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When 1+1 Is Greater Than 2

Musings on the unique chemistry of horse and rider

Do you know what it’s like to drink a soda that’s gone flat and all the fizz has disappeared?

I recently had the chance to borrow my friend’s super cool horse for a few lessons while my own mare was recovering from an injury. He’s the tall, dark and handsome type—a nice mover with a fantastic canter. He’s only 7, but he’s been scoring in the 70s at shows and has some exciting gears that could translate to quite a bit of power as he develops in the training. Oh, and his funny, inquisitive personality makes him quite the character to have around the barn. What’s not to like?

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The honest answer to that question is not much. If I were looking to buy a horse tomorrow, he’d be almost an exact fit for my checklist. And yet, while I was riding him, I couldn’t shake this completely underwhelming feeling of “meh.”

This brings me back to the soda without the fizz. Or, similarly, a party without a cake. Or a nightclub without music. Remember when during the peak of COVID, they allowed sports games to run but only without spectators? Even through the TV, you could just feel the deafening emptiness of the atmosphere. No buzz. No electricity. No hum of excitement.

Don’t get me wrong—the feeling that I’m describing isn’t at all a criticism of this lovely horse. In fact, it isn’t really about him. Or me. It’s about us. When I went back to riding my own mare, who is significantly more cranky, complicated and physically demanding to ride, I felt the spark, the fizz, that I had missed on Mr. Tall, Dark and Handsome.

Some might say that this is just what happens when you develop a relationship with a horse or progress in training. But based on my personal experience, I’m going to disagree and say there’s more to it. Yes, of course, relationships and education certainly develop over time, and they’re both critical to any kind of success. We talk about the importance of those things all the time.

But what gets talked about less is this funny little buzzy feeling. For me, it was obvious from the very first ride on the horse. And with every truly memorable, special horse I’ve had in my life, I can pinpoint the exact moment I first felt it. I can tell you precisely where I was in the dressage arena or in the cross-country schooling field when it
hit me.

I think in the dating world, they call it “chemistry.” In the corporate world, they call it “synergy.” But whatever you want to call it, it’s a strange thing that feels like it’s out of another realm. When it comes to horses, I find that it seems completely unrelated to skill, knowledge, education, time or experience.

It explains a lot, though, doesn’t it? Whether we’re talking about horses or dating, it may be why we describe someone as a “soulmate” after just meeting them or why, perhaps, we choose partners (horse or human) that seem completely unsuitable or impractical to an outsider looking in. It also explains why we might go on a date with (or have a lesson on) Mr. Tall, Dark and Handsome and still come home shaking our heads, saying “No, he isn’t the one.”

I’ve always loved mares, and maybe that’s because they’re very good at making it clear when the chemistry is—or is not—there. It’s like they’re holding a neon sign that says “NOPE” in all capital letters.

In the past, I’ve seen far more skilled riders hop on my horses and been left speechless when the ride goes completely sideways. For example, my little eventing packer who toted me—a monkey hanging off her back—around countless courses, simply refused to go halfway around a Novice course with multiple extremely competent upper-level event riders on separate occasions. I could tell you similar stories about my dressage horse who has held up the neon “NOPE” sign with several Olympic-quality professionals.

Lack of chemistry isn’t always that obvious, but when it is there, you can’t miss it. Maybe it’s an extra jolt when you leave the start box; the moment a wonky distance to a fence magically works out. Maybe it’s just that little extra sparkle in a trot extension; a soft nicker when your horse hears your footsteps in the barn aisle.

For me and my horse, it’s the feeling that the two of us put together equal something greater than the sum of our individual selves. There’s a lot that I have left to learn about horses, but I know this much: My mare gives a part of herself to me that she doesn’t willingly offer to others. I like to think that I do the same for her.

About Lindsay Paulsen

Lindsay Paulsen was Practical Horseman’s Managing Editor for Dressage and DressageToday.com’s Digital Editor. She’s a USDF bronze medalist and enjoys competing her mare, Ulita O (“Fenna”), at Fourth Level and spending time with her retired event horse, Femme Fatale (“Kat”). She currently trains with Grand Prix dressage rider Jeff Lindberg near Saratoga Springs, New York. 

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