Building the Partnership

In the past few weeks, more than one person has asked me to write about my partnership with Henry. Either more details about how we overcame challenges that we faced along the way, or my thoughts as to how our partnership got to be the way that it is, or how it’s possible that I always seem to be so annoyingly pleased with my horses. Which… I have to say, I don’t think I’m an anomaly in that. There are a lot of examples of great horse and rider partnerships in the blog world.

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And, to be totally honest, I feel kind of uncomfortable writing anything remotely similar to a how-to or giving very specific, detailed advice. It feels a little (a lot) douchey. Everyone’s situation is so unique, and I certainly do not have all the answers nor do I want to sit here and pretend like I do. I’m not a professional. I have plenty of issues, just like anyone else, and so do my horses. I also think that a big part of why my partnership with Henry has been such an overall happy one is because I’m one of the luckiest people on earth and blindly stumbled upon one of the most genuine, honest horses that I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. That’s not skill, or savvy… that’s luck.

But it’s also true that the horse I stumbled across on facebook for $900 was a bit different from the horse I have now. It took a while to overcome some of his demons and make him happier and more confident in his work. He’s always been golden at his core, he just needed someone to show him how to take a deep breath. I was fortunate enough to have learned some valuable lessons from horses that came before him, and I was in the right place at the right time in my own education to be what he needed me to be in the beginning. I still made mistakes of course, plenty of them, STILL DO, ALL THE TIME, but things slowly started to click and come together for us.

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in the early days

Since then I’ve been even more fortunate to have my perspective evolve tremendously just by having the relationship that I do with Henry, and I’ve noticed that I’ve already carried the things that I’ve learned over to Presto. I spent my pre-Henry years buying cheap horses, training them up a bit, and then selling them, so I’ve owned more than my fair share. They all taught me something, but none of them have really brought everything into focus as much as Henry has. He’s been an incredible source of clarity for me – as a rider, as a horseman, and as a human being.

So I will (hesitantly) put pen to paper on this one, so to speak, and share the things that have really been cemented in my mind over the past several years with Henry, and from seeing the relationships that some of my friends have with their horses. I can sit here and tell you a thousand different stories, but in they end they all kind of boil down to just a few basic ideas, so I went with that instead. I’m hoping that, if nothing else, I’ll be able to look back on this post when I’m having struggles with Presto, or when it’s time to shop for the next horse, and be able to remind myself of what’s important. For me personally, all of these things have been really vital to building a good relationship with a horse. Future self, pull up a seat.

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Be honest with yourself

I think that if you’re going to be successful, as a rider or a horseman or anything really, it’s important to be honest with yourself about what you really need and what your abilities truly are. This takes a lot of self-awareness. But you see it ALL the time, people struggling through a bad relationship with a horse that just is not suited to them at all, for whatever particular reason. Unless you’re a pro, it’s not about what you can do (this isn’t a contest), it’s about what you want to do and what will make you the happiest. Do you actually need the fanciest, prettiest horse you can find? Do you really want a green horse? For me, I can do green, but even if I had the money, I’m never gonna go out and buy some big fancy upper level horse that requires a strong accurate ride and spends half of it’s free time being an idiot. I’m just not interested. Doesn’t suit my lifestyle or my preference or my skill level. So before you buy the horse: What do you really want? What are you really capable of? What type of horse will fit best into your personal situation? Be brutally honest in your self-assessment.

Which leads us to:

Buy the right horse.

For some people the right horse could be something straight off the track, whereas for someone else the right horse might be a 15yo been there done that QH that is rock solid and steady. There’s nothing wrong with either extreme, or anything in the middle. Young or green horses need consistency, they need confidence, they require a lot of time and energy, and they need to be properly educated… if you can’t realistically (or don’t want to) provide those things, get a horse that already has them. If there’s a certain brain or personality you really need or want, keep looking until you find it. And if you own a horse that isn’t right for you, or you don’t enjoy riding it, sell it. There’s some kind of weird stigma in the horse world that selling a horse equals “giving up” on it. This is insane. Most of the time both the horse and the rider are going to be much happier with a different partner or in a different career, and sometimes it’s just time to move on. Give yourself permission to do right by both of you, part ways, and find the horse you enjoy that fits your needs. It doesn’t really matter what anyone else thinks.

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Have realistic expectations

Honestly, just from my own personal observations, unrealistic expectations seem to be one of the major things that lead to people being really unhappy with their horses. They’re big prey animals with tiny brains, they are gonna be dumb sometimes. Some a lot dumber than others. You also can’t realistically expect a green horse to make up for your mistakes, or be perfect, or consistent. If you need a horse to do that, buy something that’s already made. Even then, it’s still a horse, not a robot. It’s important to always make your expectations clear and always be in pursuit of progress, but it’s also important to understand that they will not always be met. Shrug it off, reassess, and try again tomorrow.

Set yourself and your horse up for success

You see this all the time too, when someone makes a bad decision and you can already see the writing on the wall before it happens. There ends up being an accident, or the whole situation begins to quickly unravel. We’re human, we will inevitably make bad decisions sometimes. That’s part of it. But on the flip side, a lot of problems can be avoided if you take the time to stop, think, and then continue on. What I’m asking – is it fair? Is the horse prepared – mentally and physically? Have I done the homework? I try not to put any of us into situations where we’re unlikely to succeed – it’s so vital to keep the trust and the confidence up.

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It’s not personal

Ah, man. Another thing you see this all the time: someone saying their horse was “an asshole” or that their horse did this thing to them or that thing to them. Horses aren’t malicious, they’re reactive. They don’t wake up in the morning scheming about how to make us angry or make us look stupid. Every time I feel myself getting frustrated, I try to take the emotional element out of it and think about things from the horse’s perspective. Is he confused? Is he tired? Is he hurting? Is he lacking confidence? Am I doing something wrong? Henry especially has demanded this from me, and he still does. He is a very honest horse, but if he feels like you’re doing wrong by him, he will absolutely let you know. Not in a mean way, but in a “I’m done participating until you get your shit together” way. I appreciate that about him, because he’s made me a better horseman. Still working on the “better rider” part…

Make peace with the things you can’t change

There are so many things you can improve about a horse. His training, his gaits, his strength, on and on and on. But there are some things you can’t really fix, or some things that just won’t change a whole lot. I love Henry dearly, but I feel pretty sure that he will never be a particularly spectacular dressage horse. His natural default mode is tense, his natural gaits are meh, and his natural balance is downhill. There has been massive improvement – he is obedient and he is much more capable – but he will likely never be the dressage winner. I accept that. He also won’t ever be a particularly careful showjumper. He has the ability, but he’s a minimalist and just isn’t that bothered by touching a rail. I accept that too. He’s got crooked front legs, so I’m really careful about his shoeing schedule, the footing he works in, and his conditioning. These are facts, and I accept all of them. He makes up for it in a million other ways, so they just are what they are. No horse is perfect. If I couldn’t live with his faults, I would have sold him years ago. We’ll never stop working to improve the negative things, but I’m realistic about it, I accept it, and I’m not holding any of it against him. Don’t hold grudges against a horse just for being who he is.

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although it’s not actually necessary to tap every rail, just saying

Everyone needs help sometimes

Pride and ego are the enemies to a good partnership. There will always be bumps in the road, things you need help with, situations that you aren’t sure how to handle. No one knows everything, and there is zero shame in bringing in a professional to help. To me it’s shameful to let a situation go on for too long, or to keep fumbling through something that isn’t working – almost always to the horse’s detriment. Don’t be your own worst enemy. Know when to hand the reins to someone else.

Patience is everything

It’s true, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was a solid horse and rider team. It takes time to build up the trust required – lots and lots of deposits into the trust bank. And being patient with yourself is just as important as being patient with the horse. To me this is one of the hardest parts. Especially not getting caught up in comparing yourself to other people, their horses, their progress, but just being patient and letting everything fall into place in it’s own due time. That’s so hard, but so critical.

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Otherwise I mostly just try to remember to also keep it fun. It doesn’t always have to be work work work all the time. We goof off, we play around, we take days to just go exploring or for a bareback hack. It helps keep me grounded and remembering why I do this, and to be honest, I think those “fun” days have done more to strengthen the bond than all of the work days put together. We trust each other and have a pretty good level of understanding. Some days I just mentally can’t, and some days he just mentally can’t. So on those days, we just don’t. And that’s okay.

Henry isn’t perfect, and there are a lot of things he will never be, just like there are a lot of things I’ll probably never be either. But I appreciate all the good things about him, we mesh well together, and in a lot of ways he’s completely irreplaceable to me. I’m so appreciative to have this type of relationship with Henry right now, while I’m “raising” Presto. I can easily draw comparisons as I try to mold my and Presto’s relationship to mimic the one I have with Henry. It makes me think a little more holistically about how we got there, what I did right, and what I did wrong. There is plenty of both.

11 thoughts on “Building the Partnership

  1. The part about “buy the right horse” really resonates. I spent so much of my younger years in a mental competition with everyone else that I always had to have a competitive, fancy horse that needed to be “ridden”. As I’ve gotten older (and poorer, with less time on my hands) I’ve really come to appreciate how lucky I was to get my big guy that may not be the best jumper, or the best mover, or competitive, but he is the perfect amateur horse. I can get on and make him work if I feel like it, or I can give him 3 months off and then get on and take him out in the field on the buckle without a single worry. I don’t need to feel like less of a rider because I don’t want or need a horse that is competitive in the 1.20-1.30. It’s totally OK if I just want to putz around on my pretty hunter and bop around 3′ if I so choose. It’s so liberating to let yourself just ENJOY your horse without all of the perceived peer pressure to always be taking lessons, clinics, showing, moving up, etc.

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  2. What a thoughtful, solid outline of horsemanship! 🙂

    Expectations is such a fine line to walk when we feel we need to justify all the resources that go into competing, and when we feel pressure from coaches and instructors to show the improvement we’ve worked on. And no matter how much someone paid for him, how much training he’s had, he’s just a horse in the end. 🙂

    Giving things time is also a big challenge in our current culture. We get so many messages that if we hit all the right buttons and do all the right things, we should get results. Now. Not in a year, or two years.

    But with horses, it’s about the journey. Horses don’t have even a tiny brain cell dedicated to goals and future progress. Every one of them just wakes to the world today, even Grand Prix horses and Derby winners. So time is a vital ingredient that we have to mentally adapt to accept as part of doing all the right things to get results.

    There is a reason horses right off the track are so cheap! It’s the time factor, as well as all the things about them that need therapeutic fixing. The OTTB show/event/trails/endurance horse costs the purchase price plus rehab plus years (years) of training and adaptation. Sure there are people that can have them going around courses within a few months, but those horses are far, far from ‘made’. 🙂

    Henry the Master Event Horse didn’t really cost “only” $900 off Facebook … that was just Henry as he was at that moment, a long way from his future. LOL

    Great post! 🙂

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  3. I loved this. I love how you pointed out so many things that we all probably see day to day in our riding lives. The ‘if i sell this horse i’m giving up’ myth and also the horse and partner relationship that is just never going to work. I always tell people it’s like dating; you have to like your horse. Just because he is fabulous and well bred doesn’t mean you will get on nor perform well.
    Since i’ve dropped the ego and the worry i am doing so much better. Running your own race is key.
    Mel x

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  4. Agree 100% with everything here. I was actually talking to my dad about what I need to look for next time I horse shop. Since that’s obviously on the horizon. (It’s only been 1 week of no riding, and I’m already losing my mind.) And I said to him (mostly in regards to my fancy baby horse that I don’t get along with) that I need something less fancy. I need something a little more broke that will help my find my brave again. It might not be the winner at the A show, but it maybe will be a middle of the pack type. Just something less spooky and with a bigger sense of humor. I think the most important part of the puzzle when trying to form a relationship is time and patience. And all those other things you said too.

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