RIDING WITH LARRY WHITESELL

by

Dan Simmons

My wife Letha and I made plans nearly a year ago to ride in Larry Whitesell's Cave Creek Arizona clinic this past weekend, November 11-13 [2011]. Being relatively new to the gaited side of Morgandom, we were anxious to acquire some skills at riding and training gaited Morgans. I can say without any reservation, this was the best spent time and money we have ever committed to increasing our equine riding skills and knowledge! Letha didn't have a gaited Morgan of age ready to go and took her almost five year old non-gaited mare Ayla, and I took my four and a half year old gaited gelding Rose K Sunday Star (Mary Mels Snipper x Dia H Paladin). Turns out Letha's concerns about showing up with a non-gaited horse were unwarranted (in more ways than one; more on that later). Although Larry targets gaited horses for his clinics, the Classical riding approach he teaches applys to any horse. Larry studied under the masters of the Spanish Riding School and their 400 plus years tradition of expert riding skills, which is very difficult to even get admitted to; you have to be an accomplished rider to start with to even be considered. Larry says it has been his experience that when you learn to put a gaited horse in the correct frame and you ride it with the correct seat and aids, you will free it up to naturally gait on its own.

I will not attempt to go into great technical detail of what Larry teaches, but rather relate some of the high-lights of what we learned and experienced in our three days of riding in the clinic. As I said, Larry emphasizes teaching the rider how to teach the horse to get into the correct frame, and to understand the aids and cues so they learn how to do what you want them to do rather than correcting them for doing what you don't want them to do. In most cases, the horse being in the correct frame is necessary for the horse to be able to do things correctly, and it is equally important for the rider to be in the correct position and seat as well and to not block the horse from executing what you are asking them to do. As we progressed through the weekend, these concepts became readily apparent rather dramatically as we learned and applied them to our riding.

Letha and I had the only Morgans at the clinic and fielded a lot of questions about gaited Morgans from people at the clinic. These ranged from folks who didn't know there were gaited Morgans, or thought all or most Morgans were gaited; or knew almost nothing about Morgans in general. It was a good opportunity to spread the word about the wonderful gaited Morgans. Larry mentioned that he had trained only four gaited Morgans in all the gaited horses he had trained over the years and commented they had really good minds. During the course of the weekend he twice commented about Sunday, who was perofrming very well in the clinic, as being a very nice horse. I never heard him say that about any other horse in the clinic the entire weekend. There were only ten riders plus some auditors and the horses included several Peruvian Pasos, a couple Paso Fiinos, and a Foxtrotter and Walker or two.

 

Dan & Sunday at left, & Larry instructing a Paso Fino rider at right.
 

We started off the first morning with some ground work and some differences between Larry's classical approach and the "natural horsemanship" approach we had previously experienced quickly surfaced. Larry does not put much emphasis on desensitizing a horse other than briefly in the initial "colt breaking" stage, which was not the level he was teaching us in this clinic. He stated he does do some desensitizing to the aids he uses initially, but does not try and desensitize to all kinds of potential threats such as tarps, etc.

He pointed out that there is always something else you may encounter on the trail that you have not desensitized your horse to and you can't do everything. He also said all the things that you attempt to desensitize your horse to have one thing in common - you, and that can also teach them to ignore you and make them harder to train. His philosophy is to teach them to trust you to lead them out of danger and pointed out that you can't lead a horse anywhere that isn't moving.

Our initial ground work focused on getting a horse supple and in the correct frame. We did this with bridles rather than a halter as Larry said we were going to start teaching the horse to be responsive to the reins right from the ground. The initial concept we addressed was bending. Larry said bending only supples a horse by changing the bend gradually with repetition, not by bending the nose to the chest from the start which he called an over bend. We started by walking our horses in a small circle around us while holding the inside rein loosely close to the base of their neck near where our hands would be if we were in the saddle riding them. We also were specifically directed to never pull on the reins to get a turn but only to massage the inside rein with our fingers. We all had a dressage whip which was to simulate our legs; in this circle we directed the whip towards and parallel with the inside hindquarters to prompt the horse forward and only lightly tapped the horse with it if necessary to get them moving forward. The lightness of the application of our aids - the massaging of the reins rather than a pull, and the mere presence of the whip simulating the presence of our leg rather than the pushing of our leg, became a theme throughout the clinic. We all know how sensitive a horse is, even to the mere presence of a fly on their skin. As was demonstrated to us by our own experiences as we progressed, they can sense things our body is doing that even we are not consciously aware of and it afects our cues to them and the execution of those cues. We can, and did at times as we rode, give conscious cues to execute a move with one part of our body and blocked that move unconsciously with another part of our body at the same moment! Larry's definition of "forward" should be mentioned here; forward means a horse moving ahead on cue into the reins and under control and not merely running away.

Correct frame was a constant theme in everything we did.  Walking a horse in a circle is pointless if it is not done in correct frame Larry said, and that includes lunging them in a round pen.  Larry pointed out on our own horses how a horse walking a circle and not in frame will have to hurry the movement of its outside rear leg to keep up; it kind of looks like the horse is hopping in the step on that leg because it is walking a larger circle than the rest of the legs rather than tracking the rest of the horse’s body.  He showed us how to correct this by laying our inside leg along the girth when in the saddle and in this case on the ground laying the whip simulating our leg along side their flank to move the inside rear leg further underneath the horse’s body to step in front of the outside leg.  This created a slight bend in the horse’s body (correct frame) and allowed the outside rear leg to track equally with the rest of the horse and immediately eliminated the hopping motion of the outside rear leg.  Someone asked if this was “disengagement” and Larry said no.  Disengagement he said is not the desired effect and is using the leg further back on the flank to push the rear end around and pivot the horse on the fore end and is not establishing a correct frame.  We spent the first morning working our horses in both directions and learning to correctly apply our aids under these concepts and get them in the correct frame.

 
Larry watching Letha walk Ayla in a circle.

After a lunch break Larry took a little time to talk about gaited horse’s backs and saddle fit.  Letha and I have some experience with saddle fitting being Morgan owners and having attended a saddle fitting clinic at the University of Arizona Equine Center which I previously wrote about in the newsletter and shared what we learned there.  But the subject of twist was the main theme Larry talked about which was a term I had previously heard but really didn’t understand and was not talked about much if any in our previous experiences.  Twist is the difference in the angle between the front forks and the rear forks of a saddle tree.  Most saddles are based on quarter horse bars and the front forks typically are 30 degrees steeper than the rear forks.  Some “gaited” saddles are still based on quarter horse bars that have widened the gullet and separation of the forks but maintained the degree of twist common in quarter horse bars.  The typical gaited horse is built physically different in its back and averages only 12-14 degrees of twist front to rear.

This brings me back to the other point about Letha’s mare Ayla which I mentioned in the beginning of the article.   Letha has been having a really hard time getting a saddle to fit Ayla applying all the previous saddle fitting concepts we had learned.  No matter what we did and how well the saddle seemed to fit by all the criteria we were aware of, she was still having dry spots that were starting to develop some white hairs on her withers.  Larry demonstrated a simple angle meter available at Ace Hardware that can be used to measure both a horse’s back and the angle of the forks in a saddle.  Larry used that meter to measure the twist in Ayla’s back and it was 14 degrees; the closest saddle we had to that was 16 degrees and the rest ranged all the way up to 30 degrees.  Larry showed everyone another rider’s Freedom saddle which he had collaborated on designing with a vet and the saddle maker specifically for gaited horses.  This saddle has the correct twist for a gaited horse and was recently featured on the Horse Show on RFD TV.  Letha tried it on Ayla and it fit her like a glove and she ordered one as soon as we got home.  As a side note on Ayla (Castle Miss America xTriple S Obsidian); Larry and one of his helpers had observed us on arrival unloading her and asked if she was gaited.  Letha said no, she had never observed her gait though her dam, a career broodmare who had never seen a saddle until she was 15, had shown some gait at Monument Valley last year while riding with a group of Foxtrotters, and had thrown a gaited mare 14 years ago who had subsequently thrown three gaited foals.  Larry was skeptical at the time he later told us and thought she looked like a gaited horse to him based on her back.  He related the story of a guy who raised Keiger Mustangs who said he had three of them that were apparently gaited and asked Larry to come down and see what he thought.  On Larry’s arrival the owner said he’d point out the ones that were gaited and Larry said no, he’d see if he could pick them out himself by just looking at them, and he did based on their backs.  On Sunday Larry asked Letha if one of his helpers could get on Ayla and see if they could get her to gait using the saddle with the correct twist, her in correct frame, and a correct seat.  They did get her to gait and Letha was ecstatic!  Ayla had already been getting comments from others as being “drop dead gorgeous” and having a classic western working Morgan body; them getting some gait out of her sent Letha into the clouds.  How strongly she is gaited we don’t know, but she no doubt will now have a date with our very strongly gaited young stallion Missouri’s Silver Rhythm in the future.

Larry used the above story and the case of a Peruvian Paso in the clinic to back up his assertion that incorrect saddle fit, and even more importantly incorrect frame and rider seat, can block a gaited horse from gaiting.  The Peruvian was very unruly with its head up in the air and would mostly only pace her owner said and showed that in the clinic.  By the second day this horse was calming down, under much more control, and gaiting as pretty as you please.  Someone asked about whether treeless saddles would work on gaited horses.  Larry said the purpose of a tree was to distribute the rider’s weight and spread it out across the horse’s back rather than have it all centered in one spot, and a treeless saddle, riding bareback, etc. fail to due that and have a negative impact on the horse.  Even an English saddle he said reduces the spread of the rider’s weight and is less effective than a correctly fitted tree.  He did say that while a correctly fitted saddle is important, frame and the rider’s seat are even more important.  “You’re better off with an incorrectly fitting saddle and riding correctly with the horse in frame, than with a correctly fitting saddle and the rider not sitting correctly with the horse out of frame” he said.

When we got in the saddle the first afternoon one of the first things we talked about were the reins.  Larry advocates maintaining some contact with the horse’s mouth at all times, but never pulling on the reins.  He says you always need to maintain communication with the horse via the reins and totally loose reins is like hanging up the phone and leaving them on their own.  Maintaining contact and yet never pulling on their mouth was a distinction that took some practice and application of the other aids as well, but we quickly learned it worked.  Sunday and I quickly became adept at making turns as short as one step in either direction and unless you were paying very close attention you’d never have noticed me even move.  All I did was as instructed hold both reins short enough to maintain contact but loosely with my thumbs up and the reins coming through my hands from the bottom up, then massaged the inside reins with my fingers without pulling them at all, and laid my inside leg on the inside girth without pushing.  Sunday turned in a very relaxed manner maintaining frame and as soon as I took my leg off the girth and stopped massaging the reins, we straightened out immediately, even if it was one step into the turn just like Larry advertised.  If Sunday started to raise his head, just massaging one of the reins without my leg on the girth would get him to relax and lower his head without a turn.

Before we got to the exercise of doing the turns I was just talking about, Larry spent some time on our seat position.  He told us to sit up straight and not on our pockets slouched in the saddle, our legs directly under us and not out front in the chair position, toes pointed straight ahead, and a short but loose rein with our thumbs up as I mentioned above.  He did a rather eye-opening demonstration of a correct seat aiding you in staying in the saddle; he had one of the lady riders sit in the saddle with her toes pointed more out than forward (which he had noticed her doing).  He got out in front of the horse and grabbed hold of the reins behind the bit and pulled on them and nearly pulled her out of the saddle over the horse’s neck.  Then he told her to point her toes straight forward and he tried again; he was barely able to affect her position at all due to the extra leverage she had with her toes pointed straight forward.  He then told her to hold the reins with her thumbs parallel with the ground instead of with her thumbs up; he was able to pull her arms forward away from her body pretty easy. He tried again after telling her to put her thumbs back upright and he could not pull her arms away from her body.  This was all due to the biomechanics of our bodies and the extra leverage the correct position gives us.

Larry told us that while we needed to sit up straight in the saddle, we also need to relax and not tense up our body (core) and clamp our elbows to our side; the horses sense that and tense up as well.  He demonstrated this affect to us on a horse he got on and we could noticeably see the effect on the horse when he tensed up and clamped his elbows to his side even though he did nothing else.

Larry talked about the common theme of horses having two brains, a left side and a right side and having to train both.  He agreed with this concept and added that we should never walk in a straight line with the horse’s nose centered in his chest because then you’re trying to train two brains at once; he said keep the horse’s nose 1 degree either side of center by just massaging the reins on one side.  This also keeps the horse relaxed with head down and focused on you because you are constantly communicating with them and is a form of security for them when they trust you because they know you are still there looking out for them and have not “hung up the phone” on them.

On Saturday morning we started learning to turn on the forehand, although Sunday did so well Friday afternoon on the initial turning maneuver that Larry had Al, one of his helpers, start Sunday and I on this turn then.  I'm thinking leg on inside flank and inside shoulder comes in.  Wrong!  That would take the horse out of the all important correct frame. 

Larry demonstrating correct hand position to Letha.
 
The way we did this maneuver was, assuming as always we were maintaining the correct seat and hand position, we simply rotated our outside hand to palm up while maintaining the same position without pulling on the reins, and laid our outside leg to just behind the girth without pushing on them, and very slightly rotated our core in the direction of the turn, and  wa-la, we turned while maintaining frame! 

I did block him from turning a couple of times with one of those unconscious opposing body aids I mentioned earlier.  I kept my inside hand in position and did not move it along with my core in the direction of the turn.  As slight as it was, it was enough to block Sunday’s turn and was immediately obvious to Larry who was observing us.  I gotta say that at this point I was a mix of a bit dumbfounded that this almost zero pressure approach was working so easily and effectively with my young horse, and very impressed with both Larry and how well Sunday was picking this stuff up.  Larry and his helpers were impressed with Sunday as well and this is the point they started making comments about how nice a horse he was.

Stops and backing up were next and were as subtle as everything else.  For stops Larry said just close your hands without pulling on your reins and then open and roll your hips forward like you were sitting on a big exercise ball and rolling it forward.  Sunday stopped the first time on a dime and I was amazed; to an observer I had hardly moved at all and this boy had been a problem to get to stop quickly before this.  He got another atta-boy from Larry on that one.  Backing up was nearly as easy and consisted of rolling my hips backward slightly like I was still on that exercise ball rolling it backward, and moving my feet just behind the girth without any pressure on him; Sunday backed up like he had responded to this cue his whole life.  As we practiced all these maneuvers, our application of our aids - legs, feet, and hands became less and less perceptible and the degree of sensitivity of our horses became so obviously apparent to us as riders.  We were riding on relaxed horses all over the arena doing all sorts of turns, stops, backing up, etc. and you could barely see us moving by Sunday afternoon.

Larry responded to mine and some others comments about how quickly and calmly many of the horses were responding to what he was teaching us.  He asked us if any of us gave our horses treats and how quickly they figured that process out.  Most said once or twice and they were looking for the treats the moment you gave any indication you were giving them one.  He said horses can learn and respond quickly to things they figure out are good for them and are in their benefit.  He said buddy sour and all sorts of problems are the result of them not trusting their riders and wanting to be somewhere else including with their buddies they feel more secure with.  Teaching them to trust you and how to do the correct thing rather than punishing them for doing the wrong thing is a key part of this process.  He related the story of his protégé Jennifer doing a clinic where one of the hosts tested her by giving her a horse to ride at the clinic that was about to be sent to the killers because no trainer had much success with it to that point.  Jennifer applied all the techniques we have been discussing and had that horse doing well very quickly.  There was an ACTHA event after the clinic as part of the overall event the hosts were having and they invited her to ride that horse in it.  She said she would just ride it in the open category so the horse could experience the obstacles and see how he did.  This horse had never even seen any of the obstacles, but because she had taught him how to trust and respond to her aids, that didn’t matter and they ended up winning the event.  Larry again reiterated that the important thing is teaching the horse how to correctly do the right thing responding to your aids and trusting you, and then you can handle most anything that you encounter on the trail.

Larry took pains to not criticize any other trainers and is in fact a good friend of Clinton Anderson.  He said different methods work different ways and it is important that you pick one and stick with it.  He likes the classical approach because it keeps the horse in correct frame and enables it to do things it couldn’t otherwise do and in his experience enables a gaited horse to naturally gait.  It also teaches a horse how to do the right thing and be in trusted communication with its rider and deal with anything they encounter on the trail.  Letha and I highly recommend Larry’s clinics to everyone and consider it one of the best investments we have ever made.