Friday, July 30, 2010

2010 Mark Rashid Clinic - Horse #4 - Close the Gap

If you haven't already, please read the "Common Themes" post, which also references the post covering common themes from last year - these posts will give you a good idea of the framework and thinking with which Mark Rashid conducts his clinics, and will help you understand what I'm talking about here.

Horse #4 was a pretty chestnut Saddlebred mare. She had been a champion at age 3, and when she was purchsed 5 years later and brought to the rider for training, she was crazed, worried and easily frightened. She'd been in work for about 6 months, and they'd already come a long way. I always love watching this rider - she's an exceptionally skilled trainer who's been riding with Mark since she was a young teen. She is the sister of the rider of horse #1 and the daughter of the owner of the place where the clinic was held. At last year's clinic, she was the person working with both horse #7 and horse #8. She's a rider of exceptional softness and finesse, and her work with Mark now involves making very small adjustments to what she does with the horses.

One of the things that is fascinating about the clinics is how Mark works with riders who are at different stages in the development of their horsemanship, and riding horses at different stages of their training. The contrast between horse #3 and this horse #4 was particularly interesting - the rider of horse #3 needed to get softer, slow down and give his horse more time, and the rider of horse #4 needed to give direction more quickly and cleanly.

Mark said that, in an effort not to pressure this very sensitive and worried horse, the rider may have been hesitating to get in there and provide the horse with immediate direction when she needed it. The rider came out on day one with two things she wanted to work on - abrupt downwards transitions and the horse bracing in transitions. Mark said the mare just needed a bit of preparation - think the transition, breathe out and only then use a rein cue if needed. Also be sure to keep the momentum going through the transition - ride a downwards transition just as if it were an upwards one - ride forward in your thought just as the horse starts to make the downwards transition so you get that nice flow. Present the transition to the horse in your mind just as though you were doing it with your own body on the ground. Neither we nor horses in the pasture make abrupt transitions - if it's abrupt it's almost always coming from us - smooth it out in you to smooth it out in her - get to the point where your transition becomes her transition. The mare has probably learned to make abrupt transitions in her prior life - you have to show her a softer way to do it in yourself first.

On upwards walk/trot transitions, there tended to be a momentary hesitation between the thought, breath and ask and the mare trotting - Mark said the mare may have been used to waiting for a spur cue. Mark said that this rider's job was to compress the interval between the ask - not "trot", but "trot now". Get in there immediately and give the mare direction - clear up the confusion in her mind - the mare was saying "I think you want trot, do you want trot?" - everything wasn't completely clear in her mind and she needed clearer direction. In an effort to be soft, the sense of precise timing and intent was getting muddied. The mare was just on the verge of being able to do these transitions much better - she would feel the thought, and start to brace herself and worry - these issues were probably due to prior training. The rider's job was to make it easier for her by being clear, and to be careful not to teach her to just think about the action without carrying it through. Mark told her to move immediately to a secondary cue rather than getting stronger with the primary cue (say by tapping the rider's leg - not the horse - with a crop) to reinforce the "now". There might be a momentary loss of softness, but that would be recovered quickly once the horse understood - and clear understanding would allow her to feel better and stop worrying so much. A horse that's in a rut with residual behavior from past training needs us to be really, really clear about what we want.

Mark said that the horse was going exactly the way she was being ridden. Many people complain that when they start working with their horse, that they have to do x, then y, then z, before the horse starts to focus and respond. "The way we ride the horse becomes the way we ride the horse" - these sometimes frustrating sequences with horses come from us and the expectations we bring to the horse. From the moment you get on, it's your intent and timing that lead the horse's response - "we're working now". "The integrity you bring to the horse is the integrity you get back." Be very clear - horses don't like gray areas. Show the horse how to be better prepared, and step in and provide direction rather than leaving the horse guessing.

On day two, the horse came out somewhat less worried, but there was still some worry left (this horse is ridden in a curb for now because this more familiar style of bit gives her some comfort):

Mark said we should have an attitude of expecting to get the response we want - the rider was just giving her too much leeway and time to doubt and worry. If a horse doesn't do what we ask, it's hardly ever "attitude" - it's because they don't understand what we want, physically can't do it or are doing exactly what (we may not realize) we are asking them to do. The walk/trot transitions were much cleaner now that the rider was providing clearer direction.

Then they worked on trot/canter transitions. Mark said that the delay had been built into the mare by somebody - the mare was waiting for a spur and worrying about it. She was very clear in expressing what her problem was. In the process of changing something the horse believes to be true, you can cause the horse momentarily to worry more, but when you clear up this confusion quickly, the overall worry will be much less. As they worked on trot/canter, Mark said that the rider needed to be quicker and cleaner with her thought, breath and aid to close the gap, but not stronger with the pressure. Mark said the mare wants to do what she thinks you want, but you need to help her through it so she can think "I get it and now I don't have to worry". Here is one of their transitions to canter:

They also did some lateral work, primarily turn on the haunches. The mare was very fussy with her mouth and looked worried. Mark said in all lateral work, think about the horse moving up and over - this does not involve lifting up with the reins, but is more a matter of creating an opening for the horse to move over and upwards into - this is how the horse would move in the pasture. Lateral work isn't about moving across in one plane - it's more 3-D than that. Use no or less leg to cue to be sure that the opening isn't being blocked by bracing in your body, and if you need the horse to make a change offer the horse something different, even as subtle as slightly different rein placement on the neck. The mare got a lot quieter with her mouth when given an opening to move into. Mark said that she was still a little confused about foot placement, but would figure that out.

The next pictures are from day 3.

As they continued their work, Mark noted that the mare wasn't breathing as well in left-lead canter - the horse should breathe one breath per canter stride. He also noted that the mare wanted to carry her head slightly to the left when moving, and when halting would try to shift her head to the left. Mark said it was likely that the mare couldn't move her jaw freely to the right, so that was creating a brace she was reacting to. He looked in the mare's mouth - the last pair of incisors on the right had a hook on the top that would prevent the mare's jaw from being able to slide to the right and was probably contributing to the mouth fussiness. All of us were able to look at the mare's incisors as well. He said that when a repetitive pattern of this sort occurs in the same circumstances every time, it's either coming from the rider or from a physical issue. In the case of this rider, she is very skilled and rides all her horses in a consistent way, and none of the others do this, which made Mark think it was very likely a physical problem. In the case of this mare, until she got her incisors fixed, he wanted the rider to keep asking her to stay straight, but to ask very softly as it may be difficult for her to do - a light brushing of the rein on the right side of the neck would help her straighten.

I particularly like this picture from the end of day 3 - the mare's expression and body are much more soft:


  1. Again, what great work was going on. The mare is quite lovely too. I had a Saddlebred for a while and he was one of the most honest, hardworking horses I rode. Beautiful gaits too.

    This mare looks to be no exception. She's lucky to have found a rider like that and a clinician who was so sensitive to her needs. The change in her expression is evident through your series of pictures.

  2. I have heard so many great things about Mark's clinics...lots of people in the blog world always seem to get a lot out of them. I wonder if he ever gets to Oregon? Would like to see him...

  3. She seems to be a lovely mare. The work the rider and Mark did with her seems to have made a good start in getting her to worry less.

    I'm glad she found a home where they are willing to work with her.She did look a much softer by day 3.

  4. Wonderful post. It is amazing to see how even a very skilled and experience rider needs that outside eye to catch what's going on.

    I mean, I know I need it (desperately), but it's eye opening to see how incredibly subtle some things are...

  5. Wow - what a difference between days 1 and 3. She looks pretty stressed out in that first shot, and quite relaxed in the last (I'm so happy you are sharing all this good stuff with us; thank you very much! :o)

  6. That's a really nice mare and I also quite like the rider's position in the photos as well.


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