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Partnership & Leadership

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Have you been told by an instructor that you need to ‘up your leadership’ with your horse and wonder what that really means? Do you think you have to choose between being in partnership with your horse and meeting your training goals? 

Partnership and leadership are not mutually exclusive; you actually don’t have to make a choice between the two! 

Karen Rohlf Dressage Naturally Spanish Walk web

What do Partnership & Leadership mean?

With any new topic, I love to start with the actual definitions of the words. 

Partnership: A partnership is a formal arrangement by two or more parties to manage and operate a business and share its profits. In other words, you and your horse ‘are in business together.’ 

In the business of horsemanship, you want your horse to feel like he’s getting something out of the partnership – like he’s sharing the profits. In other words, the relationship is mutually beneficial. 

Leadership: Leadership is about mapping out where you need to go as a team in order to win, and it’s mutually agreeable. It’s dynamic and exciting, and it’s inspiring.  A good leader inspires others to follow. 

If others don’t want to follow you, then you’re not a leader – you’re a boss! You might get others to do the job, but they aren’t inspired and they aren’t sharing in the profits. 

Karen Rohlf at one with her horses

What it means in the horse world

Partnership and Leadership can be confusing topics.

Some instructors may tell students they need to ‘up their leadership’,  when they want them to be stronger, firmer, and show the horse who’s boss. These training methods are often control-based and operate on the premise of dominance and submissiveness. 

There are people in the sport world who may scoff at the idea of partnership. They think it means the horse gets to do whatever he wants, and may equate it with weakness on the part of the person.

On the other hand, students who strongly desire partnership and follow partnership or relationship-based training methods may feel bad if their horse ever has a difficult moment and can tend to back off their goals any time the horse doesn't look totally happy.

Real results come from understanding how leadership, partnership, and relationship fit together. 

Dressage Naturally & Karen Rohlf Tip 9

Leadership, Partnership & Relationship

It’s important to consider partnership when working with horses. They don’t really share the same goals we do. A horse’s typical ‘goals’ are to stay safe, be comfortable, eat grass, talk to other horses, and prance around a bit. 

It’s up to us to INSPIRE our horses to partner with us and join us in the endeavors we invent for them. This will be much more satisfying than just ‘making’ them do things for us 'or else'.  Leadership, in a more integrated sense of the word, recognizes that partnerships and relationships are integral to a scenario where two or more beings are able to achieve a goal. 

  • Leadership relies on partnership
  • Partnership relies on relationship
  • Relationship is based on trust


Relationship Creates Partnership And Sets The Stage For Leadership

Techniques are necessary, but without a good relationship, those techniques may not yield maximum desired results.

The first horse I did dressage with was Brave Tom. I got him when I was 15 and had great success. We went up the levels and were on the team for the United States Young Riders championships 4 years in a row. We won many awards and national championships at all levels. 

We did this even though we had many strikes against us. He didn’t pass the pre-purchase for dressage training. Neither of us had dressage experience when I got him. I didn’t even think I wanted to do dressage. I was a kid, and I just wanted to have fun and do Pony Club.

Years later, as a professional working with super-talented athletic horses, I thought about Tom and how ‘special’ he was to have gone so far and given me so much. Here I was with years' more experience, yet the training didn’t always seem to go easier.

Later I was willed a horse named Vivaldi. He was the first horse since Tom that I owned. Although he was already Prix St Georges level when he was given to me, he was pretty ‘used up’  and of questionable soundness. Since he was my horse, I treated him differently than my training horses. I spent that extra bit of time with him. I started doing ‘natural horsemanship’ as an amusement for us, and something special happened. Vivaldi started giving me the special feeling that Brave Tom had given me. He started offering things above and beyond what he had before, even though he was past his prime.

Karen Rohlf Ovation on balance beam

Return To Partnership

I realized that the key to bringing out that ‘special something’ had less to do with how experienced I was with techniques and had more to do with my attitude toward and relationship with my horse.

I realized that partnership was not just silly kid stuff! There were actually measurable, tangible benefits to my dressage training. All my horses in training began to change when I added in the partnership piece. They became more willing and easier to work with, especially the ones with owners who were open to this ‘weird’ new way of being with them. 

Partnership will allow your techniques to work. Partnership is your horse agreeing to participate in the conversation.

Brave Tom and Vivaldi proved to me that building a relationship is vital. Relationship builds Partnership and Partnership allows Leadership. Relationship is really about creating a safe environment, based on trust, where you and your horse feel safe to learn and be together. If my horse feels safe, he will feel safe to try, then I can refine and shape what he offers.  

Karen Rohlf Dressage Naturally Natilla

How To Be A Better Leader & Partner

Excellent leaders: 

  • Have a vision
  • Are clear communicators
  • Listen rather than just tell
  • Notice and enhance strengths
  • Are flexible about ideas and plans
  • Inspire the action, instead of just demanding

If you are told you need to ‘up your leadership’ for your horse, don’t think it just means you have to be bossier or stronger. Assess and ask yourself:

  • Do I need a vision of where I am going?
  • How can I be a clearer communicator?
  • What is my horse trying to tell me?
  • Am I using my horse’s strengths and preferences?
  • Am I nurturing curiosity in myself and my horse?
  • How can I be more inspiring/motivating?

Excellent Partners:

  • Have empathy
  • Trust and are trust-worthy
  • Enjoy each other's company

If you feel like you need to be a better partner, don’t think it means you have to do less or drop all your goals. Assess and ask yourself:

  • Am I trying to see things from my horse's point of view?
  • Does my horse trust me? 
  • Do I trust my horse? 
  • If no, why not? 
  • What are specific steps I can take to build trust? 
  • How can I make things more enjoyable?


Trust, Curiosity, Clarity, and Motivation

Trust is always at the heart of good relationships. When you trust, you are willing to let go of control (and resistance) and open yourself to willing cooperation and true freedom of movement. This is what it means to move from being a ‘boss’ to being an ‘inspiring leader’. 

In this style of training, nurturing curiosity and giving the horse a chance to express himself are really important. Sometimes my horse will offer me more or something different – and that’s ok – just so long as he keeps offering. Create a safe space where your horse feels like he can give things a try – where it’s ‘safe’ to offer something. You can refine and fine-tune it as you go!

Karen Rohlf Dressage Naturally Video ClassroomBe clear. In any moment, make sure you are able to answer your horse’s question: ‘what do you want me to do?’ If you can’t answer that in one simple sentence, you need to clarify your picture before trying to lead your horse to join you in it.

The whole point of training is to figure out how to inspire your horse to do things. A good leader listens. Notice the horse’s preferences so you can work WITH him, then, lead him where you want to go. There is ‘mutual accountability’ – I expect something from the horse and in turn, I’m also accountable to my horse. I need to thank him and pay him for his efforts. This is the transformative part – where things come together between two living beings – we’re in this together.

Karen ROhlf Dressage Naturally Natilla bridleless canter

You Can Be A Partner And A Leader!

You can be a partner AND a leader! You can be a partner without being a leader, but you can’t be a leader without being a partner.

You can be trustworthy, trusting, clear yet open, have high standards, be receptive to the horse’s ideas, have clear boundaries, AND have a good relationship. You can achieve high levels of performance without being demanding.

I love this topic… and if you are even thinking about all of this and what it means, you’re ahead of many, many people who think life with horses is about showing them who’s boss – those who want their horses just to shut up and do what they tell them because that is their job. When you only use methods of control and dominance you will have fewer opportunities for your horse to come through for you and to give you even more than what you asked for.

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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