My Pony And Me: Leaders and Partners

Chloe by the apple tree.
Chloe by the apple tree

I rode Chloe around the sheep herding pasture today.   She was happy to go in, and we circled around, hugging the fence line doing fine, until we got back to the gate.  Then she stopped paying attention to what I wanted, which was to circle around again, and she headed for the gate instead.   It was a brawl, but I got her back into the pasture.  I made her turn around 3 or 4 times, as someone suggested.   I kicked her hard with my heels, I even smacked her on the butt (something she didn’t seem to feel at all) with my hand.  I gritted my teeth and got pissed and told her.  “Act like you mean it,” I said, that is what my friend and teacher Eli told me to do when Chloe wasn’t doing what I wanted her to do.

Well, this time I meant it.

And I meant it every time she headed for the gate.   By the fourth time, I was tired and not liking myself very much.  But I made us go around again until I was the one to decide to leave.  Because I know from my own experience with animals and from what Eli told me, that times like these are crucial.  They set the tone for our relationship and who will be the leader, Chloe or me.

I know I have to be the leader if I’m going to ride Chloe.  And it should be simple, but for me it’s more complicated.  Actually I think it’s one of the reason’s I have Chloe, to get me to deal with the issues I have concerning my inner strength and the idea of leadership.

This issue goes so deep with me, I don’t even like the word leader.  I cringe thinking about, not to mention saying it out loud.  Because in my mind someone who’s a leader is domineering, coercive and cruel.   This is familiar to me because I experienced it in my childhood.  And riding Chloe, which I thought was going to be fun, suddenly triggered a painful memory.  It was not fun, not today.

Now,  I know there are other ways of being a leader, I’ve heard and read about it.  But it has no real meaning for me.  I can’t wrap my head around it, my heart won’t go there.

So this whole thing about getting Chloe to do something she doesn’t want to do, which is, walk and run around with me on her back, is bigger for me.  Because I don’t know for sure that she should have to do something she doesn’t want to do.  And I don’t like how I feel when I’m trying to get her to do something she doesn’t want to do.  Suddenly I’m the domineering, coercive and cruel person inflicting the pain.  And I never want to do that.  Not to any being.

I can see that this is one of those issues that will get in the way of my relationship with Chloe.  It’s not something I need to work out with her, it’s something I need to work out inside myself.  Otherwise I won’t be able to be who I need to be for Chloe.

Eli said first I have to be the leader, then me and Chloe can be partners.  I wish I could skip the leader part and go right to being partners.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.   But then I believe this is one of the reasons I have Chloe.  Because I’m ready to deal with this issue.  To figure it out, one way or another.

Maybe I’ll decide it’s not worth it, that if I have to be a leader I’d rather not ride Chloe.  And we can connect the same way I connect with the donkeys, through food and grooming and spending time together.  Or maybe I’ll learn the other way to be a leader.  The way that can bring two beings closer together, in a different kind of partnership, one I’ve never experienced before.

49 thoughts on “My Pony And Me: Leaders and Partners

  1. Hi Maria: You already know from other horse people that if a horse doesn’t want to do something, it’s really tough to get them to do it. Thst’s true, too, of cats and other animals. I think of it this way when I have to show an informal who’s boss – they need to listen to me. It may be that one day by listening to me and allowing me to lead, they will avoid danger. I find with humans that leading them (at work, in organizations, in groups) that what helps me lead is that people trust me. I think that is true of animals, too. Perhaps thinking of leading as building trust will be of help to you. Leading isn’t about being bossy, intimidating, or cruel – it’s about letting those you are leading know that by relying on you, good things will happen.

  2. I understand the struggle between wanting to be partners and not wanting to force the horse to do something they’d rather not do. Could Eli give you lessons on Chloe in the pasture? You haven’t been riding long and she is a smart pony who can figure out how to evade what you’re asking. Yo can do it without having to be domineering & cruel, it’s just a skill you need to learn. I took lessons for a few years before I got my first horse, you’re doing well considering your level of experience! Call Eli & good luck! <3

  3. Oh Maria, little Chloe is barn sour. So when she becomes unmanageable on the way back to the barn, ask her to do something specific, and fast, with her feet—backing up, circling, going sideways. This will help her realize that being close to the barn might mean having to do work. Don’t give in to her being a yard ornament. Sure all horses want to hang with the herd and eat grass all day.

    It is true, horses do mirror us. This is why they make effective EGALA therapists.

    I know you can be a leader Maria, because you are one! We are all rooting for you as you work with this pigheaded mare.

  4. good for you! Leadership is so frequently a weapon of the ego, so frequently abused. It takes some wisdom to question whether she should be made to do something she doesn’t want to do. Of course, we all need to be leaders sometimes–otherwise the world ends up getting run by people who feel really comfortable telling others what to do. We need more people who are empathetic and compassionate to lead as well. We need people who truly don’t want to boss other people around. So, anyway, I hope you can find your way through this and negotiate the relationship you want, and the activities you want with Chloe.

  5. You are already a leader. You are leading many of us who follow your blog into finding our true selves, finding and following our creative sparks.

  6. Oh Maria, I feel for your long hidden pain, but I know how excited you were to get Chloe. Horses have been trained for how many years to do as their master/mistress wanted them to do. So I hope you get to work through your “memorie” and ride, love, groom and feed Chloe and enjoy her to the fullest. You are a very hard worker. So glad you and Jon have each other. By the by tell him congrats on his long haul recuperating from heart surgery. Helen Hart, Cheyenne, WY

  7. A brilliant writer that I read on a regular basis once wrote about how he believes that we either act the way we were treated, or the way we wish we were treated. This was a life changing thought for me and I think of it often and let it guide me through many situations. I thought of it here as I read this post. If you want further clarification you can ask your hubby since he’s the writer I’m referring to!!

  8. Maria,

    You are very brave to take up riding in your middle years. I grew up on a ranch and rode in front of my dad before having my own pony.

    Yet I was too interested in horses and my parents turned against letting me do much with horses. It was a time when women belonged in the house.

    Later, I was given a young colt to train. An old cowboy told me if the horse decides to go left, you turn it to the right. Do exactly opposite of what the horse wants.

    That was over 50 years ago, and there is so much more known about horse psychology, but still that cowboy with an elementary school education knew the principles.

    When you and the horse are in tune, “one mind, one body, as Buck Buccannon said, riding is wonderful. I know you will achieve it.


    1. I love to hear how stories of people who grew up with horses, Lynn. I’ve heard people talk of “Horse Sense” Maybe eventually, I’ll get some of that.

  9. Maria,
    I’m mostly a lurker, never posted a comment to either you or Jon, but after reading this I wanted to share some of my own personal experience.

    I’ve been around horses and horse people long enough to know you’re getting more than your share of advice, some of it conflicting. I have always used this rule – follow the advice and instruction of your trainer or teacher. To the letter. If someone else seems to have a better idea, talk is over with your instructor, but following too many different tips from different people can seriously confuse your horse.

    I’ve spent many many miserable hours trying to come to grips with my relationship with my horse and probably best friend, River. I learned that it was always a mistake to take his behavior personally. When he disobeyed or acted out he was just doing what horses do. I am so very very glad I stuck with it, because we have created a wonderful partnership. And I truly believe that for the horse it’s a bit like a learning a musical instrument. As a child I hated practicing piano and fought it not because i hated my parents but because I was too young to understand or appreciate the ultimate goal.

    Now, with River, it’s as if a light bulb has switched on. He does seem eager to “work” (we do dressage and some jumping as well as just hacking around), he has learned to trust and respect me and, while it may seem unpalatable,he learned to accept my role as the dominant one in our relationship. Without that agreement between the two of us, neither of use would have ever experiences the special magic of rider and horse in partnership.

    So I hope you don’t give up. What you describe is a very common struggle. The payoff is worth it.

    Good luck!

    a friend from Kansas

  10. Maria,
    You are so brave to share your soul like you did in this blog. You recognize the battle within yourself, understand where is came from, and now know the choice is yours. You can be the leader for Chloe when you need to or you can choose a different partnership. No one else can truely know the battle for you. I have seen you to be a very brave person in battling those inner wars. Courage isn’t being afraid…it is moving on in spite of the fear. Battle on wild, brave, and caring woman.

  11. Hi there,
    I’ve just read your post and its as if I’d written myself, I too have bought a pony oddly chestnut too! Who I’m experiencing exactly the same problems with, I also can’t grasp the idea of leadership and want to skip to a happy partnership but my pony is testing this and I too have had some serious struggles with him which I have felt totally demoralized about, however I’m lucky to have some kind horsey friends who help me by riding out with me which is truely helping my confidence, I know I still have to face the riding alone which is when he needs my leadership and I struggle to do that for him it usually dosent go well, anyway thank you for posting it’s helped me to read I’m not alone in this struggle would love to know how it goes for you good luck and don’t give up it will be worth it I can promise you that from my past horse who is unfortunately no longer with me but I had what we both need eventually and it was the best feeling you will ever have.

  12. Why don’t you take some horsemastership lessons? Usually instructors will come to your place, thereby eliminating working in a controllable ring and being a bit more realistic for your situation.

    1. Della, I have a wonderful teacher and can and will call on her whenever I need and decide to. But this issue is really about something else, not horsemanship.

  13. Hi Maria!! Been following Jon’s blog for a couple of years, and so nice to be ‘hopped’ to yours. Wow, I connect with your essay!! I too had a pretty horrible childhood…but being orphaned at 12 and 13 eventually made me tough in some ways, but fearful in others. One way it came out was when I would have nightmares that my students wouldn’t behave. I taught study skills for 25+ years, to both domestic and international community college students. (the 18 yr old ‘Muricans were much harder to help than the young Japanese or American re-entry (adult) students.)

    My loneliness did stimulate me to create and carry the school’s most active student club for 25+years, though! Now retired, volunteering at our no-kill shelter with the kitties makes me happy, and no evil memories get me when I’m bottlefeeding a kitten burrito in a washcloth! So, just a note to support you! I had a pony briefly when I was about 9, but she wasn’t well trained, esp. When she put her hooves up on my father’s chest….so best wishes for you and Chloe! Cheers, -Kathi in Mt. Shasta, CA

    1. Oh I get that idea about your students not behaving. The first time I taught a college class I couldn’t believe that the students actually listened to me. I didn’t do it for long, but I still wonder why they don’t just get up and walk out. Good for you for doing the work anyway and obviously be wonderful at it. Enyoy the kittens!

  14. Maria, it’s funny what things are put into our way so that we are brought face-to-face with issues we may have felt we’d put to bed, dealt with and moved on. There is no other way to deal with a horse or pony, ponies I think are stronger willed that some horses, than to let them know who is in charge. I rode when in my teenaged years and had no sense of myself as having to be the leader with the horse, I sat on it and let them have their way and hoped I’d not fall off. One day, riding an Arabian Stallion, with a French Canadian mare two horses up and I think, in heat, it was a ride I’ll never forget all these years later…and it was going up the side of a small mountain, or what we refer to as a mountain, more like the foothills of the Berkshires or the like. As much as I’m around horses today in volunteering at local horse shows, I know that I never had the presence of mind to do what was needed…that of being the boss with a horse. A hard mouth isn’t just a saying…
    Good luck. I think you’ll work this out with a positive outcome for you both, there is such thing as a benevolent dictator….(smile)….
    SandyP in S. Ontario, Can.

    1. Presence of mind is such an important part of it Sandy. I do lose it and when I do, it’s immediately obvious by Chloe’s reaction. I do want to do this, I do want to make it work. I think I have it in me.

  15. Hi Maria, So much honesty and insight here! Thanks for sharing. I am just learning to ride, also. I have a great teacher, but sometimes the horse and the pony I use are like Chloe. (Oh, I learned about turning my shoulders from you!) My teacher says to push my leg and heel against the horse’s side before using the reins to turn. So, the horse will move away from my foot pressure first. Ponies really enjoy what is common, just going back to the barn, etc. and visual cues- like seeing the barn, grass, etc. are so strong for horses. But, I think it is important that you can trust each other: Chloe won’t run you into the trees and you won’t make her be afraid of you (which I know you won’t). Maybe Chloe felt your posture change when you lost your concentration (and got angry) and she felt like she was on autopilot. Good choice to continue working on the exercise and end on a good note when Chloe did what you directed her. You are so right that the goal is for the two of you to move forward together, communicating. Thanks again for sharing.

    1. Holly, I was thinking that there is so much to try and remember when riding, I’m sure I’m giving some mixed signals. Then I remember to do something I forgot…and on it goes. And I was saying to Jon yesterday, that through it all, I always trust her, I’m never afraid that she’ll so something really wild to throw more and I never feel like I can’t gain my seat. A good thing to know.

  16. What a great post and so timely too as I too am confronting the idea of leadership with my new horse head on. Today was a rough day of trying to load in the trailer. Horsemanship is a journey – lifelong for me. He is not my first horse and won’t be my last. I have ridden and shown a variety of different disciplines. Worked with some amazing trainers. I study mentors daily. I watch videos to learn what to do (and what not to do). And still today, I failed miserably. The one thing that I want more than anything is to have that partnership with this incredible horse. Today in the midst of my frustration I asked “why can’t anything be simple?!”. I know though that the struggle is what makes it magical in the end. After all the hard work, the dirt, sweat, frustration and feelings of defeat a new reality will emerge. One that only perseverance, determination and commitment will bring to life. In the end that commitment and partnership will make all the nonsense worth it. And we will learn a lot about ourselves along the way.

  17. One of the best phrases I learned years ago (when I was wrapping my brain around “this leadership thing,” was ‘servant heart leadership:’ – when you step into leadership by leaving your ego at the door and walking in. Someone still has to lead and someone still has to follow but, it’s worth all of the work to arrive at that place. I learned this phrase from a human but I found out how to be that kind of leader inside every relationship I had with my dogs.

  18. Horses do help us work thru our own issues..and Cloe will test your leadership or rather your commitment to doing something she doesn’t want to do. It is not personal..Ponies would rather eat grass all day and do minimal exercise..graze and move on..That is how one trains them, by having the horse/pony choose the path of least resistance..because they would rather not work if given the choice. So by your urging her forward and making it annoying for her-the easiest thing for her to do is go forward and do what you want to do. Ponies are different than horses and can be very strong willed/stubborn. Again, don’t take it personally. Someone needs to be the leader and it is far better that the human is..that doesn’t mean you don’t listen to your pony..they have much to teach and sometimes is is better to stop what you are doing and do something else you feel more comfortable with-such as grooming or hand walking her. Just remember that everything you do with her teachers her something also. If you find yourself frustrated with her because she is not doing something you want to do, reach out to your instructor so she can help you get thru it. She can also show you (by riding her) how to get her to move forward. You are doing great for a novice rider! Hang in there and remember it is a life long learning matter how long one has been involved with horses it never gets old..I have been riding since I was 6 and I am still learning!!!

  19. Hi Maria,
    I read about how you’re riding Chloe from Jon’s blog. I’m fairly new to his blog even though I’ve been reading his books for sometime now.
    This is my first time responding to any kind of “blog.”
    I really don’t know anything about horses/ponies. I just know that I love animals and that’s why I’ve been reading Jon’s books even though I don’t agree with some of the things he says about animals (haven’t told him yet).
    After reading about you trying to ride a pony, I was completely surprised because I had never heard of an adult riding a pony. So, of course, I looked it up on the web. I didn’t want to read about what anyone who is doing this has to say. I wanted it from a more knowledgeable source. That’s how I came across the Horse Protection Society of North Carolina Inc.
    I read what they had to say and it’s more involved than one would think. If you don’t already know about this, please take a look at their site.
    I know how sensitive you are (per Jon’s blog/books)and I can see that from reading your blog for the first time today. You are such a gentle sole. I just can’t imagine that you would want to hurt anything or anyone.
    Of course, you might already be aware of what the Horse Protection Society has to say and how they go about determining what a pony can handle. I can see that you’re small but it’s much more involved than that.
    I tried to sign up for your blog and will see if I can do it. I don’t do passwords and didn’t have to use one with Jon’s blog. I’ll have to see what happens since I just tried it for the first time with yours.
    I love reading about your relationship with Jon and how gentle you are with the animals. You can just see how those animals are so relaxed around you.
    Hope to hear from you in regard to the Horse Protection Society.
    Take care.
    Barbara Woolf

    1. Barbara,
      Chloe is a Haflinger/Welsh mix. These Ponies were bred to carry adults over rough terrain and are used in dressage, and as pack animals and as draft ponies. Chloe is more than capable to carry me on her back.

  20. Chloe’s behavior is called “barn sour” by pleasure riders. This is the most obnoxious behavior there is. The horse will pitch a battle to go back to the barn. If you don’t win, it gets worse. The horse will start to run through the bit and bolt back to the barn. This is very, very dangerous, and it is the next step if you lose your battle at walking speeds.

    You are keeping yourself safe, and saving Chloe from becoming a useless plug by preventing her from becoming barn sour. You are doing everything right! Go, girl!

  21. I have an idea. I think you and Chloe would both have a good experience if you went for a ride off the property with another rider. Maybe you could plan a ride with Jenna? Horses are naturally curious and love exploring places besides their pasture. And being with another rider provides safety, stability and companionship for horses and riders. (just be aware that some horses don’t like other horses too near them, so keep 3 feet apart or so until you are sure there won’t be any hard feelings) I think it would sooth your soul to have a really “partnery” ride with Chloe and this would give you that.

    1. Jill, this is not the point of what I wrote about. I’m not asking about advice on where or how to ride Chloe, I have someone I know and trust to answer those questions for me. And I’m also not looking for anyone to ride with and if I am will be able to find that person or those people on my own.

  22. I’ve been thinking about your comments for the past 24 hours. How many of us don’t want to compel animals of any sort to comply with our wishes? After all, why are we better than them? It is a conundrum I’ve often found myself in. No longer can I bring myself to go to a zoo as I wonder if we forcing ourselves upon the animals. But maybe with domesticated animals it is different. Maybe as long as they are “under our roof” we can allow ourselves to lead them to become better domesticated friends to us. I wish you the best with your endeavors.

  23. Maria and Jon,

    I truly didn’t mean to write anything offensive that needed deleting. But telling one’s own story on other people’s blog isn’t acceptable. I see that now.


    1. Lynn, I don’t know what you’re talking about, I didn’t delete something you wrote. And this is my blog not Jon’s, so you’ll have to address him separately.

  24. Marie,

    I guess it was transition of the recent flood of comments. My comment to you disappeared and now has reappeared. It isn’t important. Good luck with your riding.


    1. It’s that I have to approve the comments Lynn, so they don’t go up right away. Thanks for reading and writing your thoughts.

  25. I love this thread and thanks for the good words, Lynn. I wanted to say a couple of things, although I rarely post here.
    First, Maria and I are different people, we are not one and the same thing. Comments to her ought to be directed at her, not me, and I don’t answer for her or pass messages along. When people address posts to Jon and Maria, that is puzzling because we don’t read one another’s messages. I have nothing to do with Chloe, I have no wisdom to offer Maria when it comes to training a horse.
    Maria and I share a discomfort with people thinking we need advice or want help with our problems. For example, several people have suggested we ask Jenna Woginrich for advice, she is a very gifted blogger from Cold Antler Farm and a friend. She is not someone I would seek life or animal training advice from, if I were looking for advice. It is a bit patronizing and odd to suggest it.
    Maria and I share our lives, we don’t turn them over to people. As to the pony question, which I have gotten a lot of mail about, ponies were bred to ride soldiers into battle and carry heavy loads over mountains. Giving rides to children and adults is not heavy work for them. Genghis Khan rode his pony all over Asia, and nobody suggested it was abusive. Maria is a strong and wild woman, like me she likes to figure out problems for herself and solve them herself. How else to build confidence? We also share a willingness to seek help quickly if we need it, and we know where to go to get it. I love this thread, I think it is important and I delight in watching Maria grow in strength and truth every day. These kinds of conversations help.

  26. Hi !life is a learning project. When ever dealing with horses never leave on a bad note! If you are unable to get message across, do a positive with them. Leave on a good note. Then you win and come out on top. Go back to issue later and fresh with good intent. Always be looking at next jump(so to speak) before you are even over this one. Horses follow your eyes as your eyes follow your brain intent. Remember riding is for pleasure for all involved! Happy trails!

  27. Thanks for sharing this! It reminds me so much of my own experiences when I first got my own horse, and was working through the same issues. It sounds to me as if you have a very good sense of what you need to do and how you feel about it, and I think that means you will indeed work out a great riding relationship with Chloe, if that is what you decide you want to do. Best of luck, and I look forward to reading more about you and your horse.

  28. I love your post, Maria. After all of my many years with dogs, horses, cats, even sheep for a while–I never thought about struggles with them as a reflection of personal struggles. Thank you so much for that insight; it is enlightening, indeed, and gives me much to ponder.

    When dealing with horses, and with life, I always try to think “look to where you want to go.” Or should that read “look to where you want to be?” More for me to ponder today.

    Enjoy Chloe! Many thanks!!

  29. Relationships evolve, whether with people or animals. Time invested, like learning a new dance step or to type, makes all the difference. The most wonderful facet of a horse’s personality is their honesty. They never are fake.

  30. I’m late to the party as usual. Was a time when I grappled with the concept of leadership. Oh, I understood what the word meant, but the debate about leadership and how one ought to go about creating it was often mixed and emotionally charged. Through much experimentation and exploration I came to believe that leadership is the wrong word for me. I prefer to have a partnership with my animals because a “partnership” suggests the mutual desire to share an activity or goal. A partnership also implies respect. Respect for the leader as well as for the led. So when I’m working with my animals I like to keep in mind the concept of ASKING as opposed to demanding. A leader says, “Follow me because I said so.” A partner says, “Let’s do it this way, together. Will you trust me?” Bottom line, am I asking my horse or dog to follow my lead or am I stubbornly insisting? Since force tends to lead to resistance, I like to keep my leadership soft and pliable. I’m open to options. I’m open to working with what my animals can give me today, even if it’s not the whole enchilada. Don’t like passing the gate? OK, let’s cut the pasture in half and skip going past the gate for now … and my, what a wonderful calm trot you have today! It’s hard to make an issue out of something if you remove the problem from the equation and focus on what IS going well! Go back and revisit gate-passing another time, when you and your horse are working and thinking better as a team. I try to remember there’s no “Have-to” in training. You get to progress at a rate that’s right for you and your pony. Sure, in an emergency situation you might have to insist your animals follow your lead without hesitation, but that aside, training is about building trust and partnership slowly, one small step at a time time. It’s about finding that sweet spot that’s not built on the mantra of “Because I said so!” but, “Because I asked.”

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