If you're just checking in to this series of posts, you'll probably want to read my earlier post "Mark Rashid Clinic - Common Themes" and also check out the excellent slide show of pictures taken by jmk at Buckskin and Bay. I'm going to give each horse at the clinic its own post.
The first horse was a very cute Hafflinger/Welch cross mare, ridden by a solid intermediate 11 year-old rider, who had an excellent position, hands and seat.
When Mark asked her what the issues were for her and her horse, she said that the horse was heavy on her hands, and hard to stop and turn. The horse is fairly green. Mark watched them go for a while at the walk - the mare was nervous - calling and chomping on the bit, and wanting (but not in an uncontrollable way) to go outside the arena. He said that the mare really didn't know what her job was or how to do it, and was therefore nervous. She had learned to use the bit as a "fifth leg" to help her balance. Mark said one reason the mare was looking out of the arena was because she felt bad about what was happening and wanted to go away.
Most of the work with this horse and rider pair over the three days was on basic softening work, and speed regulation without pulling, using circling to redirect the energy rather than pulling on the horse. They started with backing and progressed to trotting and even some cantering on the third day. Their progress was good - the mare was happy to find a more comfortable way of going that didn't require her to fuss or fight with her rider.
Since she was so fussy with the bit, he looked in her mouth and said that since she had a low palate the bit had smoothed out some of the ridges in the roof of her mouth - these ridges are normally quite prominent. Just to see if it would make a difference, he changed bits for a while to the Rockin' S raised snaffle bit, which sits differently in the horse's mouth - it lies back, not forward, does not make contact with the roof of the mouth and doesn't pinch the tongue. He said if it were going to help, it would be clear in 5 or 10 minutes. The mare was clearly unhappy with it, since she chewed with her mouth wide and chomped. They switched back to her regular snaffle, as as she worked and began to understand what she was supposed to do, her mouth settled and she stopped looking out of the arena.
The main work with this pair involved learning how to ask the horse to soften - the thought, ask and release. The release needed to be given not when the feet or head did the mechanical act called for, but when the feel and quality were there. The objective is not to just change what the horse does, but the whole look and feel of it. In order to do this, you have to have in your mind a clear idea of what the look and feel should be, and present this to the horse mentally before you use any aids - this is a short time interval but gives the horse the chance to offer what you are looking for, each and every time you ask. The rider had to learn how not to give the horse an inadvertent release when the horse would push with its nose - otherwise that's what you're training the horse to do. Same thing with a horse that pushes on the bit when you pick up the reins - you need to work to eliminate that brace - every time you pick up the reins (which you have to do with softness - if you're abrupt you'll produce a brace) you want the feel of softness through the whole body.
To get softening, put your hands where the pressure would be a zero if the horse were soft. Don't pull against the horse - just wait for the horse to come back to you. If you pull against the horse, you're part of the brace and there'll be a recoil when the horse softens, eliminating the release for the horse. Your hands are a "box" with somewhat flexible boundaries - they aren't a brick wall. There can be a bit of soft give, but your hands should return to the box.
It's important to not just give the horse the answer, the horse has to go through a process of figuring things out. But it's also important to be proactive and step in and help the horse if things aren't progressing - you may need to change what you're doing. If nothing's happening, it's OK to pick up the pressure - if the horse feels the need to push that's OK.
Now here's something that's a little hard to explain - as the horse is pushing on you and you are maintaining the pressure, without pulling, create in your mind a softening, an opening for the horse to move into - this isn't a physical thing although it turns into one as the horse responds. This doesn't involve making the horse stop the brace, rather in the conversation you're having with the horse, talk him out of it - the objective is to get the horse's mental attention and get the horse to change its thought. Mark says to find the point of resistance and soften into it (project the feel of softening in your mind). I asked him (auditors are welcome to be involved) whether any of this was physical, and he said no and had me come out so I could feel it. A side note - Mark is a black belt in Aikido, and uses a lot of the energy/redirection/blending concepts from that discipline in his work with horses and their people - very effectively, I might add. He held onto my forearm with his hand, and I held onto his forearm with my hand. First he had me pull on him (I was the horse). Then he did the "soften into the point of resistance" mental thing and the next thing I know I was moving towards him - but he wasn't pulling on me. Weird, huh? I went home and tried it on my husband - he was the horse and I did the "soften at the point of resistance" - it worked - he practically fell on top of me. This concept was a theme for the whole clinic - I didn't put it in the common themes post as it's hard for me to explain.
The horse and rider pair also did some transition work, from walk to halt and back to walk, and walk to trot and back again. In all transitions, up or down, Mark has the rider focus on when each hind foot is leaving the ground. For example, in the walk to halt transition, if you're going 1-2, 1-2 with the hind feet at the walk, breathe out on one and use your halt aid on 2 to get a better halt. There was a lot of very useful stuff about breathing at the clinic - this is one example.
And on to horse #2!