully slow and a ridiculously effective way to live. I think it brings hope.

So for anyone else out there who has had enough horses (and for some people one is enough) to have come into one that the other things seem to hit a roadblock, or work for a while and then unravel, consider finding Harry somewhere as he gets around the country pretty well in a year, and sit along the fence and see if there might be something there that could change your life.

I highly recommend it.

Published by JaimeHope

Violin teacher and endurance rider living in a rural mountain county - one of the least population dense and without a single stoplight.

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