Horse #6 was a lovely bay 6 year old Trakehner gelding. The rider had fallen off him in the recent past and broken several fingers. She said she was anxious and lacked confidence. The first thing Mark had her work on was her breathing - she was taking short, shallow breaths. He told her to count strides for her inhale and exhale - she should aim for 4 walk strides on the inhale and 6 on the exhale - it takes longer to exhale because our muscles for that aren't as strong. It's also really important to fully exhale and clear our lungs - otherwise carbon dioxide builds up at the bottom of our lungs, limiting our aerobic efficiency. Fully breathing out also helps unlock a braced spine, allowing the rider to stay in balance with the horse.
Mark told her that, whenever things aren't going perfectly in your horse work, remember that there are people sitting in offices, looking out their windows (or looking at their cubicle walls) and thinking: "I wish I could ride a horse today." If you're riding, it's a good day.
He had her work on allowing, instead of pushing, with her seat and legs. Pushing with the seat and legs, which many people are taught to do, shuts down the horse's freedom of movement and puts the horse on the forehand, taking the horse out of balance. If you wouldn't move your body that way when you are moving on the ground - if it wouldn't look right - it probably doesn't work if you move your body that way on the horse.
The horse was traveling in a frame, with his face vertical, but was braced - this explains in part the trouble she was having with him not going forward well - the front of the horse wasn't really connected to the back end. But it wasn't bad and could be easily fixed - he wasn't pushing on the bit that hard, but was doing it very consistently. This is clearly something the horse had learned how to do. As Mark pointed out previously, whether a horse is in a frame has very little to do with whether the horse is soft.
Mark took one end of her reins and did the same demonstration he had done with others at the clinic, showing her how to set a soft boundary with her hands. The main thing she had to work on was not pulling back against the horse's pull, so as to avoid her hands recoiling when he tried to soften. The recoil had eliminated the release, and the result was that he had learned to lean on her hands. As Mark said, so much of what we are taught to do with horses is counterproductive. Another thing she worked on was maintaining a consistency of the boundary, and not throwing away her reins either - when that happened she lost the connection. If the horse braces, the boundary stays put and the pressure increases, but you need to make sure you don't move your hands towards your body and pull, which is what many of us tend to do when a horse gets heavy on our hands - this is how horses learn to brace since they never get a release. The other thing she had to be careful about was not giving the horse an inadvertent release when he was braced.
Mark also commented that the dressage standard that the poll should be the highest point doesn't work for most builds and types of horses, including this horse, unless they're carrying themselves in a braced position - the highest point on most horses that are carrying themselves softly is about 8-10" behind the poll. I should add here that Mark made it very clear that he was not advocating riding horses with their faces behind the vertical - no rollkur here.
On days two and three, as they worked in trot and canter and on transitions, Mark had her working on her direction of the horse, starting with her own thoughts. He would ask questions like: "is that the walk/trot you want?", the point being that she had to have in her own mind a very clear idea of what she wanted before her horse would be able to oblige, and should get that walk/trot from the first step. The internal part of horsemanship, within our own minds and bodies, is as or more important than the mechanics of what you want the horse to do - you have to do it first, in your own mind, and feel it in your own body, and then you can lead your horse with your thought and do it together with the horse.
On providing the horse with direction, Mark commented that if we turn over all decision-making to the horse when everything is going well, it's not going to change when things are going badly - we need to be good and reliable leaders - not big, not bossy - but where the horse understands what you're saying because you're saying it clearly and getting ahead of any problems that may arise.
I got a number of photos of this pair - he was such a lovely horse - and I'll add the personal comment that it was great to see that he wasn't wearing a flash and his noseband wasn't tight:
A nice day three smile:
A nice day three smile:
Although I caught the rider's eyes when they were shut, I love this picture of concentration and conversation between horse and rider at the canter:
They made a lot of progress - this horse was sweet and willing, did not have any serious baggage, and would gladly do whatever she asked as soon as he understood, even if that required him to give up something he had learned (bracing) and take on board something new (softness). Mark commented that not all horses find it so easy to give up old learning and may struggle for a while until they figure out the new way being offered to them is better and switch over.
I think the rider's confidence level got a big boost - Mark just got her to keep breathing, focus on providing direction to her horse and concentrate on giving him a place to soften into, and everything just came together for her. At one point on day three, her horse did a little spook-and-scoot, and she stayed right with him and just kept riding - it was great to watch, Mark complimented her and she was delighted. At the end of day three, Mark told her that she was a much better rider than she gave herself credit for, and I would certainly agree - she made a lovely picture with her horse.