It’s a term you hear bandied about quite a bit in horse-world – ‘what a fabulous partnership you two have’, or ‘it takes a true partnership to achieve results like that’. But what does it really mean? Why is it so important to have this elusive ‘partnership’ with your horse, and how do you know when you have one? What if you never have one?
According to Wikipedia, “a partnership is an arrangement where parties… agree to cooperate to advance their mutual interests”. Sounds like what I had with Betsey – I was interested in decent scores in dressage and not dying when jumping; she was interested in eating (her interests were far simpler than mine, though I can’t argue with them). So our partnership consisted primarily of her allowing me to flop about on her back and making me look good, and me bribing her with an assortment of carrots, apples, mints and Likits.
Paddy, on the other hand. Well for starters, I didn’t really consider just how important building a strong partnership was when I decided to buy a new horse – after all, the pros manage to compete successfully on (what I have often heard on the tannoy at a horse show) ‘a horse [they] only sat up on for the first time yesterday’, so all I have to do is buy an amazing horse and then I’ll be amazing too, right? No, Natalie. Because remember, you’re not a pro – you are a potato that is trying to become a proper rider.
Not only am I a potato, I am also very soft. Whenever there is a training issue or my horse is misbehaving, I always default to me being the problem or there being something wrong. Not that that’s a bad thing, but there is always the distinct possibility that the horse is also just being a s**t.
I allowed Paddy to take advantage of my softness for weeks after I bought him, thinking that he needed time to settle in, and we needed to build up this elusive ‘partnership’ before he would trust me and respect me. For the first few weeks he decided he couldn’t remember what an outline was, set his own speed, and preferred the company of other horses to going anywhere on his own. After a couple of lessons and having a pro sit on him, I realised that he was taking the proverbial, and is much too clever for me to be soft with him – he responds to being given a job! I’ve seen a lot of improvement in Paddy’s attitude to his work (and to me!) since, and some of the tips I learned were:
- Give him a job and keep him busy – he loves to work so I keep his brain occupied and keep him guessing with lots of transitions, changes of rein, poles, grids, any exercises that require him to focus and not sure of what’s coming next. When I do this I find he is much happier – a nice wet mouth and his ears are always flickering to me rather than looking around him!
- Set him up for success – he really likes to please, so I always try to give him an opportunity to succeed and he gets lots and lots of praise. He responds really well to my voice so I am using this reward him and teach him various aids.
- Lots of breaks – he is still very young, learning and weak, so I do lots of short bursts and try not to hammer things into him. If he gets something quickly I’ll pat him and give him a break, but equally he can get very frustrated so if I feel he is really not getting something we’ll take a break and approach it from a different angle.
- Short sessions – I never do more than 30-40 minutes with him at the moment – I’d rather keep things short and do quality work in that time than drill him for an hour or more. I also don’t do more than five days a week with him at this age.
- Lots of variety – I try to mix things up between pure flat, polework, lunging, jumping and maybe a trip away from home (schooling or competing) every week.
- Take a step back – if something isn’t working, go back to what you know works – think The Cube, and ‘Simplify’
- Always have backup – have someone more experienced, either on the ground or in the saddle, to help you out. I have my yard owner school Paddy once a week, and then she gives me a lesson on him to show me what she’s been doing on him. I also get regular flatwork lessons from a local coach who has experience with young horses.
I do believe that partnerships exist, and that they are a very important component of horse ownership – but depending on the horse you have they can take a long time to build. A large part of a partnership involves a mutual respect, and this can be created through effective training (both on the ground and in the saddle) by always treating your horse fairly, and then firmly when needed. I’m looking forward to continuing to get to know Paddy and working towards a Partnership with him – when that day comes we’ll throw a party, give speeches, dance to dodgy music, and you can all bring us a card with loads of money in it.