last revised: April 12, 2017

Partnership between two prisoners.1

Natural horsemanship advocates frequently describe the joys of partnership with their horses, or say that a partnership with their horse is one of their goals. In fact, the idea of partnership is not unique to natural horsemanship. It has long been part of the conversation of classical riding,2 and good horsemen have long recommended that we try to see the world from the horse’s point of view.3

What is partnership? We seem to use the term in several ways:

  • An individual who takes part in an undertaking with another, especially in activities with shared risks and benefits;
  • Either of two who dance together or who share an intimate relationship;
  • One associated with another, especially in action;
  • One who plays on the same side or team as another.

What is partnership with a horse?

The exhilaration that many feel about partnership with a horse may stem partly from his imagined wildness or his actual size, and thus the danger he potentially poses. Imagine that your horse were a gerbil. Would you be as interested in dominance, in leadership, in partnership? Would it thrill you to find that your gerbil liked you? Would others worship you for your command, control, and courage? Now pretend that your horse were to become a very large bear. How would this change your interest in partnership, dominance, leadership? Would your friends be even more impressed with your command, control, and courage? For my wife, the horse is too big and strong, but for some of us the horse is the perfect compromise between gerbil and bear.

Partnership does not seem to mean equality. Maybe we are better…

  • “In the partnership between ourselves and the horse there must be one ruling spirit, and that one must be the rider.” — Muriel Wace

Maybe they are better…

  • “For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.” — Henry Beston

Maybe we are merely different…

  • “You and your horse. His strength and beauty. Your knowledge and patience and determination and understanding and love. That’s what fuses the two of you into this marvelous partnership that makes you wonder, “What can heaven offer any better than what I have here on earth?” — Monica Dickens
  • “Riding is a partnership. The horse lends you his strength, speed and grace, which are greater than yours. For your part you give him your guidance, intelligence and understanding, which are greater than his. Together you can achieve a richness that alone neither can.” — Lucy Rees
  • “Not everyone can hear the silent language between a horse and rider, not everyone can trust their life with a 1200 lb animal, and not everyone has the guts, blood, sweat, tears, and dedication needed to be a part of this world. But equestrians are no ordinary people, and horses are no ordinary animals. The only ones who truly understand this world are the ones who are part of it.” — Unknown

Partnership must be about love…

  • “When your horse follows you without being asked, when he rubs his head on yours, and when you look at him and feel a tingle down your spine…you know you are loved.” — John Lyons
  • “Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” – Anatole France

But is Partnership Possible?

It is fashionable to talk about “partnership” with a horse. Many of those interested in partnership are from the “natural horsemanship” school of thinking, and want two very different things: to be able to control their horse, and force it to do what they want, and to set their horse free. Their ideal is this: when my horse is free to do whatever he pleases, he will do what I please. He’ll do this without any evident coercion or resistance. He will do it without hesitation.

If your horse is truly free to do what he wants, I can’t imagine that he will be doing what you want. Horses everywhere seem to prefer being with other horses, not with people. They would rather graze than trot in circles in a ring. Most would rather walk around a jump instead of jumping over it.

The perfect partner horse — robohorse — would not need bit, bridle, or reins. He would not need spurs or crop. He would be as cooperative as your imagination, as mellow as ice cream… The perfect partner horse would read your mind, and do what you fancied, hour after hour, until you were bored. He might then drop to his knees, to make your dismount less awkward.

If we can’t locate the perfect partner horse, can we make one? Will daily training for life make such a horse?

Maybe so.

If you doubt the possibilities of partnership, there are some videos you must see. Check out Endo. Look at the videos of him jumping, trail riding, and doing obstacle courses with his owner, rider, and trainer, Morgan Wagner. Endo’s eyes were removed for medical reasons, but that only challenged Morgan to work harder with him. She taught him to jump on voice command, and taught him cues for lifting his feet when ascending or descending an obstacle course bridge.4 Endo and Morgan truly trust each other. They have a partnership.

When you are finished looking at Endo and Morgan, watch Emma Massingale5! One of her first horses was a very wild stallion, very uncooperative, very dangerous. Emma got to work on a friendship with him, and things took off. Now she comfortably rides two horses side-by-side across fields and beaches, standing on their bare backs. She seems to be able to do anything with her horses. Emma has a partnership with her horses, and her horses have partnerships both with her and with each other.

If you need more, take a look at David Lichman and his horses Julio, Scotty, and Thirteen playing at liberty6. See Gerd Stocker relaxing with her horses at liberty7. See Sylvia Zerbini work 10 horses at liberty.8 Or see Lorenzo ride two side-by-side horses at liberty, standing on their backs while he puts up to a dozen horses through an at-liberty performance.9 Each of these horsemen has surely logged thousands of hours with their horses, and is remarkably talented. And each seems to have achieved a partnership with their horses. The videos show no obvious commands, reward or punishment. Mental telepathy seems to be the secret.

Part of the appeal of a well-behaved horse at liberty is hidden: He responds to very subtle cues. He responds precisely. He shows no evident gap in concentration, no resistance. For Morgan and Emma, all of this seems to be driven by an obvious love for their horses, and love from their horses. But love is not enough. Complete knockout partnership also requires a patient, talented trainer who spends a great deal of time with Mr. Horse, using a clicker and bushels of carrots, and working toward perfect, and perfectly subtle cues. In the end, it will seem like partnership. And maybe that’s what it will be.

This amorous notion of horses fails to acknowledge important truths about such partnerships: if trick training is done on grass, the horse will ignore the trainer and walk off. If a horse is dismounted and not restrained on a solo trail ride, he will likely walk off, likely back to the barn. If a horse is returned to his pasture, he doesn’t wait at the gate to say goodbye, but walks (or runs) off to be with other horses in the pasture. A horse will never be a dog, will never choose to be with us for long, never choose to pursue our goals.

The oddity in all of the partnership blather is it doesn’t change the dynamic between horse and human: the human will still be the boss. The horse will make the human happy. This will be done with a slightly different set of techniques and vocabulary, but the relationship does not become a partnership. It becomes the relationship between employer and cooperative employee. Try a trail ride without reins or other signals indicating which way to turn. Let your horse choose the route and speed for himself. You may find yourself back at the barn long before you are ready.


1 Image source: My Public Lands Roadtrip: Northern Nevada Correctional Center/Stewart Conservation Camp Saddle Horse and Burro Training Program in Carson City, Nevada Through a partnership between the BLM and the Nevada Department of Corrections-Silver State Industries, inmates at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center gentle and train wild horses and burros for adoption. On average, sixty wild horses and burros are trained and adopted at the facility each year – over 1,000 total. Some are adopted by the public; others by organizations like California Fish and Game, Border Patrol, and other law enforcement. Nearly 300 inmates have participated in the program as trainers, many with no prior experience with horses. The training program has become a win-win for everyone involved – for the BLM and Nevada Department of Corrections, for the inmates and the horses, and for the adopters.

2 Podhajsky, Alois. “My horses, my teachers.” My horses, my teachers. (1969).

3 Blake, Henry N. Talking with horses: A study of communication between man and horse. Coronet, 1975.


5 See See

6 “Horses at Liberty”

7 “The incredible bond between human and horse”

8 “Liberty with 10 horses – Sylvia Zerbini – Night of the Horse 2016 – Del Mar National Horse Show”

9 “2011 Jumping Mechelen–Lorenzo the Flying Frenchman” See also


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