Why Partnership Is Not Enough
Starting in the late 1990s, I changed from control-based training to communication-based training. Systematic methods that relied on obligingness evolved into feel-based scenarios where my horses are allowed to say 'no'. I often describe my relationship with my horses as a partnership, and call what I do 'partnership-based' training. Lately, the word 'partnership' has felt like a really insufficient description.
As I often do in these cases, I go to the dictionary.
Partner is defined as "either of a pair of people engaged together in the same activity".
Partnership is defined as: "An association of two or more people as partners or a formal arrangement by two or more parties to manage and operate a business and share its profits. "
Is that it?
That doesn't describe how I feel about my horses or the relationship I have with them.
So is partnership really what I am aiming for?
Don't get me wrong - there are much worse things than partnerships. Too many horses in the world are in a parasitic relationship with their human. A partnership is a great baseline to aim for. At least in a partnership you are 'in it together'.
Here I Come To Save The Day...
(Young people: That was a Mighty Mouse reference).
When teaching my Dressage Naturally program, I often joke that as riders, we want to be our horse's biomechanical super-hero. Most of the time we strive to be invisible... to simply harmonize with our horse. However, if something starts 'going south', we swoop in to help, to clarify, or add aids (after all, they are called aids because they are supposed to help). This is in contrast to constantly nagging or always controlling.
It's a fun way to get people to remember the concept, but is there even more to this superhero idea?
I think about characters like Spiderman or Superman that are mild-mannered, humble, imperfect, friendly members of their community most of the time, but they swoop in to save the day when needed. That feels more similar to my relationship with my horses. I can relate to feeling a bit like Clark Kent most of the time, yet I'm ready to be Superman when needed.
Side note: this is just a thought-experiment. I am not a huge super-hero movie or comic strip fanatic so just think in broad strokes here. I am sure this analogy is mostly 'wrong' but it just might be helpful.
Much of the time I just want to hang out with my horses. I'm honored if they choose to just 'be' with me with no agenda. Sometimes I have the role of teacher and if I do that well, then I do get to experience a partnership where we both are engaged in the activity. The goal is that it feels like we are sharing the movement and the moment; that we're in this together.
But let's face it - we are NOT on equal ground. This is not an equal partnership. Horses didn't ask for any of this, and they can be quite helpless in our world. Even inside an environment where I give my horses a lot of freedom and choice, they still need me to look out for them. I need to be their hero, whether it's to calm them when they are scared, make health and veterinary decisions, or when I make the everyday management choices that keep them healthy, happy, and safe.
It feels different to think of myself as my horse's superhero.
I like it.
Qualities Of A Super Hero
There are a lot of different kinds of superheroes, but there are some common qualities. Think for a moment about how you would describe the qualities of a superhero. Here are words and phrases that come to my mind: compassionate, brave, self-sacrificing, courageous, fearless, confident, looking out for the good of others, someone who thinks of others before themself, positive, curious, willing to take action, knows when to act and when to wait, dependable, aware, trust-worthy.
Yes! That's what I want to be for my horse!
That's what all horses (not just our own) need us to be for them in this crazy human world. Many of you reading this can think of real examples when you self-sacrificed and took care of your horses before yourselves. You can think of numerous moments when you had to be brave in order to take compassionate action to do something for the good of your horse. You know what it's like to stay in heightened states of awareness, scanning the figurative horizon, on watch for things that you need to protect your horse against.
The definition of partnership says there is an expectation of mutual agreement and equal responsibility, however, with horses, I don't think that's true. In reality they don't have equal responsibility, or equal freedom to agree or disagree with the life we give them. So partnership is an attitude we can have toward our horse; a feeling that we are 'in this together', but they don't owe partnership back to us. All that our horses need to do is be themselves.
If we are good partners to them, we can enjoy the gift of them letting us experience a partnership with them. With that said, I know many of you have been with a horse that was a superhero for you. (I am lucky enough to be able to name a few).
It really is up to us to step up and be our best for the horses.
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It's Time To Claim Your Cape.
So, go ahead and claim your cape! Dare to be more for your horse than just a partner. It's not about ego, it's about responsibility. It's not about being perfect, it's about being willing. It's about recognizing that our life experiences are not equal. As magical as horses are, we humans have all the control. We have all the power. We can use that power for good or for evil.
Thoughts? Leave a comment below...