Horsemanship With Lindsey Partridge: Taming Dragons and Wild Hearts

This month, Lindsey discusses working with different types of horses and how to go about building their confidence in a variety of situations. 

Horses can be very different. Some are like Barney the dinosaur — they are friends with everyone; some are like Simba the lion — they are energetic and playful; some are like Shreck and just want to be left alone; and others are like dragons that have explosive bursts of energy and take flight with all four in the air. There are many other types of horses, but I am lucky to have both a dragon and wild heart.

Lindsey with Elon and Elysia at Horse World Expo after placing in the Versatility Trail Competition. Photo by Jennifer Pejic.

Thunderous Affair, or as I call her Elysia, is my off-track Thoroughbred from the 2021 Mega Makeover that competed in the 2020 class for Trail and Freestyle — she brought home champion in both of her disciplines and the overall title of America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred. Elysia has been nicknamed the dragon ever since this past summer when I started her training for the Makeover.

At Elysia’s first show she spent a good chunk of time with all four legs in the air. She was so tense and upset about being at a show. She was so overwhelmed that she just couldn’t focus. Even though at home we rode bridleless and did amazing liberty, she was a crazy dragon rearing at the show, leaping into the air. We spent our time learning to relax and get calm and connected. I ended up having someone on the ground lead Elysia through her trail pattern while I rode. The goal was to help Elysia feel confident.

Each show after that she continued to be nervous, but would take less and less time to settle and become more relaxed. We went to shows without the intent to compete — simply to ride in the warm up arena. Eventually we started competing at shows but kept it simple with low level jumps, or obstacle shows not based on speed.

By the time we got to the Thoroughbred Makeover she was a lot more confident but definitely still had dragon moments. She is not a horse I can just hop on and ride. I start with calm connection exercises on the ground and gradually add energy to ask for more speed. If she is rushed then the dragon is more likely to take flight.

I brought Elysia to the Florida Thoroughbred Transformation Expo in December. I thought it would be a piece of cake because she did so well in Kentucky. Our first round of trail was perfection and scored first in the prelim for both freestyle and trail. Our next trail pattern she had a dragon moment during the canter and had a bit of a crow hop/panic moment when she was overwhelmed. I paused for a moment to allow her to breathe and then we moved forward into the canter and finished a pretty nice pattern. In the finale she did the same thing during the canter. We went home 3rd place in Trail and 2nd in Freestyle. I was proud of what we accomplished given Elysia’s stage fright, and it was a reflection on just how much preparation she needs to be successful at the big venues.

Elon also lacks confidence in front of crowds but he expresses himself completely differently. Elon is a formerly wild mustang from Silver King, Nevada. He was rounded up in February 2021, and I purchased him as part of the Maryland TIP Training Challenge in June of 2021.

Photo by Alyssa Grant

His wild heart meant he was naturally more cautious and skeptical of people, noises, and his surroundings. I focused on building his trust and confidence through different exercises and obstacles. We ended up bringing home the champion title of the Maryland Mustang TIP Challenge in September 2021. Despite turning into a cuddle bug that loves hanging out with people, Elon continues to need more confidence with noises and in front of large crowds.

In November 2021 I took Elon to Texas for the EXCA worlds in the mustang class. All of the obstacles were great challenges and he rose to the challenge crossing the huge bridge, dropbox, and other obstacles with ease. His main challenge was going near the crowd or past the judging stand. This is challenging to train for because it’s not often I can get in front of lots of people, or mimic the judging stand.

Photo by Alyssa Grant

Elon came with me to the Florida Horse Park for schooling and I discovered that the noise of horses cantering through the water caused him to get upset. Even though he rode through the same water at walk and trot, the noise of the canter was so much louder through the water that it made him upset and anxious. Elon doesn’t become a dragon, though — he shows his anxiety by becoming fidgety, can’t stand still, or can’t perform tasks he knows how to do because he isn’t able to focus.

Horses trotting through the water didn’t have the same effect on Elon. Thankfully there were many horses in the event so I was able to progressively bring him closer to the water as horses continually cantered through every couple minutes until he could stand relaxed as they ran. Later we rode through the water and even accomplished some trot and canter.

Being able to stand still while a particular distraction is happening is a really good gauge of how relaxed your horse is. If they aren’t able to stand still, they likely aren’t relaxed or confident with the distraction. For the dragons, if you try to add more speed it could mean your horse leaping into the air. For wild hearts, if you try to add more speed it could mean them trying to run away from what is upsetting them.

This past month Elysia and Elon went to the horse World Expo in Pennsylvania. We participated in the variety show, evening show, and presented some clinic topics.

As I rode into the coliseum for the evening performance, a spotlight followed my every move, surrounded by darkness in the arena with thousands of people cheering above… it hit me… this moment is an accumulation of sweat, patience, determination and practice…. I very easily could have said this is too hard, this is too challenging, my horse doesn’t like shows, or I don’t have time.

Thunderous Affair. Photo by by Michael Stylianos.

But then we ride through the gigantic blue tarp, push the ball and jump the flapping tarp while bridleless and the crowd roars with excitement. My horse flicks an ear to ask “what’s next?” and I know it was worth it.

When I watch the video from Elysia and I in our evening performance I still can’t quite believe how amazing she was. Everything seemed to click into place. We were relaxed and confident as if we were riding at home. She was focused on me, and totally at ease.  I felt like we did it, we finally tamed the dragon. In the performance we started off in her full dragon costume and then early into the routine I pulled off her bridle and dragon bonnet to tell her story as we performed.

Elysia also competed in the versatility trail challenge at the Horse World Expo and brought home the champion title, with Elon finishing in 10th out of many entries. My horses were feeling like superstars. Elon was still nervous of crowds and struggled with the barrel pattern that needed him to ride between the barrel and close to the crowd at the canter — which we ended up doing at the trot because the canter was too much for him. I was still really proud of him that we crossed the water box, bridge, tarp, and many other obstacles with ease.

The reality is that the dragon and wild heart are still there. A couple weeks later we went to Equifest in New York. Everything started off amazing with the opening ceremonies where Elon performed a sit, and Elysia cantered around with the American flag with ease. Then I turned the microphone on and started talking to the crowd. Which started off okay until the microphone was making a popping sound that was similar to a toy play gun going off. I didn’t realize what was causing it at first, but ended up likely being my helmet rubbing against the headpiece.

Because it took me a while to figure out how to stop the popping sound and the added stress of the crowd, Elysia had up some dragon moments and Elon got nervous in the show ring because of the noise/crowd combination.

When building confidence with horses it is best to tackle one type of confidence at a time and then, as they become relaxed, combine things. Otherwise you risk overwhelming your horse and triggering too much emotion, which makes it harder to find relaxation again. This is essentially what happened to my horses by accident.

It’s called trigger stacking — where something is upsetting but you can handle it… but then something else is added that is also upsetting, and something else until you are overwhelmed and “snap.” Even though Elysia and Elon have made amazing progress and have accomplished some seriously impressive things, I still have to be aware of trigger stacking and continue to train one type of confidence at a time and slowly build them up together.

Thunderous Affair. Photo by by Michael Stylianos.

We spent the rest of our demos building back Elysia’s and Elon’s confidence in front of the crowd, practicing applause with positive reinforcement, and starting with tasks they both felt comfortable with. I ended up able to have Elon sit for the crowd with confidence during our demo, and Elysia performed her mini blue tarp routine at liberty. I made the decision not to ride during the demo because I didn’t want to ride with no helmet, and I also didn’t want to ride with my helmet and cause the popping noise to happen after finally getting some confidence back up with the crowd. So the best option was not to ride.

The truth is that if I knew what I would have to do… the hours of patience, the number of shows, the number of times I’d have to dismount and remount… it would be a very daunting task.

It is much easier to think about things step by step. What do I need to teach my horse next? What are the tasks I am currently working on and what comes next?

My next steps for Elysia and Elon:

  • Practice riding at home while playing different noises on my phone or speaker with applause, popping gun noises, and other strange sounds.
  • Practice riding off site with strange noises playing from my phone or making different noises.

Elysia’s next big goal is the Versatility Challenge at Equine Affaire in Ohio — I hope the dragon stays tame that day and I can keep her confidence high with her calm connection. I know it won’t be by luck or chance. I have to prepare her the best I can before for go, and once there I need to put her first, giving her the time she needs to get calm and connected.

Elon doesn’t have anything big planned for a while — back home to learn about kids, lessons, and summer camp, which will expose him to a bunch of different things that will contribute to him gaining confidence. He will learn that lots of different people can be kind which will help boost his confidence in front of crowds.

Photo by Erin Flynn

No matter if you have a dragon, wild heart, Shrek, Simba, or Barney, there is so much learning, progress, and joy to be found. Each one with their own unique challenges and strengths just needing you to figure out what comes next to help them.

About Lindsey Partridge 
Multiple Mustang and Thoroughbred Makeover Champion, horse trainer for feature films, Equine Canada English and Western Competition Coach, Level 2 Centered Riding Instructor, and founder of Harmony Horsemanship – the program that inspires you to understand yourself, your horse and the language that connects you.