Willing or Unwilling Partner?

Every rider wants a horse that is a willing partner.  A perfect horse that is soft and responsive to whatever it is told to do.  They want a horse that will never fight.  If they can just get their horse to the point where nothing is an issue, when they can go and enjoy whatever they want to do with their horse, they will be happy.  They have achieved their goal of the perfect horse.  Why does this goal seem to be such a struggle for most people to attain?

A lot of people try to follow one method or technique in the search of how to build a partnership with their horse.  When that method does not bring the results they want, they switch to something new or different.  Usually, they get the same results as before but always hoping that this will be the magic bullet to fix their problems.  This halter or that bit or maybe the stick will finally make their horse their partner.  The way the handler holds or moves their body must be the key to success.  All of these things are useful tools.  None of these tools are wrong.  By themselves or blended together, they can help to bring or maintain partnership.  Then why do people still struggle with this partnership idea if we have all the tools?  We practiced all the moves.  We have all the necessary equipment.  Still our horses do not respond in the way we want then to.

What is partnership?  Most would agree that it is two individuals working together.  That sounds really attractive.  It is definitely something to work towards, but seemingly impossible to attain for any length of time.  True partnership between a human and a horse appears a little mysterious to the casual observer.  Every move seems to flow like it was planned.  The horse is calm, relaxed and confident in its work.  Sometimes you can actually feel the bond between horse and rider just watching the two together so closely.  Why can some people find partnership and others can’t?

The problem that I see is that people expect their horses to follow their cues, do what they want when they want, and never get emotional, spooked, or otherwise disruptive.  They are unwilling to accept what the horse is giving them in the moment rather than working with what the horse is doing.  They are starting from the perspective of I must have exactly what I want before I will be happy with what I got.  It is a normal thought for humans to want to feel in control of the movement but it is not a natural thought for a horse to be dominated and controlled.  Horses want to partner; humans want to be dictator of the situation.

Here is a different way of looking at partnership with a horse.  Our horse is our partner already we do not have to create it, teach it, or force it to happen.  I believe horses are naturally in partnership with each other.  Horses know how to work as partners because of their herd instinct.  They groom each other, protect one another, and share food sources with each other.  Some horses are more willing to partner than others but I believe they all start at some level.  The willingness or unwillingness a horse shows has to do with previous experience.  If a horse was rode with a harsh bit by an inexperienced rider, many would be unwilling the next time they were bridled.  At the same time, a young horse that has always had quiet, confident handling would be very willing to work again.  This willingness is the expectation of every rider, but how we get there requires a shift in our thinking.

Recognizing that horses are always seeking to partner with us, we can use the ideas of pressure-release and condition response to work with what is happening in the moment.  We already know that horses look for the release of pressure, but knowing when to hold and when to release can be a tricky thing.  For example, I have a client working with a young horse.  She is an older lady who is apprehensive of creating too much excitement with her horse because she knows she can not physically control it.  At the same time she is concerned she will create a dull, unresponsive horse like this filly’s mother has turned into.  She was doing ground work with the filly before getting on to ride.  The horse was barely picking her feet up and moving slowly.  The client tried to excite her by changing directions but nothing changed.  I asked how she thought her horse appeared.  She responded dull, listless, funeral walk, and “what is the point?”   If client thought the horse was thinking “what is the point?” the client must also be thinking “what is the point?”  How could she create more energy in her horse?   She was afraid to ask for more because when she did the filly tried to bolt away from her.  I told her to move with the horse if she did that.  The next time the horse started to pull away she moved towards it rather than trying to pull it into the circle of control she wanted.  This created no pull on either side but the filly was moving in the direction of a mud puddle.  I told her to figure out how to redirect the horse without pulling on her.  Soon she had the horse working confidently around her in a willing manner.  My client created willingness in the horse by being willing to work with what she was getting.

I have a few tips that I give my clients to remind themselves that the horse is truly our partner even when it seems unwilling.  They are: 

Expectations kill Creativity:  When we expect something to go or look a certain way, we leave no room for any other possibilities to happen.  This makes us very rigid in dealing with our horse.  Your horse may not understand what you are asking even if you think it should understand.  It may be trying to do the right thing, is even coming close to getting it right but needs more time or strength to do it properly.  Creativity allows you to find the release quicker.  It keeps you in the moment and frees you from doing it perfect.  This seems especially important to those who believe they must move their bodies a specific way each time or the horse will not respond.  Horses are in the moment and they want to interact with us freely in the moment as if it was a dance.  Throw out your expectations of how it is suppose to go and you will find you arrive at your goal faster.

What you resist persists:  Have you ever found that the more you try to avoid something, the more it keeps coming around.  My client example is a picture of this.  She was trying to avoid that mud puddle for quite awhile before I gave her a solution.  The more she tried to keep the mare away the more it wanted to go there.  I find for myself in riding that I may have a horse that seems heavy and stiff on one side.  If I spend too much time working that side, it gets worse because the horse was unbalanced to begin with.  Forcing it to “soften” creates more resistance in the horse which ends up stiffening harder what I was trying to make soft.  This is a hard one to catch in your thought process but anytime you feel the need to fight about something, remember this the only reason you are fighting back is you think you are right and some one else is wrong.

The be, do, have principle:  Most of us have this turned around in our approach to horses and life in general.  We think when we have something, we can do something, and then we will be happy with the experience.  If we switch it to we will be willing to do what it takes to have the horse that we want, we can be happy with the horse at any stage of training.  Again it takes work on our part to be patient with what we are receiving from the horse.  The more we can practice this principle the more relaxed we become with what is occurring in the moment.  Relaxation is truly the ultimate prize for attaining partnership.

Many clients find they don’t have the time to practice with their horses like they want to.  The great thing about these tips is that you can practice every day in your ordinary life.  Partnership is two individuals working together.  People are an abundant resource to practice on.  Watch how many expectations you place on those around you, try to be a little creative with them.  Notice how you resist having a conversation with someone because of the conflict it might bring.  It weighs you down.  Try to be happy for no reason and watch the world brighten.


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