Clinic Report: Jack Young Clinics

by Ash Wakeman

Improving Horsemanship with Jack Young Clinics

When given the opportunity to learn good horsemanship, "straight from the horse's mouth," that has its origins with great horsemen such as Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt, I jumped at the chance over a year ago when I made plans to drive down from Olympia, WA to Winnemucca, NV to ride with and learn from Jack Young and his wife Jan. I made the same trip very recently, just at the end of September of this year (2013), and feel I finally may understand the very tip of this iceberg well enough to reflect on it for the benefit of those interested in all that the Youngs have to offer.

Beyond a great clinic experience with one-on-one instruction and excellent, patient horses to ride if you don't have your own, spending time with the Youngs themselves is a treat. Personable, warm, funny, and encouraging, spending time with them brings the feeling that you've known them all your life and that having coffee around their kitchen table is just as natural as coffee with a close friend. They easily relate to your frustrations, your questions, your excitement at "getting it right," and even your fears, helping you recognize areas you excel in and those in which you can improve. You can opt for a private clinic or a semi-private clinic, with your horse or riding one of their two fine ponies. Pair all that with the backdrop of riding amid the craggy, rose-hued mountains that jut out of the high-desert countryside of beautiful Winnemucca, and you'll find that no environment is better for learning the principles of good horsemanship.

Even though I thought maybe I had some good things going with my horsemanship before I met Jack and Jan, I was hardly prepared for the lessons they would teach me. I spent years riding dressage, trying to learn to ride just off my seat and legs like I'd always read about in all my text books. I thought it was a lofty goal that I may reach eventually, but one that usually only Grand Prix riders and their ilk attain. Was I ever wrong about that. And many other things.

Jack, who spent about seven years starting colts and cowboying with Ray Hunt in his pre-clinic days, and Jan, his wife, are a great team. Both are adept at explaining horsemanship and riding concepts to a variety of people, regardless of learning type or riding ability. While describing everything I learned from them of the course of two and a half days would take a multitude of pages, I've decided to focus on the highlights of the clinic, what they mean to the horse, and how they are helping me reach my goal of riding seamlessly and harmoniously with the horse first and foremost in mind.

I learned many of these lessons and concepts last year as well. But, like Jack says, "many of the things I'm telling you today may not make a lot of sense until a year from now," and he is pretty much right about that. During this most recent clinic I was having "a-ha" moments about several things we talked about in 2012 but that I was just starting to more clearly understand this time around. I hopefully will continue to have these moments and build on what the Youngs have taught me throughout my life.

1. Get the horse's attention

You have to get the horse's attention to get anything accomplished: ask for a walk-trot transition, ask for a soft feel, distract him from a potential spook, or even have him wait on you while you're saddling. Without the horse's attention, you cannot get to the horse's feet, and without affecting the horse's feet, even if the horse just feels it in his hind leg without even moving it, you cannot soften the mind. True understanding is felt in the feet. It's not always that simple, but that's the basic idea. Like Ray Hunt said, you must "operate the life in his body down through his legs to his feet - through his mind."

2. Hanger-Man

Hanger-Man is an ingenious creation of Jack's to easily illustrate just how simple riding can really be, and how our bodies can work with the horses we ride, instead of getting in their way. Once I learned about Hanger-Man, I'm not even joking that my life has never been the same. Hanger-Man is what it sounds like: a little man made out of a clothes hanger. The idea is that Hanger-Man cannot move his legs or arms or head independently of his body: if he turns to the left, his legs and arms stay at equal angles to his core. If Hanger-Man is making a left turn on his horse, his right leg naturally goes a little forward of the cinch, left leg a little behind, and his left hand automatically takes a little slack out to help prepare the horse for the turn, while the right hand gives slack and room for the horse to make the turn. If you are riding in time with your horse and are preparing him for turns and transitions with your entire body, your individual parts don't move separately. This simplifies riding in an exceptionally easy-to-understand way. Furthermore, when you ride, it's basically like you're walking, so to take the Hanger-Man concept a step further, it helps to practice this on the ground, walking as if you were turning circles and performing the movements. This helps you soon understand that in fact your horse's legs are YOUR legs, and that when you ride you're basically just stepping from the horse where you would step if you were on the ground!

3. Go slow to go fast

While this is an often-taught mantra in horsemanship circles, Jack really had me think on this one. For example, we worked on getting better steps when I'd go to move the hindquarters over independently of the forequarters. Instead of worrying about getting a fast, fluid movement, we instead focused on moving hindquarters or forequarters over just one step so I could pay attention to what my body does as the horse takes the step and how little it takes from me to ask the horse to get the job done. We used a square exercise to work on this. At one corner, I'd ask the hind end to step over; then I'd ride briskly forward, stop, and ask for the forequarters to move over. Rinse and repeat. Another exercise to help with riding circles effectively just off my legs and seat was to ride small, slow circles around obstacles like a barrel to help with feel, again paying attention to how my horse and I were communicating. Once you consistently get good steps going slowly, gradually speed it up, still rewarding each try in yourself and the horse.

4. Use the upper part of your calf along with your thigh and knee, not your lower leg

My lower leg has a tendency to wander off by itself and have a party. Unfortunately, errant lower legs often desensitize horses to their significance, thus requiring more and more back up, such as spur or crop. When riding like Hanger-Man, the lower leg stays neutral while the thigh, seat and pelvis do more of the swinging with the horse's motion. Asking the horse to move forward should also come from the thigh/knee/upper calf area without squeezing with the whole leg or curling up the heel. This keeps your leg from desensitizing the horse to your aids when you really need them, such as when you ask for a leg yield or a canter transition.

5. Timing your aids with horse's inside front leg

This was a big deal, and I'm still trying to wrap my head around it. It makes so much sense to time your aids, your legs and hands moving in rhythm like Hanger-Man as you ride along, with the horse's inside front leg because that is the way you ask the horse to easily move his feet where you need them when it's most convenient for you. As the horse's inside front leg moves through the air, his ribcage moves your inside leg away from the horse: this is an instance in which you can clearly tell that your leg is your horse's leg. By timing your aids, you can help your horse pick up that inside front leg to move to a turn, or whatever you'd hope to accomplish. Once you learn to feel for the inside foot, you're able to communicate so much more effectively with your horse. You're preparing your horse for the transition by timing yourself with his feet, and this is the way to ride that makes most sense to him and his way of movement. Riding without reins was a final exam of sorts for timing myself with the feet, and it was possible! A great moment in the clinic, showing me what I have to work towards at home.

6. Sometimes you have to be firm to be soft

I tend to be too soft, which can unfortunately turn into nagging if you're not careful. Take getting the horse to step right up into the walk from the halt: if you ask with your seat bones and then your upper-calf, don't hesitate to bump or nudge with a spur or whatever it takes to get the desired response. Make sure you've set the horse up correctly, of course, but letting the horse blow through your leg in an attempt to "stay soft" will lead you farther from softness and closer to a dull horse who tunes out your requests. Be firm to be soft. Show the horse a good deal and back it up with whatever it takes to get the job done. And then back to as soft as possible. As soft as possible may be just thinking "trot" and getting the transition, but it can be firmer than that to begin with.

7. Make the unwanted behavior more of a challenge and the wanted behavior a good place

On the second day of the clinic I put some of my skills to use while helping Jack work with his gelding, Red, on some buddy-sour issues. We tied his dear buddy Quatro out of sight, but he clearly wasn't out of mind. Red sure wanted to be with him, but by making being closer to Quatro much more work (backing, pivoting, trotting circles, just getting those feet moving) and making being with me and AWAY from Quatro as nice and easy as possible, Red soon realized that I was taking him places instead of him taking me. Pretty soon Red was lowering his head and softening his eye and actually enjoying his time with me. This exercise can be applied to so many other situations, such as spookiness, barn sourness, and any other situation where the horse wants his attention on anything but his rider.

8. Less groundwork

Groundwork is great, especially for starting a young horse, but with an older horse, just focus on moving a foot as softly as you can. And then get on. Get to the point where your groundwork can be just catching, leading, and saddling with softness and feel.

9. The power of "soak time" for you and your horse

One of the most important lessons Jack has taught me is the significance of offering several breaks to your horse and yourself during each ride. Furthermore, often a ride only needs to be 20 minutes. You work on something, your horse gets soft in the mind, and you end on a good note. In the last year I have had more good come of these mini-rides and have experienced more marked improvement than I ever did riding for an hour each "session" for several years.

10. Give yourself and your horse a job

The "job" I had when I rode Red and worked with him on his buddy-sourness was a pivotal point for me. I had been struggling with trying to make sure I was riding well, that I was timing myself with his feet, that I was keeping my legs in the correct position, etc. But when I had a job and had to get that horse's attention enough to create a change, I naturally rode the way I was supposed to. Things worked out. Without thinking, I remembered all my lessons and it fell together. Similarly, giving your horse a job, even if it's checking fence in his field or rounding up imaginary cows, is the best way to liven up his attention and make him feel part of something. Make him feel like there's a point to all the transitions and two-tracking. Give him something to work for and then just go ride him, and it's amazing how uncomplicated riding becomes.

Jack and Jan also give you time to practice all these skills away from their careful eyes. There's always a part of the clinic where you'll ride off and just practice alone, whether it's up the road among the sagebrush or playing around in their arena. They realize the importance of riding and practicing alone, just you and the horse, relying on your own self-awareness and self-analysis to help concepts come together. Sometimes, not thinking at all and "just riding" can illuminate solutions to knots that seemed for the longest time impossible to unravel. Other times, just sitting in the saddle and reflecting on that lead you just asked for or what made that transition better than the last is all it takes to help other pieces settle into their respective places. It's all a journey, for any one of us humble enough to dedicate ourselves to it, and Jack and Jan Young are full of the experience, teaching aptitude, and encouragement necessary to help anyone--young or old, beginner or crusty old cowboy--make their way even further along the path all love and respect: the path of the horse.