About the photo: Anna Bonnage putting one of the first rides on Sky during the colt starting clinic–this photo was taken as Harry Whitney shared the opening quote that prompted this essay.
“Early and fast are different things.
If you are early, then you don’t have to be fast.”
– Harry Whitney
Horsemanship clinician Harry Whitney spoke those words during the one unique colt starting clinic he has organized over the years. My book series Six Colts, Two Weeks recounts that amazing experience. As I work presently to complete Volume Three of this series, I came across the above quote from Chapter Five of Vol. Two and, as is so often the case with Harry’s insights, it got me to thinking….
When Harry spoke the words that prompted this essay, he was speaking about a specific instance. It was a compliment to Anna Bonnage who was helping him work the colts during his colt starting clinic. Harry pointed out that Anna had done a very nice job handling the reins with a young horse who barely had been ridden at that point. She had been early using the reins to good effect, and that caused Harry to point out to us there watching that the opposite should be avoided.
The next thing Harry said after this essay’s opening quote was, “If you are fast, you’re abrupt, and that’s troubling to the horse. But you could be there early.”
If we are late to pick up a rein to offer a horse to think to one side for example, then a person can rush to try and catch up to get the request to come through. That can put a sudden, unexpected, and unappreciated, feel on the rein.
“People wait to the moment they need it to present a request,” Harry has said to me, “and then they’re late. They’re late with their presentation and the horse doesn’t have time, so it’s abrupt.”
Horses are so much quicker than humans in every appreciable way that getting faster to try to catch up and get ahead of a horse at that point is fairly futile. It also is likely to put some worry in a horse. It is easy to visualize the scenario. Just imagine someone being late with a request and hustling to try and catch up with a horse to say, “No, not that; I want this!” The horse may feel she is being chased. Horses often simply remain well ahead of what we are seeking from them if we are already behind with our ask from the beginning of an exchange.
Being early…now that is a whole other skillet of fritters with a very different outcome. To be early with a request means that a person makes an offer ahead of the horse going and doing something else first. In this scenario, there is no kind of catch-up required. We offer a feel for a horse to go with and the horse is there with us, available.
There need be no pinched up rush in the person when one is early. There stands the horse looking attentively at the person. The person decides to have the horse walk a circle to the right, for example. So the right hand takes the lead rope and offers for the horse to look in that direction. The horse, prompted by the human, looks that way, and if the person offers more energy, the horse should step his front end over that way and then begin to walk the circle around the person. The horse is following the feel presented by the person and there is no need for a rush in this scenario. Even if the person offers that the horse trot, if the horse is right there on task with the person, the horse can transition to the trot and go faster but without additional tension or losing the good feeling between them.
So, what is the main component at play between being early and being late with horses? When one is late making a request of a horse, the horse’s thought has already left the scene and we do not have it with us to work with and direct. When one is early, one has the chance to have the horse’s attention and then direct a thought to be with the human on a task, together.
The art of being early is dependent upon observing where our horses’ attention is when we are working with them, and gaining that attention when it is elsewhere. Thus we can set things up to be ahead of their commitment to a different thought than the one we have in mind. We should know when we are about to ask something of them, like a right turn. We should have that clear in our minds so that we can ask the horse for it without an abruptness. Being early helps to build their attentiveness. It can foster their looking to us for what needs to happen next.
“If they were waiting on us, we would never be late,” Harry has said to me. “But when they are already committed to a thought, you’re already too late.”
It sounds like a simple thing: be early. But there are complexities to working it out. As mentioned above, a person needs to have in mind what to ask the horse in advance of asking it to be able to offer a request early. And then there is the part about the horse being already committed to another thought that makes us late. How does one avoid that pitfall?
Every horse is different, so while one horse may look like a kite on a string in a hurricane when her thought is not centered with a person, another may be standing like a statue but be deeply mentally withdrawn with eyes glazed over. The human must become acquainted with a horse to discover what idiosyncrasies reveal when that horse is attentive or not. Some horses will lose the plot constantly and you may need to (literally) ride every step until some mental habits start to change that keep the horse focused with you. Other horses may find it such a good feeling to be with the person that a few times of getting them to let go of other thoughts to be focused with you is all it takes to have their attention stick for a while.
One fairly universal truth that can help folks find a horse’s focus is that most of the time a horse is looking at her primary thought. If you are trying to have the horse focused on you to make a request in groundwork, then having a horse looking at you can be a pretty good indicator that you are at least getting warmer. Not that a horse can’t look past you and seem to be looking at you, or glance away in a millisecond, etc. On the flip side, it is a safe bet that if your horse is looking over yonder when you gather up the lead rope and prepare to make a request, you do not have her primary attention.
This doesn’t work to recognize if a horse is focused on you when riding, as clearly we hope the horse doesn’t have her eyes on us when riding. In the riding, a person will require attention to other details and the feel that exists between the person and the horse. Asking some things of the horse is a good indication of where the horse’s mind is when riding: stop, back, ask the horse to look one way or the other. Is the horse available to perform those tasks with you? If not, can you do enough there to get the horse attentive? Stopping and backing until the horse softens and lowers her head is one idea. When the horse lets go of other thoughts, she can stand still, calmly, and you can consider what you want to ask and have it present early. If the horse is jigging about, for example, she has a commitment to some other thought, so she can’t settle down and being early really can’t happen. “You’re already too late,” as Harry said.
Also, it is worth noting that a person can flat out ambush a horse by, without consideration, giving a sudden and forceful request out-of-the-blue. Even a horse who is not mentally out to lunch can be ambushed by an impulsive, fast ask from a person.
Another benefit of being early in a request with a horse worth mentioning is that, as Harry has said to me, “If you’re early you can do less.”
As we refine our relationships with our horses, the goal of polishing our horsemanship should be to have effective communication through increasingly lighter asks. We hope the horse will become progressively more “with us,” feeling of what we present and being willing to perform the tasks we ask for. Being early with requests furthers this goal by lessening or eliminating the potential of the horse to react to an abruptness coming from us.