Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Partnership and Harmony

We throw a lot of words around in our equestrian communities and Cowboy Dressage is no different in that way than other communities that have come before.  We use words with vague and sometimes changing definitions because we are describing art and not science.  The words we use create different pictures in our minds depending on our history, environment, and recent experiences.  For example, when I say the word horse, you may immediately conjure the mental image of your favorite horse, or first horse, or the last horse you saw.  The only thing of which we can be certain is that my mental equine is likely much different than your mental equine. 

In the collective remarks portion of our scorecards in Cowboy Dressage there are a few words that are used to describe the physical performance of art in our rides.  Because we are Cowboy Dressage we weight these things more heavily than some of the other concrete elements of our tests scored as individual maneuvers and transitions above.  This is because in Cowboy Dressage we believe it is the journey and end goals that are the important part of the ride and not necessarily the perfection of each step along the way. 

Within those collective remarks is a section with a co-efficient of x2 for Harmony and Partnership.  In this blog I would like to discuss those rather vague terms and why we place so much emphasis on them in Cowboy Dressage.  Let's begin by clearing up the meaning of these words by going to the definitions provided by Webster.

Partnership:  an arrangement where parties, known as partners, agree to cooperate to advance their mutual interests

Harmony: An orderly or pleasing combination of elements in a whole

Even the definitions of these words leave quite a bit of room for interpretation.  "Arrangement" and "mutual interests" can mean a wide variety of things.  "Orderly" and "pleasing" are terms that put the definition in the eye of the beholder.  How then do we understand exactly what these terms mean in relation to Cowboy Dressage?

If you look at the Cowboy Dressage Training Pyramid, partnership is at the bottom illustrating that every single thing we do with our horses begins on a foundation of partnership.  It is easy to nod your head and agree with that concept but it is important to understand the implications of this arrangement as it is a departure from much of the current rhetoric that you may encounter in other disciplines, both Western and English, that embrace complete submission and obedience as the foundation of a good training program.  While we are the leaders in the dance of our horsemanship partnership with our horses they are not our submissive.  We are not alpha, herd sire, lead mare, or boss in our partnership except where safety dictates.  Establishing a partnership means that the horse retains interest in the partnership and we work towards "mutual interests". 

It may be presumptuous of us to imply that our horses have vested interest in any of the activities in which we ask them to participate.  We are not able to "ask" their preference and indeed we may not like what they have to say about the arrangement were they able to reply to our inquiry.  But, I believe we can ascertain whether our horses are happy if we study body language, try, performance and willingness to work whenever we go out to interact with our horses.  Building partnership means that when we go out to greet our horses they meet us half way, as eager to be with us as we are with them. 

So, how, then, do we achieve partnership with our horses? Through kindness.  When we ride and handle our horses with kindness and fairness they become willing partners.  We reward them for the smallest try.  We build their trust through conscientious leadership doing everything we can to help them feel safe and secure with us.  Kindness means that we have boundaries, as any healthy relationship has, but with consistency the horse learns to understand those boundaries and respect them. 

One of the ways that you can tell that a horse is a partner and not a submissive is that they retain their personality (horse-anality,  I suppose is more politically correct!).  A horse that is a partner is not perfect all the time.  They may fidget, explore, try new things and interact with their environment as a confident individual is likely to do.  That exploring and investigating part of their personality can be our very best tool in our quest to educate our horses.  It embodies that characteristic that we call try.  If you remove that in favor of perfect obedience and submission and a "yes, ma'am" attitude you may remove that quality that makes it so much fun to interact with our equine partners. 

When partnership is functioning like it should, for the benefit of both horse and rider, Harmony is the result.  Harmony is that quality that makes the horse and rider seem to be acting as one mind and one body.  Harmony is what makes a beautiful ride so beautiful to watch.  In a truly great dance couple you don't see a leader and a follower.  Instead, you see two individuals moving as one, each with their own personal flair and showmanship.  It is the same between a harmonious horse and rider.  

I do not want to give the impression that cultivation of partnership and harmony with our horses through kindness gives our horses a license to do whatever they please.  The establishment of fair and consistent boundaries early in any relationship with our horses is an important safety measure.  I don't instantly trust every horse I meet nor do I instantly expect them to trust me.  As a veterinarian I am often asked to work with my patients under conditions where trust is certainly lacking and slow to develop on their part.  But, as a horseman, I consider it my duty to cultivate trust in every horse I handle.  Not always an easy task when the things you are doing are associated with the discomfort of veterinary procedures.  Luckily, as a horseman, I don't have to use painful procedures to interact with my horses.   

Cowboy Dressage is revolutionizing the way people interact with their horses in the western communities. It provides an outlet for folks that embrace kindness in their horsemanship and gives them a place to showcase their journey.  Cowboy Dressage is rewarding the art and beauty in our relationship with our horses and giving us a community that celebrates that beauty in the same way we do.  My horses are happy and healthy.  We are partners and we are working on that elusive quality known as harmony.   As much as I relish a test score with lots of 7's and 8's on the top section, it's the 7's and 8's on the bottom that mean the most to me.  I don't think my partner will mind me speaking for him when I say those are the things he enjoys the most too. 

Photo by Richard Horst Photography

1 comment:

  1. Beautifully written!! With all the parts of Cowboy Dressage, I love that I get to share our partnership on the ground the most. Seems silly at social security age to want to do that (panting through the trips of 20 meter circles), but a beautiful, shared and rhythmic relationship takes time, trust, honesty and partnership. Thank you for sharing !! :-)
    Deb McCarthy & Dolly