Sunday, August 1, 2010

2010 Mark Rashid Clinic - Horse #5 - Don't Stop the Flow

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.

This pair was a 14 year old chestnut QH who was an experienced cutting horse, and her owner. The pair had been together for about 5 years, and have done a bunch of cutting competitions with great success - the mare really knows her job. The mare was carrying some excess weight from a recent pregnancy that had either been reabsorbed or spontaneously aborted.

This rider wanted to work on staying balanced as the horse moved - she often felt that she was behind the horse's motion as it did cutting maneuvers and had problems with pain in her wrist and hand from bracing herself on the horn - she wanted to be able to move more effectively with the horse. Mark had her show how she and her horse moved together. He said that the movement of our back and hips - or lack of movement - really affects how the horse moves. Even in rising trot, our hips should move separately. This rider's back was pretty locked up and this was preventing her hips from moving correctly - the movement should have an up and down component but also a forwards and back component - it's more like a figure 8.

One of the reasons riders often have an easier time letting their backs and hips move correctly at the walk than at the trot is related to the relative length of stride of the horse in walk and trot. If you have a horse you can easily mount from the ground, then your leg will be approximately the same length as your horse's leg, and your stride in the walk will be about the same length as the horse's stride. This makes it easy to feel the horse's walk as your own walk and move your back and hips appropriately. When the horse trots, its stride lengthens, and your hips must move more freely to go with the horse, and this gives many people trouble. At the trot, he had the rider work on making sure her back was moving freely, and this greatly improved her ability to sit the trot. In order to allow your back to move freely, you must support yourself with your core and not your back muscles. Very often, if you tighten a muscle or have a brace, the horse will tighten a corresponding muscle in its own body, transmitting your brace to its own body, and obviously this will impede the horse's motion - it's a form of body mirroring. Its also important to keep your pelvis in a neutral position - not an arched back or tucked butt - as this neutral position also allows your motion to blend with that of the horse.

At the canter, she said she felt as if she were "scooping" from back to front with her seat, and Mark said that again it was a lack of movement in her back that was causing this. Moving in this way interrupts the flow of energy the horse's body is carrying forward and impedes its motion. Mark said that one way to think of the horse's body in motion is as a set of rotating circles - the first circle being the movement of the front legs and front half of the horse's body, coming from the feet up through the girth area and up to the shoulders and then back down to the front feet, with the energy flowing up and forwards; the second circle starting at the back feet, moving up through the hocks and haunches forward through the back and down through the girth area to the back feet, with the energy also moving up and forwards. Then there is a bigger circle covering the whole horse and moving from the feet up through the hindquarters all the way along the back and neck through the head, poll and mouth down to the front feet - again up and forwards. The rider sits at the intersection between the two forequarters and hindquarters circles, which is why the rider can so profoundly affect the horse's motion and energy. If a rider scoops forward with the seat at the canter, this is moving contrary to the horse's energy and motion and interrupts this energy and motion, driving it downwards. That is why having your back and/or hips locked or driving with the seat can actually block the horse's motion rather than encouraging it.

By working on allowing her back to unlock, and allowing her hips to move with the horse, the rider's motion was appreciably more with the horse and the horse's motion looked more free as well.

On day two, the pair worked hard on the rider being soft and with the horse, and Mark also got the rider working on downwards transitions and some softening. He had her use the same thought, breathing and then cue (if needed) for these transitions as other riders had used. Mark persuaded her that she didn't always have to ride with a completely loose rein (her trainer had told her never to touch her horse's mouth because she would "ruin" it), but could use her reins to influence the horse to soften - this was a very skilled performance horse that really knew her job but wasn't particularly soft. This work didn't require the rider to take up a lot of contact, but she had to work on a rein length that allowed her to influence the horse more quickly if needed. She also need to work on not pulling against the horse when it braced so as not to have her hands recoil when the horse softened - these were the same things other riders had worked on and Mark held the other ends of her reins, as he had with other riders, to help her feel the difference from both her end and the horse's end. The transition work helped her horse's stop, just as it had helped her husband's horse - the stop was much more soft and fluid and just as sharp and clean. Mark said these very good performance horses really know their jobs and get them done despite their riders, but if the riders can bring softness to the horse the horse will be able to do the job even better and more easily.

They also worked on the rider being sure to give the horse direction - as Mark pointed out, if the horse doesn't receive direction from us as to direction, speed or destination, and fills this gap with decisions of its own, this isn't the horse "taking advantage", it's the horse doing the job we haven't done because someone has to.

In these pictures from day two, you can see how hard the rider is concentrating:

On day three, they also did some work on backing - Mark says that many horses know how to move their feet backwards but may not know how to back softly. What happens at the point of resistance - the contact between horse and rider where the horse braces, in back or any gait - determines the outcome. If we can simply be there, setting the boundary with our hands but without pulling against the horse's brace, then when the horse softens there will be a release - if we ourselves are pulling and participating in the brace, our hands will recoil and there won't be a release. There needs to be an offer of softness on our part for the horse to soften into - and softening will lead the horse to the road of understanding what we want. If we can change our attitude and approach to one of quietness and softness, then this will come through in other ways and make all the work easier.

They also worked on lateral work, including sidepassing. Mark says it's very important in the work to not create braces with our body when giving aids - sometimes the impulse when the horse doesn't immediately respond is to up the aid, but that just creates a brace and impedes the horse's motion. Be sure to give the horse time to think and respond, particularly as the movement is being learned.

Mark said he wasn't trying to change what this rider was doing with her horse in cutting work, or what her trainer wanted her to do, but just to help her soften up and use her body more correctly so the horse could do its job more easily, and with more softness. There was a noticeable improvement by the third day in the rider's being "with" the horse and the horse's connection with the rider and the work and softness in the work. Now here's their look by the end of day three - a smiling rider and a relaxed, happy horse - they make a very pretty picture:

One thing I really liked about this rider was that she said her goal going forward was to "give her horse a better deal". I think the horse could feel what she was thinking, judging from the pictures at the end!


  1. Nice, nice, nice.

    I actually had to learn to stiffen my back and hips a little as I tend to move them both too much with the horse. It is hard for a lot of people to learn to sit the trot because they cannot get those joints loose.

    I can only imagine how hard it is to sit a good cutting horse if you can't move with the horse. No wonder the rider had an aching wrist. Hope the progress from the clinic sticks, but from what she said about the "better deal" for her horse, I'm darn sure she's going to work really hard at it.

    Great post, again.

  2. "If you have a horse you can easily mount from the ground, then your leg will be approximately the same length as your horse's leg, and your stride in the walk will be about the same length as the horse's stride."

    That totally makes sense and had never occurred to me before. Again - super informative post.

    A question for you Kate - how to you record the info from these clinics? You present it succinctly and in a logical order...

    When I have attended clinics listening, taking notes and watching was pretty hard to coordinate. I always feel I might have missed something :)

  3. Valentino - I've had to learn how to take notes and watch at the same time - I take almost verbatim notes in a 6x8" spiral notebook - I learned how to do this in school, and organize them by horse so that all the notes on one horse are continuous. I also have a separate section for general ideas that I might want to put in an introductory post. Some horses get more notes and some less - if a horse and rider are working on some of the basic things, or things that have already been discussed at the clinic, then I don't have to write as much. New concepts take more effort. I benefit from the fact that Mark is very good at explaining things, observing what the horse and rider are doing and commenting on them. I had over 30 pages of pretty dense notes by the end of this clinic. Then as I get ready to post, I reread my notes and think about them and begin to shape them into something coherent. And then I write, and rewrite, and rewrite . . .

  4. I'm really enjoying these posts. I particularly love the pictures. Seeing the visual of people's progress just adds a whole extra level of understanding. Mark sounds like he has an excellent understanding of both people and horses.

  5. Very informative post. There are way too many riders who are stiff and don't relax their backs enough. I'm so glad you pointed out how arched backs hinder the ride. I'm so tired of the arched back syndrome but it seems it's all you see at shows nowadays.

    This was a really nice horse. I'm sure the rider will give her horse a better deal in the future. They both looked very pleased in the end.

  6. I tried to remember just a bit of this during my trail ride yesterday (when I wasn't trying to remember how to hold the reins, where to put my leg, not dropping my shoulder, keeping my hands soft and in the box)...

    Thanks for spending so much time putting these together - it's a great help.


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