Lindsey Partridge, 31, made a big splash when her OTTB mare Soar (Kahleesi) won the title of America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred at the $100,000 International Thoroughbred Makeover at the Kentucky Horse Park in 2015. Her second horse, Pentland, finished third in both Field Hunter and Trail, making her the only trainer to ever have two horses finish in the finals in both disciplines. She returned in 2016, winning both the Trail and Freestyle with the five-year-old mare Trivia Time. She then added the 2016 CanAm Equine Extreme Cowboy Championship to her resumé, and plans to tackle the 2017 Thoroughbred Makeover, Oct. 5-8, again this year.
Partridge’s winning Freestyle routine with Trivia Time was awe-inspiring, to say the least; she rode the horse sans saddle or bridle through daunting obstacles that included a huge flapping tarp that would have had most horses heading for the hills (watch at youtu.be/SbeEbDeJYnY). Yet the mare appeared quite unperturbed, almost serene – a tribute to Partridge’s training system.
Rather than employing a single school of thought, her Harmony Horsemanship (harmonyhorsemanship.ca) is a hybrid system developed over the years based on what works. “I just became addicted to learning,” said Partridge. Mentors include the late Gary Convery, Parelli, Karen Rohlf, Elsa Sinclair, Tik Maynard, Jonathan Field, Emma Massingale, Chris Irwin, David Cowley and Centered Riding – “Basically, anybody I see that I like, I learn as much as I can and bring it all together as best I can.”
Partridge, a busy travelling clinician who is based out of Partridge Horse Hill in Pontypool, ON, and works part-time as a public health nurse in Durham Region, explained that “despooking” horses is less about desensitizing them to specific objects and situations, and more about developing trust.
CENTRE OF THE UNIVERSE
It all starts with my horses thinking that I am the centre of their universe and the answer to all their problems. What surprises people sometimes is that when I practiced for the first time with Trivia with that ginormous tarp that I did my freestyle with, they asked if I had ‘desensitized’ her to that. I didn’t, because long before she saw that tarp, I had already been training her for a number of months and done enough other things with her that she trusted me. The first time we practiced that, we were able to get through the entire thing. The horse was fine. It was more about my team learning to manhandle the tarp!
I think it’s impossible to try to desensitize your horse to every single thing that you may encounter. It’s more practical to instead convince your horse that you are the answer to all of their problems and that they should just focus on you. That way, whether it’s snow falling off the roof or walking over a tarp, they just ask you ‘okay, is this what you want me to do’ and you say ‘yup’ and your horse says ‘I think I’ll try.’
HARMONY TRAINING CONTINUUM: THE FOUR PHASES
The first phase is Respect and Safety, where I make sure that I can move my horse away from me, whether it be backward or pushing their shoulders. With horses, I think of their ‘alphabet’ as being the eight ABCs of the possible things you can ask a horse to do:
- go forwards
- go backwards
- move their shoulders
- move their hips
- go sideways
- go up
- go down
- don’t react
Then I move into Calm Connection, which is about causing the horse to ‘shape’ around me so that they have positive flexion around me. A lot of times I see people leading horses and the horse is ever-so-slightly pushing their shoulder into the person – not physically leaning on them, but they just have a shape in the body which says ‘I’m not really with you.’ So I focus on postures and exercises that cause two things with my horses: Shaping and Draw. ‘Shaping’ is that literal bend of the horse bending around me, like leading on a circle so that your horse is bent around you. Or having your horse do a circle, and then going sideways a couple of steps away from you, so that way they still have that lateral bend to them.
The other part is ‘draw.’ There’s an exercise I do called the Boomerang where I send the horse out around an object and then invite them back towards me. They are always thinking, ‘do this, and then come back to my human.’ I am really reinforcing ‘shape around me and then come to me,’ which is the draw.
The third phase of training is what I call Create a Yes Horse. This has to do with asking my horse to go through, go over, go under, or touch various objects. That could be starting with something easy like going over a flat piece of plywood, or getting more advanced like going through a splash box or over a jump. The idea is that we have to acknowledge our horse’s fears and let them be real fears. We can’t belittle a horse for being scared of something. If you lose your patience and get more aggressive with them, or add more pressure, you also add more anxiety. Not only do you create fear and anxiety about that thing they are already scared of, you also add more anxiety because now they feel pressured.
People may have heard about going through ‘pressure phases’ – phase one, phase two, phase three, phase four – or they may know ask/tell/demand. I disagree with that; instead I ask/tell and then either wait, clarify, or motivate. Once you ask the horse to do something, and then you add a bit more pressure and tell them to do it more assertively, you can’t cross that barrier of adding so much pressure that you then create greater fear inside. Instead you have to think, is the horse trying to figure it out? Then you wait and make sure you are cueing the exact same way, but give him more time to figure it out.
Imagine a child learning to read. They’re sounding out a word; you can’t yell ‘try harder!’ or ‘do it faster!’ You have to simply give them time to sound out those letters and figure it out. Or maybe they see a combination of letters they don’t understand and they need your help to clarify.
So if the horse isn’t responding as we want it to and we know it’s not scared – just confused – is there a way we could change our body shape, change how we’re applying the pressure, maybe add rhythm instead of steady pressure, or steady pressure instead of rhythm, or tip its nose more in the right direction to cause it to go, ‘oh, I get it, this is what you want.’?
Maybe your horse is just not motivated. So think, ‘how could I motivate him to do that?’ Sometimes it means you could reward more or that you need to move on quicker because they’re bored. We have to repeat until they have understanding and relaxation – and then we need to move on.
Again, returning to the analogy of a kid learning to read: if, as they’re sounding out the word, you say, ‘no, not like that!’ or ‘pronounce it like this!’ they’re going to feel like they can’t learn. This will either make them feel anxious or it might ruin their motivation because they feel like they just can’t do it. So we have to leave them feeling like they’re super-learners: ‘yeah, you’ve pretty much got it, let’s try it again.’
Let’s say we’re asking a horse to walk over a tarp for the first time. Keep its nose pointed at it, wait for it to figure it out, let it go as slowly as it needs to go. When it hits the tarp it might kind of jump across it, so let it jump across it. Just stop it afterwards and say ‘thanks for trying, that was really good.’ Then turn the horse around and do it again with the same calm demeanor.
Repeat that until the horse has understanding and relaxation. That way, when they come back another day to that tarp they will go, ‘oh yeah, I remember this. I was able to do this; I was able to conquer it.’ They will have more confidence, and also more confidence in you as a leader, because you never lost your patience with them, you never gave up on the path, and you were able to help them succeed. Now they have something to refer to for solutions to problems.
The last stage is Refinement. I won’t dare ask a horse to stop on a bridge or back up on a tarp or do something that I consider a refined skill until they can consistently say ‘yes’ when simply crossing the object.
The number-one tip I have for people about building confidence in their horses is: don’t focus on what their feet are doing, worry about the mind. A lot of people wait until they have understanding, but they never wait for relaxation. The horse might get across the tarp, but in a tense, nervous way. If instead you end the task with relaxation, the horse’s mind is now connected to its feet. Your horse is going to learn to find relaxation and instead of going away thinking, ‘oh thank gosh I survived that tarp’ it is going to realize, ‘oh, that was okay.’
I don’t introduce rewards until I get to Create a Yes Horse. Respect and Safety is sort of ‘get out of my face and then I’ll stop causing pressure,’ which is a bit of negative reinforcement. I’m not going to give you a treat for not running me over!
In Calm Connection I also don’t use treats, because it is about showing horses that we understand how they think and that they can focus on us as a leader. I find treats don’t work well here because it’s all about getting our horses in a ‘green,’ or calm, alert state. This is a concept used in humans. Being a nurse, it is something I am very familiar with and I apply to horses as well. There are three states of mind: yellow, green, or red. Yellow is a sort of depressed state, low energy; green is calm/alert (the only state where you’re able to learn); and then red is anxious or high-energy.
Calm Connection is about helping your horses find green. How many times has your horse been anxious, you put a bucket of grain in the trailer and your horse still won’t load? We need to have green. Once I have a green state of mind, then I can ask my horse to learn – try this, go over and touch, stand here – and that’s when I’ll start to use rewards.
I like to follow the philosophy of using a variety of rewards based on what my horse may want. I might use treats, I might use scratches. For my lazy pony I might just let him stand still and chill out for a little bit; for my energetic horse I may just move onto the next task and do something else fun. Try to be perceptive as to what your horse is most craving in that moment.
NO MORE ARENA TROLLS
In general, if you set your horse up to think that when you enter an environment – an arena or whatever – that you are going to let him sniff every corner or go touch or look at everything, then you’re setting yourself up to fail. First, you’re teaching your horse to focus on the environment and not on you, and second, you’re teaching your horse that they should be able to check everything out. That’s a lie to your horse, because it’s not possible to show your horse everything. Somebody might walk in the ring and pop up an umbrella, or a bunch of birds might fly out of the trees – you can’t possibly introduce your horse to everything you are going to encounter in the arena or on the trail.
Instead, if you do the Calm Connection exercises of shaping the horse around you, your horse goes, ‘no big deal, I’m in a new environment and I have my human.’ That’s why my horses are so brave, and I can do so many crazy things with them that people don’t usually think you can do with horses – because they’re trained to think ‘where’s my human?’