Partnership: 20 / 80 Model

Jodi + Tessa, March 2019 • Tessa + Children, July 2019

Jodi + Tessa, March 2019 • Tessa + Children, July 2019

As a keen observer of subtleties and nonverbal cues, I have a sensory-based empathy and synergy with both young children and animals. My vocation is to integrate people, systems, and environments to support civic wellbeing, beginning with young children. My avocation is collaborating with a 2,000 pound clydesdale to prepare her for relationship with children in crisis. Both roles thrive and amplify with authentic presence and partnership.

My mentor in the equine world, Elizabeth Love Kennon, introduced the 20 / 80 partnership model in a natural horsemanship clinic. The aim is to co-create a clear connection and common language with the horse. This is most successful when the trainer develops a high level plan for 20% of the time together, and considers what the horse offers in the open 80%. Since horses’ communication range is as wide and nuanced as an 88 key grand piano, and humans’ range often presents as wide and nuanced as an 8 key xylophone, trainers listen and watch more than speak and initiate. When it is the trainer’s turn, they do their best to offer at the height of their capacity. Thus, partnership with a horse requires a high commitment to self development. The trainer can only move from mechanics to dynamic flow with time, dedication, and expert mentorship.

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Though Tessa weighs 2,000 pounds, and is strong and agile, she is a prey animal. Her first instinct is to protect herself from being eaten. Therefore, to invite her to partner requires assurance of reliable leadership. If she accepts the invitation, it’s because she has been drawn in with gentle energy and clear intention.

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If she doesn’t choose partnership, it’s an opportunity to be respectfully curious about her present reality.

  • Is she in pain?

  • Is she afraid?

  • Is she confused?

  • Is she asking a leadership question?

  • Is her hay more interesting?

This is also a chance for the trainer to reflect.

  • How is my energy?

  • What spirit and attitude am I cultivating? 

  • Am I a fit or desirable partner for the moment at hand?


Developing a genuine relationship with a horse is serious, yet not personal. The time together is about connection and possibility. This mindset can add value to teacher, family, and systemic preparedness to authentically partner with children. What would it look like for adults to high level prepare for 20% of the time together with children, and reserve 80% for their (child) inputs? How might this nurture and celebrate the agency of children, teachers, learning environments, and curriculum?

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Much like the equine communication range, children’s nuance and depth of expression is more akin to the 88 key grand piano than the 8 key xylophone. As Loris Malaguzzi’s poem implies, children’s fluency in multiple languages supports their fullness of voice, and visa versa.

The child

is made of one hundred.

The child has

a hundred languages

a hundred hands

a hundred thoughts

a hundred ways of thinking

of playing, of speaking.

A hundred always a hundred…

From the poem “No way. The hundred is there.”

by Loris Malaguzzi. Translated by Lella Gandini.

Children’s graphic, symbolic, and movement expressions are often their most authentic communication. When environments and teachers nurture this, it is a powerful entry point to genuine partnership. Likewise, natural horsemanship affirms purposeful attunement to intricate depth and breadth of expression. There is, however, one remarkable difference between horses and children: size and strength.

(R) Photo Credit: Leah Aldous • 2017

(R) Photo Credit: Leah Aldous • 2017

While working with horses, trainers stay in their lane out of love and respect, and also for self preservation. The power of a horse’s kick commands awareness and savvy. However, there is nothing about the child’s constitution that demands reverence and high professionalism. It is truly the job of adults to prepare themselves and their systems to wholly and abundantly partner with children. 

Wonderings on behalf of young learners and teachers: 

  • What kind of Professional Learning opportunities would help teachers build 20% high level capacity and savvy where relationship comes first, and quality of connection is rich with softness, clarity, accuracy, and openness?

  • How can we adults remember in ourselves and each other the magnificent expressive range of our 88 keys? Does our educational system support our right to explore, make intimate connections, and develop a common language in multiple ways?

Jodi Wert 

September 12, 2019

Wert Knowing


  • Elizabeth Love Kennon - Author, Life Coach, Equine Facilitated Coach:

  • Loris Malaguzzi - Poem: “No way. The hundred is there.” Translated by Lella Gandini, and located on the Reggio Children website:

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