Partners?

You may hear someone refer to their horse as a partner. It is a frequent theme in many older writings – that you are creating a willing partner in your horse. But is it really a partnership? Many animal activists liken it to slavery. I’ve even had many positive reinforcement advocates tell me that horses would have nothing to do with us if not coerced or bribed (ironic, since you would expect them to be more positive about their own experiences).

To be sure, there is little in modern competitive riding that appears to be anything you could call a partnership. But that does not mean that you cannot give the horse some agency in the relationship and create an actual partnership.

A favorite photo of Nuno Oliveira, horse and rider both so at ease it is hard not to view it as a partnership

Give them a voice

If we show that we are listening, horses will communicate with us. Any good partnership requires that the parties listen to each other. The horse generally does his part – often not having any choice in the matter. If you want to develop a partnership you have to learn to be quiet and give the horse his opportunity to speak. Start with something as simple as allowing him to have that bite of grass that he shows interest in. Of course he has to learn to ‘speak’ politely. He cannot be allowed to shove or drag you to that tasty green clump. If that occurs, feel free to correct him. Once you indicate that ‘shouting’ is not tolerated, by correcting the behavior (typically a verbal “Ah, ah!” or equivalent, and making him stop will suffice), you can still show that you received the message by politely walking to the grass patch and let him have a nibble. (Warwick Schiller recently posted a video about horses who snatch at grass. I found his solution interesting in that it’s what I’ve done since I was a kid, but so many have called it ‘spoiling the horse’.)

My horses have learned that mugging us for a carrot is unacceptable. However, occasionally they will softly nudge the carrot pouch, then politely stand waiting to see how we will answer. It is hard to resist such a polite request, so we usually give in. Shockingly, because they know we will generally respond positively when asked, they do not pester us with it. There is security in knowing that your requests will be considered.

The more you listen to your horse’s attempts to communicate, the more they will try to ‘speak’ to you. Many training methods out there specialize in ensuring that the horse does as they are told, and strongly shut down anything a horse offers that might conflict with what the handler wants. You can see horses attempting to communicate, but gradually shutting down. (Often the communication is to turn the head away, which is a signal that you are overwhelming them, but is seen as disrespect by too many famous names out there.) Sadly, a shutdown horse is often seen as a ‘safe’ horse in the equestrian community. Our Coffee came to us very much shutdown, in the presence of humans. They could lead him with no halter, and he’d stand to be groomed without being tied. However, there was literally no reaction to the human other than complete obedience. For me it was a spooky experience – like being around “Stepford” horses. but his animation in the presence of other horses clearly indicated that a character lay deep inside. He is now the most ‘talkative’ horse in our barn!

Give them a choice

When you begin to have a two-way communication with your horse, the next step is to let them have some input into your activities. Noble has full freedom to join me for a session of work, or not. Those who say that horses only interact with us through our control of them might be surprised to watch Noble come out of his stall and paddock, through his open gate, and across the field to enter the lunge pen or arena through his own choice. Often, if the gates are both already open, he beats me into the working area and waits for me to join him.

One day I thought I was doing him a favor by allowing him to do some work at liberty, with no tack. He refused to proceed, walked over to where the cavesson lay on the mounting block, nudged it, then waited with a lowered head for me to put it on. Once it was in place, and the line connected, he took himself out to the circle and waited for me to give him a cue. (That incident, and other similar examples of his ‘opinions’ in our work can be found on the Noble’s Notables page.)

A young Noble choosing to partner with me through obstacles

Maybe you lead your horse to the arena gate, and he suddenly stops and looks down the driveway to the farm roads you sometimes travel. Unless you have a lesson that day, what’s the harm in leaving the ring and going for a trail ride? I have done that with my horses, and I can tell you that it does not become a habit just because you let them make such a choice. You will always have those times, like a lesson, when you cannot be so flexible. But the more you let your horse indicate choices or preferences, the more they will actually enjoy the process of working with you.

Give them a job

I am not making an argument, here, that all horses need to work. I happen to find that all of the horses I’ve worked with over the decades learn to enjoy working with me, so I do believe their lives can be richer with a job. I also believe that it is incumbent upon us that, if we are giving our horse a job, we make sure that the job fits the horse. My second horse, Ben, was meant to be my next level eventing mount – but he made it very clear that cross-country was not his cup of tea. I listened to a lot of advice about how to solve the issues, with no success. I could have sold him, but by then he had become a partner. So, we abandoned eventing and pursued Hunter/Jumper and eventually Dressage – a decision I never regretted.

For this topic, though, what I really mean with “give them a job” is to teach them their job and then let them do it. Wicki, my first horse, was a cross-country machine. At my first event, my instructor had me set up with a strategy to manage each and every fence along the way. Wicki knew his job and was not about to be over managed! I figured this out about halfway through the course, exhausted from fighting with him. I began to be a passenger, only intervening when I knew something was ahead that he could not know. The rest of the ride was so much better! Months later, when I had a fall and remounted with injuries, our now developed partnership paid off as he carried me safely around the course, with only my voice to guide him.

Our goal in training our horses should never be to manage all that they do. If trained as a partner, and taught a job they enjoy, horses can operate without constant guidance. A very famous example of this is a mare named Halla whose rider, Hans Gunter Winkler, pulled a groin muscle in the 1956 Olympics. Not wanting to let his team down, he went into the final round. In this video you can see the pain as he lands from the fences as the injury flares up. But Halla knew her job, and he mostly leaves her to it. Their partnership is clear as they go through this gold medal winning ride.

Let’s be clear, the fact that we dictate aspects of the horse’s life – where they live, what they eat, etc. – the partnership can never be a fully equal one. However, there is no definition of ‘partner’ that I could find where it was a condition that they have equal holdings. In considering whether you have a partner in your horse, consider these two definitions:

1. a person with whom one shares an intimate relationship: one member of a couple

2. either of two persons who dance together

How are you fulfilling your end of the partnership bargain?

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