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Partnership & Progress: 2 Sides Of The Same Coin


My ultimate vision is to progress with my horses gymnastically as far as we can go together in a way that builds our partnership and trust and allows us to have fun doing it.

Ovation & Natilla


True Horsemanship is about making decisions in this moment.

The paradox is that the key to making the best decisions in this moment is to never forget your ultimate long term vision.

The other day I had fairly intense sessions with two of my horses. Both horses in general are going fantastically and it was part of the training plan for the week that this day would be what I call and ‘up-level day’ for Ovation and Natilla. That means we take something we already know to a new level or degree of difficulty. For Ovation it meant getting more particular about his tempi changes, and for Natilla it meant being able to do simple changes in different patterns and places in the arena as part of her flying change preparation.

Ovation, Day 1

Ovation and I had been having trouble getting four 4-tempi’s in a row with any consistency. I knew it was mostly a coordination issue and to build coordination it is good to take the time to repeat things methodically. The tricky part here is that tempis (and the kind of collection he needed to do them) require a bit of strength from him so I was risking going into muscle fatigue... And the brain can only absorb what the butt can endure. I gave him lots of rest time between repetitions, he gave it all a very good try, and we ended on a very good note... But I also knew I had pushed his limit; he was tired, and I imagined he felt a bit like I do when my personal trainer says: “Come on! Give me 2 more push ups!!!”

I thanked Ovation very much, gave him a ton of cookies and he got a nice liniment bath. 

Natilla, Day 1

Then I set out with Natilla on a quest for up-leveling our simple changes. I had been playing more and more with these as a strength and collection-building exercise that I know will improve our ability to do canter pirouettes, flying changes, lengthening/shortening, and general engagement. She totally understands the exercise so I was playing with being able to do them ‘anywhere, anytime’ on figure-8’s on straight lines, from true to counter canter and vice versa. A few rides earlier while playing with them on a serpentine she ‘accidentally’ slipped in a couple flying changes... That’s what I call a ‘lovely problem’ and is my favorite way for a horse’s first flying changes to happen; when they get into a balance where it just seems like the easiest thing to do.

Of course those moments are magical, and the tricky part as a trainer is to try to set up for magic to happen but not try to make the magic happen. I have to admit that day I started to try to make it happen and obviously she didn’t have any idea what I was talking about. She just didn’t feel the moment, and apparently neither did I. I kept thinking: ‘Oh, I’ll just do it one more time, this time I will get it...” We got into a little bit of a mess. Our harmony went out the window and I ended up dwelling in the shade, feeling a bit guilty, and asking myself how I was going to find a good note to end on.

We were both feeling ‘done’ but she is a big strong girl and I didn’t think she was physically fatigued. We were both a bit mentally fatigued so I made a point to choose very very wisely. I decided that the note to finish on would be to find the most basic version of what I needed to feel from her. I told myself to ‘find the one thing that if she started with this tomorrow, it would make the whole ride better’, or that would cause her to think: ‘OH, that’s what Karen was talking about this whole time, sure, I can do THAT!’. Of course in this case this lesson was more for me than her. I needed to calm and clarify my thoughts so I could communicate well to her.

Engagement and Relaxation

If we just had that, everything will be great. So I did some more basic transitions and changes of positioning with big relaxation in between, found a great note to end on, apologized profusely to her for not being a better rider, went back to the barn and gave her a nice cool liniment bath. I gave myself a good talking to and made sure I was at my best for the next two horses. With multiple horses, a red flag for me is if two horses in a row have a more difficult session because probably I am the cause of it! (I am happy to report the rest of the horses went fantastically!).

If I keep my focus of where I really want to be heading it will prevent me from getting too far off track...

Now, since I am a horsewoman obsessed with harmony, I thought and thought about my rides, what I could have done better and what I will do tomorrow. I wanted to make sure I got it right. This is when I find it so important to remind myself of my ultimate outcome; my greater vision. If I keep my focus of where I really want to be heading it will prevent me from getting too far off track. If I want to end up in Canada, I better make sure I head North! I could head northeast or northwest, but if I start following paths that look easier or more interesting and I don’t notice that they are heading south I will wake up one day in Mexico and exclaim: “How did I get HERE? I am further away from my goal!”

My ultimate vision is to progress with my horses gymnastically as far as we can go together in a way that builds our partnership and trust and allows us to have fun doing it.

The next day I prepared to ride as usual. Ovation was fine to groom. I reached for his bridle, he presented his lowered head for me to put it on, but there was just... a look on his face. It was subtle. He usually practically tries to bridle himself but today it looked more like polite obliging. I got the message. I had already been planning a physically and mentally light ride, but I didn’t feel like he was trusting that. He looked willing to ‘be a good boy and let me ride him’ but I didn’t like that feeling. I stepped back, told him: “I got the message, O”. I put the bridle down, snapped some reins onto his halter, got on and went for a ‘passenger ride’ where he got to decide where we went.

Ovation The Next Day...

He is quite a ridiculous horse to do this on because he likes to randomly do u-turns or even full small circles even when heading out across a field. He likes to walk over fallen branches, turn around and walk back over them; he once did that literally 11 times before tiring of that game and moving on. He likes picking things up, and that came in handy when we came across the fly mask Natilla had lost the night before. He picked it up and dropped it on my dog Sydney a couple times before holding it long enough to hand it to me in the saddle. He also has a favorite tree he likes to stand behind that is on top of a hill at a far corner of the property.

After a few loopy laps around the field at the walk and the trot he went and stood by his tree in the shade for a long long long long time. After a while he still gave no hint of wanting to move. I asked him if he might want to walk a bit but I felt a definite ‘NOPE, I want to stay here’. I figured if I asked him the question, then it means I have to listen to and accept the answer, so I got off, untacked him and took the long walk back to the barn. I promised him he could do as he liked that day so I owed him that. He quietly grazed in the shade and as I walked away I felt a big smile come over my face. Yup, it just felt right. Later that day when I went out he came running over when I called him. No hard feelings either way. I figured I built big partnership and trust points that day. On to Natilla.

Natilla The Next Day...

Natilla was groomed and waiting in the barn for me. I was remembering my ultimate goal as I observed her and prepared to put the bridle on her: To progress with my horses gymnastically as far as we can go together in a way that builds our partnership and trust and allows us to have fun doing it. I picked up the bridle, and she was completely normal, which for her means when she sees the bridle she lowers her head and opens her mouth wide as if someone told her to ‘open wide and say Aaahhhh’. Then she smiles for a cookie (years ago she learned that I love it when she curls her lip up, so that is the cue she uses on me to have me give her a cookie). So far so good. I decided to ride across the street with my dressage rider neighbor, Sharon. I thought if I rode with her it would keep me from getting lost in my own brain. Riding with someone you respect can help keep you accountable and aware!

Clarity Was My Mantra...

Engagement, Relaxation, and Clarity was my mantra as I walked across the street. Natilla marched eagerly. She was awesome during our ride. She felt completely positive and the first time I prepared for the simple change she offered some cantering in place that felt like she was a Prix St George level horse. Big praise. She proudly looked over her shoulder for cookies. One on the left side, then one on the right side, then again on the left. Yup, it was a 3-cookie effort for sure!

It was as if she spent the night trying to think of how she could be better for me, the way I had spent the night trying to think of how I could be better for her. I didn’t even think of doing a flying change but I felt like I could have. It almost felt like she wanted me to ask. Yup, that’s the feeling that will keep me heading in the right direction.

Partnership and Progress: Gold In Your Pocket...

In training horses it often seems like we have to chose between progressive results, and harmony, and the reality is that sometimes, in some brief moments, we do. You toss the coin and come up with heads or tails: Progress or Partnership.

Partnership and Progress are two sides of the same coin. But just like with a coin, one side may be presenting itself, but the other is still there... And if you play well, as time goes by you’ll end up seeing enough of both. When you are really confident in your experience you will realize that you don’t even have to flip the coin; you will know that you have everything right there in your pocket all the time.

When you are truly a wise horseman you will also know that you never have to choose at all. Both possibilities exist at the same time. In Partnership there is Progress, and in Progress there is Progress. Everything helps everything.

The awareness of your ultimate vision, your full presence in this moment, and the small but powerful decisions you make when in that state of mind is like gold in your pocket.

Thoughts? Scroll down to leave a comment!
by Karen Rohlf

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Need help with your horse? Click HERE to watch three of Karen’s training videos that give unique solutions for 3 of the most common challenges horses and riders face.

Karen Rohlf, author and creator of the Dressage Naturally program, is an internationally recognized clinician who is changing the equestrian educational paradigm. She is well known for doing dressage with a priority of partnership, her student-empowering approach to teaching, her virtual courses, and her positive and balanced point of view.

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