I want my horse to be my partner – my junior partner

Total obedience versus cooperation

When I bought my first horse, I was convinced that a horse must obey his rider unconditionally


When I bought my first horse, Sörli, I was still convinced that a horse must always obey his rider, without fail. Anything else was a recipe for disaster, because the horse would lose all respect for his owner. Or so I thought.



It took a lot of conflict, and more than a little resentment on Sörli’s part (not to mention heartbreak on mine) to convince me otherwise.


In the end, Sörli became my husband’s horse, who had some sort of gentlemen’s agreement with him that allowed Sörli to cooperate beautifully with a then-total riding beginner, without any of the respect problems he’d shown with me. That alone taught me that earning a horse’s respect has a lot more to do with mutual trust and, surprisingly, negotiation between horse and rider, than I’d ever dreamed possible.


Icelandic horse Sörli taught me that giving a horse choices can help with training


Other horses came and went, each one teaching me more about the delicate balance between cooperation and obdedience. By the time I met my current horse Helgi, my views on a horse’s mandatory obedience had become a lot more nuanced than they had been.



I’m still learning, still adjusting my views from day to day as I work with Helgi.

But some core ideas have become rather clear to me over the course of the last few years:

  1. There are some (emergency) situations when I need my horse to obey me instantly and without question.
  2. In most other situations, when nothing dire is likely to happen to either the horse or me if he doesn’t do exactly as I ask, I am willing to compromise.
  3. Striking a decent balance between those two ideas needs a certain frame of mind:
    I tend to think of my horse as a junior partner. He gets to give input and state objections, but the final decision is mine. Once I’ve made it clear what our course of action is going to be, he has to accept my decision.


In emergency situations, a horse must obey instantly. In other situations, the rider can compromise


Be it a visit from vet with a painful examination when my horse needs to hold still even though he doesn’t understand why this is necessary. Or be it a tight situation out on the road, when I need him to believe me when I tell him that the inconspicuous barbed-wire fence to our right is just as likely to hurt us as the noisy car that’s rushing past on our left: In an emergency situation, my horse must absolutely respect my authority.



In everyday life, though, my horse has the right to say no to something I ask, and even to suggest an alternative course of action.
For example, Helgi loves to explore new paths through the forest. So when he suggests making a left turn when I was planning to go right, I often let him turn left. And when he lets me know that he needs me to get off his back, I dismount.

(This latter point has saved my bacon a time or two when Helgi had suffered from back pains. Of course, it can cause problems. More on that topic to follow in the next blog post.)


Horsetraining isn't nearly as black and white as I once believed


Finding a balance, where the horse gets to state his opinions, but still respects my authority as the decisionmaker in our team is much easier said than done, of course. In fact, as I said above, for a long time I believed that letting the horse in on the decision-making process is a recipe for disaster. Sörli taught me differently, and working with other horses since has brought me to the realization that, as with most things in life, horse-training isn’t nearly as black-and-white as I once believed.



When Helgi entered my life as a young, barely ridden horse, I was lucky enough to have a very good trainer at my side: Johanna Tryggvason.

Johanna (rightly, I think) maintains that respect is one of the two most important foundations the horse and rider’s relationship build on. The second, and in my opinion, even more important half of that foundation is mutual trust. From Johanna, I learned to build trust by getting to know my horse in different situations, at the same time giving him a chance to get to know me. Building on that, I taught him to respect my authority.


The horse should always feel that he is cooperating willingly


An important aspect here, which I learned from Johanna, and whole-heartedly agree with:



The horse should always feel that he cooperated willingly.



I will persuade, coax, even exert gentle pressure. I will not force Helgi into unwilling obedience outside of an emergency. And really, in an emergency, Helgi tends to obey me without question, even though we do have our disagreements in other situations.


So, how canI keep that rather precarious balance? That of course is outside the scope of a single blog post.


The difficult journey of turning my Icelandic horse into my junior partner will be taught on this blog

The story of Helgis first year of training ended up being published as a book, so far only available in a German edition. Some of our adventures during that year will eventually end up as episodes on this blog, I am sure.



How things progressed after that, with my trainer’s help, and sometimes without it, will be told here in the near future. So, stay tuned if you want to read about the difficult journey of turning my horse into a partner who will let me know his opinion, but will abide by my decisions once I make them.



Do you agree with my ideas? Or do you follow a different approach than I do? Which one?


Let me know in the comments, but keep it polite, please, and follow the Rules of Engagement.


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