Thursday, July 23, 2009

Mark Rashid Clinic - Horse #3 - The Professional Brace

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 - this is horse #3.

This horse was an older chestnut Quarter Horse gelding. He and his rider were doing basic dressage. Here they are all ready to go:

This rider was really trying - she really was there for her horse and to learn, and it showed. She said that riding the horse made her nervous, even though he looked like a nice horse and she was a decent rider.

The first day she worked on lunging her horse in the round pen - this is apparently what she does with the horse before she rides. He was having trouble holding the canter - he would make half a lap and then break to the trot. She said her trainer said he was "unmotivated". Mark said it was more that the energy she was putting out was too low to sustain the canter, and that when the horse offered to break to the trot (well before he actually did), she wasn't doing anything about it, so he broke. He was just following her body language.

Mark says that, although many people are taught to lunge, or work with horses in the round pen, by standing still and making the horse move around them, he doesn't do this. He feels that we have to participate with our horse so that there is a connection, and that our energy level should match the energy level we expect the horse to display - otherwise there's a disconnect that can be detrimental once we move to under saddle work. By bringing our energy level up, both mentally and physically, we can help the horse understand our intent and build a connection with the horse - Mark lunges, works horses in the round pen and ground drives by moving with the horse in a smaller circle, slower when he wants slower, faster when he wants faster and stops when he wants stop. We need to be aware of what we are doing with our thought and body - the horse will mirror us. Once she started participating and put some energy into things, the horse was able to canter without difficulty.

In her under saddle work, the first day she and the horse spent a lot of time backing. Mark asked her to show him how the horse backed - it basically didn't. He then did something he sometimes does to assess how the horse is feeling, and what sort of brace there is, which is to stand next to the horse's shoulder facing the tail, and take the off side rein in his hand placed on the neck and the near side rein in his other hand, and work on backing.

He said it was no wonder she was nervous riding the horse, as it had one of the worst whole-body braces going on that he had ever seen - it was bracing from nose to tail. She was right to be nervous, as riding a horse that braced could be dangerous, since you would have almost no control over what the horse did. He said that this was a "professional brace" instilled by a professional trainer dedicated to putting that bracey, hanging-on-the-bit feel into the horse as part of its training. So they worked, and worked, and worked on backing, for most of one session. There were some dramatic moments as the brace began to break loose - at one point Mark did some Aikido stuff that I'm not even going to begin to try to describe - I've seen it done and can almost do it myself but it's very hard to convey without seeing it - it involves using your core and breathing to reflect the energy back in a spiral motion which dramatically disrupted the brace with virtually no physical effort on Mark's part.

One of the most interesting things was how quickly the horse relaxed and softened once it understood it didn't have to brace - it almost seemed relieved to not have to maintain so much muscular effort. Once it understood, and she understood how to ask for softening without pulling, they made very rapid progress, and then they were able to work on softening at different gaits and through transitions.

They did some good work on presenting what you want mentally to the horse before asking for it - instead of just putting the aid on, waiting to see what happens and then telling the horse what it did wrong, which we often tend to do. Using aids alone without having a clear idea and intent to get a certain result, and without mentally presenting what you want to the horse, results in aids that operate only on the outside of the horse and don't reach the inside. To reach the inside of the horse requires that we be a participant and mentally engaged with the horse.

She worked a lot on having in mind a particular speed, direction and destination. The horse wants to have a leader but it's not a matter of dominance. If you don't fill that role, the horse will make decisions because somebody has to. We want our horse to do what we ask but then we don't provide direction and blame the horse if it doesn't guess right. Often all we tell horse is where not to go or what not to do. As she worked on this, it was amazing to see how her horse's gaits improved - they had been short and stilted - they opened up and his motion began to flow. She looked delighted at the end of her third day, and she was entitled to!

Now on to horse #4 - the mare who knew that 5 plus 5 equals 11!


  1. Hee hee, really enjoying your write-ups Kate.

  2. Thanks for posting your recap, I am really enjoying it. This horse was particularly interesting to me, he reminded me a little of Werther. When Werther gets nervous, he doesn't spook or explode like the majority of horses you meet but instead he tenses his muscles in his back and topline.

    Ellie and Werther Blog

  3. Very interesting again about the "professional brace." One of my boys does brace to the back up now and then, but he will also soften beautifully as well. I'll have to do some more testing to see what I'm doing wrong.

    Thanks again for some great insight.

  4. I'm really interested in learning some softening exercises to do with Panama. Is there a particular book or article you would recommend?

  5. Katharine - oops, I answered your question in the comments on the next blog post!


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