It is important to understand the word “partnership” and how it relates to equestrian sport. The dictionary definition of partnership is, “Where two individuals work together for a common cause.” But I like to add in a few words and define it this way: “Where two individuals, each fully understanding their role, work together for a common cause.”
This definition clearly describes a relationship where two parties willingly, and with full understanding, work together for a cause or to advance their interests. But what is the horse’s interest? What is his cause? Is it possible for a horse to have full understanding? Maybe not. So is the word “partnership” correct to describe the relationship? It is certainly not a “dictatorship” where an individual directs or commands others to follow her will. I like partnership and all that it entails better. Clearly, though, it is not possible for a horse to have an understanding of progressive training, the requirements of a dressage test, or the design of a jumping course, so the majority of the responsibility falls on you. You must be clear about where the responsibility lies in the unequal relationship that forms a horse-rider partnership.
This is all part of the challenge and intrigue that makes riding such an intellectual tease. How do you encourage the horse to follow your logic and where it might take you? Why should he do what you are asking, buy in, and embrace it all with enthusiasm?
The horse has every right to ask what is in it for him.
Human athletes continually break records by pushing the limit of their ability further and further. Yet the speed of the equine derby winner has not become faster for a hundred years or more in spite of improved training techniques, veterinary care, feeding knowledge, and racecourse ground maintenance. Why?
The horse cannot, for obvious reasons, see any benefit in pushing himself through the pain barrier for greater benefit. It does not matter to our grass-eater whether he wins Olympic gold or bags one million in prize money. His life remains unaltered. The only reason that a horse joins your partnership is his generosity of spirit: a spirit that has to be nurtured, cherished, applauded, loved, and never taken for granted.
With partnership comes responsibility, and the trust that the other member of the team is doing his or her bit for the good of the relationship and in pursuit of a common goal. This is another instance where there is the potential for unequal sides. It is easy for the rider to blame the horse for not doing the right thing but not so easy for the horse to tell the rider when she falls short.
This is one of the difficulties that it is important to explore. How do you make a partnership work?
Progressive training is a series of steps that logically follow one another to build upon a foundation that is understood and secure. In the end, you are left with a picture of the complete jigsaw puzzle, the finished article. Along the way the horse is entrusted with responsibility. He is rewarded when he grasps this and produces a result when asked. In certain situations, the horse must make decisions for himself. The trainer has the responsibility of guiding him in what is right or wrong, or suggesting what he could do better, but must not take responsibility away from the horse because then the partnership becomes a dictatorship. It is a fine line that is often difficult to define.
When the rider makes a mistake or does a less-than-perfect job, the horse has to be generous enough to forgive and move on. The rider has to be the partnership’s conscience—a difficult role, as people do not like to blame themselves. It is far easier to pass the blame elsewhere—often to the horse. Riders are, nevertheless, taught to take the blame. “The horse is only doing what you ask.” “You weren’t clear in your explanation.” “You gave the wrong aid.” And so on. But when the horse does make a mistake or doesn’t take responsibility for an action that was clearly his, you must be able to call your partner out on it. True partnerships work because there is respect for each partner’s ability to do his or her job. There is an understanding that says no offense is taken when one partner flags up that the other is falling short of what is expected.
Welcome to the “Horse House”
There is no obvious way into the “Horse House.” There are doors, windows, skylights, and even a chimney, but on first glance they all appear to be locked. It is important that you gain access, as once inside, you can discuss with the horse what happens next and where you want to go. This is how you can influence an outcome or change a reaction.
To force your way into the Horse House is counterproductive, so any indication of a willingness to invite you in should be welcomed—the offer of a foot in the front door is a good start. As the horse becomes more comfortable with the initial discussion, the front door will open wider and further discussion can take place. The horse might only tolerate a partial opening of the front door at this stage in his training, but there is no harm in trying to explore a different way in—a window, down the chimney, through the terrace doors, or the kitchen door. A collection of partial welcomes and acceptances will soon allow entrance, and once in the living room, discussion and negotiation can take place. Eventually, when mutual trust is established, you may get asked in and to stay for dinner.
Many coaches and trainers will claim that their way into the Horse House is right, but the bottom line is that any way into the Horse House is acceptable, provided it is fair to the horse. You must not force your way in as this may jeopardize the partnership you are trying to build for the future. Eventually, you will be invited in the front door as a friend.
A horse that is left with his integrity and character, yet is willing to accommodate your views and desires, becomes a good partner—one that is prepared to put himself out to please and work toward your goal.
With an educated and exploring mind, you will find many ways into the Horse House. Once in, a secure partnership can develop and flourish.
ISSUE: FEBRUARY 2020
By Eric Smiley from Trafalgar Books
This excerpt from Two Brains, One Aim by Eric Smiley with Ellie Hughes is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (www.horseandriderbooks.com).