Horsemanship With Lindsey Partridge: A Recipe for Success

“I can’t stress enough how important it is to train the horse’s emotions as much as the physical skills. When your horse is calm and alert, they can much better respond to your request. It also makes the whole experience a lot safer and more enjoyable for both of you.”

Photo by CanterClix

As we drive back from the Kentucky Horse Park after winning America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred title at the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover, I reflect on our recipe for success.

It has been a busy few weeks. At the start of September I went to Maryland for the Mustang training Challenge and brought home the champion title with my Silver King, NV gelding, Elon. We competed in three compulsory classes of handling, trail, and freestyle to take home the champion title. My second horse, Timmy, also a Silver King gelding from Nevada, brought home third place overall.

As soon as I got back from Maryland I started focusing on the Thoroughbred Makeover, which was just a month away. My four-year-old Thoroughbred filly, Elysia, would be heading down to Kentucky.

Her registered name is Thunderous Affaire after being born during a thundering stormy night, and out of the Thunder Gulch line.

Elysia has not been an easy horse to train. I purchased her in December of 2019 for the 2020 Thoroughbred Makeover. The first thing she did was get a puncture wound before I picked her up and needed leg surgery to remove a sequestrum. After she rehabbed from surgery I brought her with me to Florida to start training with groundwork and riding. On the way home from Florida, I brought her with me to the Horse World Expo in Pennsylvania in March of 2020.

We did some demonstrations, but she was so emotional and upset in the new environment that we needed a buddy horse in the ring to help her stay calm. I knew this was something that we needed to work on for the rest of the year.

Then the pandemic hi and everything was cancelled. This meant her training was really limited for practicing going offsite. We did some trail rides and two competitions, but all of the fairs and big shows were all cancelled. I made the most of the downtime discovering local lakes and rivers to take the family swimming, and spent a lot of time with family.

In the fall of 2020 I got pregnant with my second daughter and I stopped riding Elysia and cut back on ground work training. On July 18th, my 10-and-a-half-pound baby girl, we nicknamed chonk, was born. I waited two weeks and then started back to training. This meant Elysia started back to riding and shows at the beginning of August 2021, with only a little over two months to train for the Makeover…. To say I was nervous is an understatement. I had so much to work on.

I was excited because the Thoroughbred Makeover decided to do a Mega Makeover where they would run the Makeover with the same classes in the same format, but would separate the competition years to have a 2020 class of horses and 2021 class of horses. This also meant the finale day was separated, with Saturday for the 2020 horses and Sunday for the 2021 horses.

I was filled with excitement at the prospect of still getting to compete my horse, but unsure if we would be ready because most of the 2020 horses would have been competing for two years whereas my horse didn’t. I had a lot of catching up to do.

When we first started back to training and I took Elysia to her first horse show she got the nickname ‘The Dragon’. She is so calm and relaxed at home, but she became so emotional off-site — literally leaping in the air. She is very affected by other horses, especially if another horse is excited or calling or nervous. She will start to mirror those reactions and overreact in response.

At the first horse show in 2021 she was literally leaping in the air with all fours off the ground and nearly got away from me many times. When I did my trail pattern I had another instructor walk beside me the entire time and help me from the ground so that I would not overwhelm her and ignite the dragon.

This is when I knew it was going to be more important to train her emotions than to train skills. She knew many different skills from being at home and many impressive things. She could handle a variety of obstacles at home including bridges, pedestals, tarps and knew how to ride everything completely bridleless as well a large list of Liberty tricks, but when we go offsite her emotions would get the best of her. She would easily get overwhelmed and would react by rearing and jumping into the air in frustration. This did not matter if another horse came with her to the horse show or not, the energy of the event would set her off and she would do a lot of “dragon” behavior.

Photo by Blakely Photography

Thank goodness training a horse’s emotions is my specialty and that I am no stranger to the Thoroughbred Makeover.

Every single one of my horses has finished in the top three of one of their disciplines, and all of my horses have finished in the top 10 of both of their disciplines.

It’s not coincidence. It’s Harmony Horsemanship and it works.

What did I do with all of these horses to achieve such success at the makeover? I put an equal emphasis on training the emotional skills alongside the physical skills.

This means…

  • I practiced all of the calm connection exercises both on the ground and in the saddle.
  • I went to many off-site experiences where competing was not the first priority.
  • I went into divisions at competitions where I purposely walked, added a halt transition, offered a cookie to my horse, or repeated an obstacle/jump, which meant I was eliminated just to ensure that I achieved relaxation.
  • I knew I was competing for the Thoroughbred Makeover, that I was looking ahead to the long-term success and not focussed on the short-term wins.
  • I travelled to horse shows only to school in the warm-up rings where I could take my time, let my horse get used to the sounds and chaos without any pressure to compete even though it would have been more fun to go in the show ring.

The key to training emotional success with your horse is helping them find the calm alert (green) state. This is the emotional state where your horse is ready to learn and ready to thrive.

Photo by Blakely Photography

How to find this calm alert state:

  • Use calm connection exercises that are not based on making your horse do anything in particular, but instead are focussed on learning to move together while establishing passive leadership.
  • Practice postures of relaxation which help our horse find a more relaxed state. For example, we know that if the horse’s head is up high and their body is stiff and straight they are more likely to be on adrenaline and not be relaxed. However if you can encourage your horse to lower their head below their withers, bend from side to side, and/or cross their legs, you are going to encourage them to release their stress and find a more relaxed state.
  • Do exercises both on the ground and in the saddle.

Calm alert is the state of mind we need to be in to learn. This is part of self-regulation that we teach children in school. As a public health nurse with a bachelor’s degree in Health Sciences in Nursing, self-regulation is something that I have learnt about extensively and I apply it to horses.

This means that we want the horses to control their emotions and find themselves in the calm alert state. We also want the human to be aware of the different emotional states and know how to help the horse find the calm alert state. If you see your horse starting to go red, which means anxious or high energy, that you know how to help your horse manage their emotions and deescalate back to green.

Why calm alert?

Because we want the horse calm enough that they can receive information without being overwhelmed, but we want them alert enough that they are aware of their surroundings and able to respond to cues. If the horse is too calm then they will not listen to your aides and will be very dull in their responses which is not very good for performance or for learning. If your horse is too alert then they can be easily overwhelmed or excited. It’s the difference between your horse responding to you, overreacting to you, or ignoring you.

Many times when I observe people training horses I see them focusing so hard on the skills and ignoring the emotions that are showing up in their horse. I can’t stress enough how important it is to train the horse’s emotions as much as the physical skills. When your horse is calm and alert, they can much better respond to your request. It also makes the whole experience a lot safer and more enjoyable for both of you.

No matter what discipline you ride, your horse can benefit from emotional control and self-regulation. This is why I am working with Canadian dressage Olympian Belinda Trussell to help with some of her up and coming horses so that she can train her amazing upper-level skills on a foundation of being calm and connected.

Photo by Richard Forkun

I also apply these techniques with the Mustangs and many other types of horses that come through our Second Chances program, or that we start under saddle in our training program.

In the 2021 class for the Thoroughbred Makeover I had a 16-year-old student, Allison McHattie (who is also a Junior Harmony Horsemanship instructor), compete in the Thoroughbred Makeover for the first time and finished second place in Freestyle, top Junior in Freestyle, 10th place in Trail, and top Junior in Trail. It was so rewarding to hear the commentators talk mention how her horse looked relaxed and unflappable.

It is so exciting to see others having success using the calm connection exercises and focusing on teaching their horse emotional control alongside the physical skills that they need for the disciplines that they choose.

Overall, I think the recipe for success starts with the foundation of a relationship and ends with refinement of physical skills.

The next time you train your horse, start with finding a calm connection and achieving the calm alert state.