Horse #2 was a fairly tall, but delicately built, bay 17 year-old TB gelding with his 12 year-old rider, who is leasing him. She had been riding for about four years, and did a very nice job with him over the three days of the clinic. A number of years ago, this horse had been in training with the rider of horse #4. His owner at the time decided he was too much horse for her, and sold him. The people who bought him returned him several years later to his original owner for free, broken in body and spirit - he was in such poor physical and mental condition that they had no hope of selling him. He has scars inside his mouth and on his tongue, and on his nose, from the "training" he had received, and his stifles and hocks were damaged. It took many months to physically rehab him and to bring him back from being completely mentally and emotionally shut down. The good news is that his basic sweetness and willingness really shone through by the end of the clinic.
On day one, however, he was a very nervous and worried horse - he was worried about everything: being in the indoor, another horse leaving the indoor, you name it. He was constantly bracing and pushing on the bit while he rushed around at the walk, trying to break into a trot. His rider told Mark that she had a lot of trouble with his stop and with him not wanting to stand still. Mark told her that, with all the energy he had, working on the stop right then wouldn't be a good idea. With all that energy churning around, he couldn't listen or focus, and trying to hold him in or work on stopping would just bottle up the energy and make things worse. What he needed right then was to keep moving and have his rider direct his energy.
Mark said the best way to help him was to pick something simple - he had her doing a small figure eight at the walk and work on directing him and asking him to soften at the same time. Receiving direction and softening would both make him feel better inside. Mark says that the simplest things we do with the horses sometimes make the biggest difference. The objective of the work with him was to change the way he was thinking about things by providing him direction and success, so he could change the way he was feeling - the nervousness - so that he could change the way he was acting. Mark then had them doing lots of turns - no straight lines unless he was quiet. He had her using no leg and making sure her outside rein wasn't tight on the turns - he said they needed to de-escalate the level of tension and pushing on him or constraining him wouldn't help. Before she could get more specific about what she wanted to teach him, he had to feel better. Energy isn't a problem with a horse that understands how to control it and work with it. Excess energy can come from feed, pain or how the horse was trained to act in the past.
As she was starting to work with him at softening at the walk, as they did their turns, he would stick his nose up and brace each time before he softened - Mark says this is pretty typical for a horse figuring out what you want. To help him, Mark suggested that, as she took up the contact, just before the reins began to apply pressure, she should breathe out - there was an immediate change in the horse's demeanor - he started being able to soften more consistently and his eye softened. As they continued their work, he was able to maintain his softness at the walk. Breathing in causes the body to brace, while breathing out softens the body, allowing the horse to be soft - breathing out on exertion or change, say a transition up or down, can really make it easier for the horse to do what you're asking.
They also did some work on standing still - the horse could do it for 7 seconds by the end of the day.
Mark said that you need to put the feel of the movement in your own body first - so on a walk to halt, you would feel in your own body what that movement would feel like if you did it yourself - and only then ask the horse to do it. Too often we just put on an aid and wait to see what happens - having the feel in your own body first allows you to get ahead of things and lead the horse with your thought.
On day 2, the rider said that the horse didn't bend well in turns and also got agitated in lateral work. Mark said that they first needed to get the horse soft so it could use its body properly before tackling other things. Whenever the horse pushed on the bit, it was her job to be sure he softened before he got a release. In answer to a question from the audience - "should she make him do x?", Mark said that if you make a horse do something, it's a little bit like teaching someone that the answer to 2 + 2 is 4 - the person only knows the answer but not how to add. Our task is to help the horse understand what the job is and help him to do it - this has a completely different feel. And it's important to be patient - whatever the horse throws out, you have to be there for him.
By the end of day 2, the was putting less energy into his movements, and was beginning to think and try to figure out what the rider wanted. Often a horse figuring things out will go back to the old behavior (bracing against the bit for this horse) to compare it to the new behavior you are teaching (softening), and then suddenly switch over completely to the new behavior because it makes the horse feel better. Don't worry too much about what the horse does as he tries different things - just leave it alone and let the horse quit the undesired behavior - don't apply any energy to behaviors you don't want, only focus energy on what you think is most important to accomplish - refine it later.
On day 3, the horse started out much more relaxed and soft. By the end of the session, the horse was able to stay soft at the walk and trot, and she was able to do 3/4 of a lap of the arena in canter with the horse maintaining his softness - here they are at the walk:
And here are two pictures of them cantering - the smile on this rider's face isn't the last one we'll see:
Mark did comment that he looked like a horse that would benefit from having his teeth done - notice the tip to the nose in the first canter picture above. Mark said that the headset isn't what's important - what's important is the feeling of softness. As they were doing transitions, including halting, the horse could maintain a halt for 25 seconds - the overall picture was a happy horse and happy rider.