Horse #7 was a bay tobiano Percheron/paint cross mare. Her owner was a fairly experienced rider, and had ridden with Mark in clinics before. The rider came on the first day with two issues - the mare was very hard to mount - she'd move all over the place, including moving her side directly into the rider. And she was hard to lunge at the canter - she would pull on the line and even pull the handler out of balance. Mark asked her to show how the mounting was. The rider took up her reins and started to put her foot in the stirrup - the horse moved the front end to the left and then the back end and pretty soon they were moving all over. Mark first raised the bit - the mare was struggling a bit with its very low position. Then Mark asked if he could have the horse for a moment. He walked up to the horse, took one rein and asked for the horse to flex to the side - and then things got interesting. The horse started the same dance she had with the rider when she was trying to mount, moving all over - almost staggering. Mark stayed with her. At one point she stopped moving, with all four feet braced. Mark said that he wasn't putting much pressure on the rein - all of the pressure was coming from the mare, who he said was leaning on the rein with what he called an "industrial-strength" brace. Since the mare hadn't softened in the slightest or given at all to the ask, he just kept on asking with soft pressure. More gyrating around the ring. The mare stopped again, still completely braced - and then she just fell over on her side with all four legs sticking out straight! After a second, she sat up with her legs folded under her and looked around - she didn't look particularly worried. Mark chirped at her to get up, and they went back to work. This went on for a while, until the mare softened a bit, for which she got a big release. Pretty quickly she began to get the idea, on both sides, and got more releases - after that things got better pretty quickly.
Mark said that just because you get vertical or lateral flexion doesn't mean that you haven't got a brace - this horse would move her feet in response to pressure while braced on the bit, and in fact was basically losing her balance and then having to scramble around even more to catch up - hence the moving around and into the rider who was trying to mount. Mark said it was clear it wasn't a case of "restless feet" where the horse didn't know how to stand still for mounting nor was it a case of the horse not having clear boundaries and moving into the rider's space - it looked like a bracing/balance problem since things went wrong as soon as the rider took up the reins in preparation for mounting.
He said that the rider should probably have the horse checked to rule out any possible neurological problems, as it was very unusual for a horse to fall over so easily, and it was also not normal for the horse to keep its head to the side after a release on a lateral flexion instead of returning the head to the centerline. The lack of straightening the head also could mean that the horse was still carrying tension in its head, neck and body, and the rider should keep working on this until the head would naturally return to the centerline.
He then had the rider so some flexions on both sides until the rider and horse got to the same level of progress as the horse had with Mark. He said that this might be the only time she ever had to do lateral flexions with the horse - he said he's not a big fan of lateral flexions and uses them rarely, but they were what this horse needed. He said the rider should do a few, then move the horse to a different location and do a few more, on both sides, although she might only mount from one side. Only do them until the horse gets it, then stop. Try them again tomorrow and if they're OK, then you probably never have to do them again. Mark expected that this was probably the same issue the horse had with lungeing at the canter.
Then the rider got ready to mount again. The horse stood absolutely still, although Mark said she had thought about leaning on the bit, but then didn't. The bracing behavior was a pattern she had learned and was in the process of unlearning. The pair did a lot of softening work, particularly at the trot. Mark noticed that when they transitioned to trot, in lifting itself the horse's body shortened a little bit, creating a gap in the rein contact - the horse then would push its head up to fill the gap. He recommended that the rider change the distance - but not the pressure - by shortening her reins slightly just before she asked for trot - and the horse's transitions improved and became much more soft. They also worked on the same things in their walk/canter transitions.
This horse didn't exhibit anywhere near the degree of braciness under saddle that she had on the ground - Mark commented that if your work on the ground and under saddle is done differently, the horse may not generalize from one to the other.
Mark commented that when a horse exhibits a repeated behavior that you don't want - look not at what you're doing but how you're doing it. Do something different to see if you get a different response that you can build on. By doing something different, you want to get the horse back in thinking mode not just doing mode. Changing the presentation of what you want can break a pattern. Often in our interactions with the horse, we do things to get a specific response based on how the horse has been trained, but the horse may be bothered about it - so our job is to figure out if there's a way to change what we do so the horse can still give us the response we want but without the worry. Once that happens, even if the behavior isn't exactly what we want, we can then reshape the behavior to where we want it, but without the worry.
On day two the pair came out ready to lunge. Mark watched them lunge for a bit, and then commented that the horse seemed to be making most of the decisions about time - when to do things; space - where to go; and energy - speed and engagement. Mark said it all boils down to timing - we usually ask the horse to do something and then wait to see what happens and then try to fix it, instead of knowing exactly what we want and communicating it clearly to the horse. If we don't do that, the horse has no choice but to fill the gaps. Mark says it's much easier to stay out of trouble than get out of trouble, but we need to get in there and provide direction to get that done. Mark noted that the horse was holding its breath from time to time in the canter, which meant there was still some lack of softness there, but the rider said the horse was doing much better than normal and not pulling. Mark said that, although he rarely uses rope halters and prefers web halters as they distribute the pressure more broadly, it might be beneficial for her to use a rope halter with this horse to be able to communicate more cleanly and quickly. If she uses the rope halter once or twice, she may never need to use it again as the horse will then break the old pattern and understand what she wants. (Round pen work won't help, since the horse can't pull in there.) Mark says the objective is always to be as quiet and soft as we can, but sometimes getting bigger briefly can break the pattern and be done with the problem.
Mark had her briefly repeat the lateral flexion work from day one, and the horse still had a harder time flexing to the right - this was the side that she braced on and fell over. Mark said don't drill the lateral flexion work - if the mare responds when you bring her out, then it may never have to be repeated.
Then they did some work on sidepass and leg yield. Mark said that often we become so focussed on the side where we're giving the aid that we create a brace and make it hard for the horse to move. He said that instead it can be helpful to think of where the feet are supposed to go - especially the hind feet - and then create an opening for the horse to move into. Then you can have the specifics of the movement in your mind - the feel of it - the horse can have that feel in its mind and then your aid can be a very soft suggestion for the horse to move into the mental and physical opening you create - this makes it very easy. Ride with the horse, not on the horse. You just want the horse to float over - don't push the horse over.
On day three, the rider commented that the horse was somewhat tired. Mark noticed that the horse was leaning forward slightly when halted, and that this posture, using larger muscles, required a lot more energy than just standing squarely in a relaxed position, using smaller muscles. This could relate to some of the horse's balance/bracing issues and could have a neurological basis, or could just be a learned behavior. They did some more lateral work, and some transitions. Mark encouraged her not to look at her horse's head during transitions - "we'll let you know if it falls off" - as that can drive the energy downwards and make smooth transitions more difficult. Breathing out on transitions is helpful, but it has to be a deep out breath, not just from the upper chest. In order to help her make her transitions more continuous, Mark would call out points on the ring for her to ride to and then transition down, then a new point and she would transition up and ride to it, etc.
The rider chose not to do any canter work because the horse was tired. This pair was inside all three days, so I only got pictures the last day as they were getting ready to trailer out. This mare was pretty sweet, and her owner looks happy too: