Wednesday, August 4, 2010

2010 Mark Rashid Clinic - Horse #8 - Boundaries and Feeling Better

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 #8 was a chestnut 17 year old QH mare with her teenage rider. This horse was by far the most troubled of any of the horses on day one. The rider led the horse into the indoor, and the horse was screaming to a buddy outside, head and tail high, trying to leave the arena and prancing and dancing all over the place, including into and almost over the rider on several occasions. Mark said "what are your boundaries with this horse?", and then said this was a critical issue for many people and horses since it's a safety issue and someone could get badly hurt. Mark often says that he has only one rule - "don't run me over" - and this applies to horses on the ground, no matter what their frame of mind, and also to horse and rider pairs when he's in the arena. He took the lead rope from the rider and said that it wasn't a matter of the horse being "pushy" or "disrespectful" - these are not terms he thinks apply to horses - but rather that her horse didn't know if she had any boundaries or where they were and was acting accordingly - the mare was acting out her distress and complete focus on the other horse by doing what she thought was right in the situation, and if the person was in the way, that was too bad.

Mark within 10 minutes or so had shown the horse that, even though she was still agitated, that she could stay out of his space - which he defines as an arm's length in any direction, although he says each of us needs to decide what our own boundaries are - and to follow him (not get ahead) when he led, again at an arm's length. Mark usually leads horses with them following him, rather than at his shoulder - he says he prefers this since the horse has more dimensions to move in if it spooks without running him over, and because it reinforces the horse following his direction - a horse at the shoulder can pretty easily end up leading rather than following. (I in fact lead my horses behind me except when I'm leading more than one horse at once where they would get into it with each other behind my back - then I lead with the horses just behind my shoulder.) I've seen Mark work at clinics with lots of different people on leading, but this horse was much more agitated than any other horse I've seen at a clinic (except maybe our Lily at the first clinic we went to - but that's another story). I'm not going to try to describe actually what Mark did to define his space, but it involved body language, his hands, his voice and also with this very agitated horse, the lead rope.

The key to this exercise is to know exactly what you want and be absolutely clear and consistent about communicating it. He said he really didn't care if the mare kept calling as long as she didn't intrude into his space. As Mark and the horse were working on establishing his boundaries, they did a lot of going backwards. Mark said this was to give the horse the idea that going backwards was an alternative option to going forwards on top of people. This was hard for her at first, as her feet would tend to lock up. He said with a different horse on a different day, backwards might not part of the program - it was a matter of what this specific horse needed on this day.

The other thing they worked on was the horse not taking decisions about where to go into her own hands - her job was to go places only when asked to. Mark said while it was important to use as little as possible to get the job done, it was also important to get as big as necessary to get the job done. The longer behavior like this goes on, the more it reinforces the horse's feeling of being without help and direction - it's important to get in there and fix it and help the horse feel better. The horse continued to look and call, but Mark said what was important was whether the horse adhered to the boundaries and how quickly the horse was able to come back into the conversation if asked.

The horse's energy level began to come down a little and Mark was able to ask her to stop moving her feet for a second or two - at that point longer would have been too hard for her. Keeping her moving was a good thing as it didn't bottle up the energy. They worked on her following her nose with her body as she was led. Mark said that a foundation had been laid, and that the handler's objective, even when getting big was necessary, was to always be looking for a spot to turn down the volume.

Mark had the rider take the lead and work with the mare, who kept looking and calling. They worked on the rider defining her space and being clear about her boundaries with the mare. They worked on the horse following her and waiting to be asked to move, and on the rider getting a bit closer to the horse before asking for a turn after a halt so the horse didn't turn ahead of her - the horse is to wait for its nose to move and then follow with its body, not turn before being asked as this tends to put the horse ahead of the handler. In everything you do, end at a point where things are soft. Mark said since this horse already had a history of behavior with this rider, that she might well revert to the older behavior again since it is what she's used to - it takes a while to establish new habits to replace old habits, and the rider would need to be very attentive during that transition period.

For this horse, who was really pretty worked up and "losing her mind", it was very important to tell her what to do, not just tell her what not to do. By the end of day one, the horse's energy level was much lower, although she was still doing some calling, but she was able to pay attention to her handler and follow when led. When her head lowers and her body relaxes a bit pet her on the face to reward her.

At the beginning of day two, Mark had her do some lunging at the canter with the mare, to get her breathing again - she was doing a lot of breath holding on day one. Mark said if space had permitted, he likely would have done the lungeing work first on day one before the leading work, but with the cramped space in the indoor, the leading work was what they could do on that day. Giving the horse the opportunity to canter and start breathing - deep, not shallow breathing - on every stride will help her to "reset" her body after emotional stress and relax some inside. They didn't have to lunge too long to get the horse breathing again.

Although the mare was much quieter on the ground, and doing less calling, as soon as the rider mounted her energy level shot back up. Mark had the rider do lots of turning - no straight lines until she began to calm down. Giving the horse direction and something to do with her feet was critical to getting her to feel better. Going straight is her reward - be mindful of her mental state before giving her that release. The rider worked for almost a half hour on giving the horse direction at the walk, and the more they worked, the better the rider's timing got - the instant the horse's energy level would start to rise, she would turn the horse. Soon the horse was beginning to string together some calmer periods where she could go straight - Mark said it was a matter of finding a toehold and working out from that. The horse was definitely softer and calmer by the end of day two, although it was still a work in progress.

All of these pictures are from day three - and the mare was still wanting to be with her buddy - but notice in the first picture when she's looking and the second where she's calling that she's able to maintain an appropriate distance from her rider. Mark said again that he didn't care if she called, so long as she could do her job.

This mare is very pretty when she's not agitated:

She's still pretty worried here - note the posture of raised head and tail showing tension - and the rider is making lots of turns to help her think about her feet instead of her buddy:
At the beginning of day three, Mark made an interesting comment about boundaries - part of setting boundaries with the horse is to start directing the horse immediately and get right down to work rather than just letting the horse wander around without direction. Wherever your hand is, that's the boundary.

The two forms of supplementation Mark has found useful for nervous or fretful horses are magnesium oxide and, for horses who are in heavy work and receiving more carbohydrates, vitamin B-1.

The use of turns isn't a form of punishment, it's just to direct the energy. Doing turns, serpentines and circles can help the horse find a way to feel better about things. Often we just get on and ride, and get some things done, but the horse never really feels better about the things we are doing - we need to get the horse to the point that the horse feels better inside about the work. Consistent anxiety can be very stressful for the horse, with the horse feeling bad all the time, and we need to help the horse get to a place where she will feel better. With this horse, we want to let her know that this calmer state is what we want her to feel, to begin to establish new patterns.

The longer they worked, the better the mare felt and the calling began to calm down - at one point her buddy was calling to her and the mare didn't even answer back. By the end of day three, they really made progress - yet another happy third day smile, and no wonder - look at the softness and connection:

I think this mare gets the prize for most improved horse at the clinic - but it was the rider who learned how to set boundaries and give her direction that made all the difference.

That's the end of this series of clinic posts, and I hope you've enjoyed them!


  1. Another thing I like about Mark. He thinks about physical stuff, mental stuff AND nutriential stuff.
    Magnesium is vital to all cells, but in particular to the muscular and nervous system. It is also good for digestion system. Many humans and horses are significantly deficient in magnesium. He really takes the whole horse into account.

  2. I really enjoyed reading about this one - so many of the previous horses seemed to have such subtle issues that it was a challenge for me to get my head around it. But this one I understand and was really interested to read how he dealt with it.

    Again, thanks for doing such a terrific job on these posts. I appreciate it (even if sometimes they are over my head).

  3. Thank you Kate! What a wonderful write up of Mark's clinic, I really enjoyed them all and love the way you write; it's almost like being there. thank you again!!!! :-)

  4. I've really enjoyed reading these posts on the clinics! Thank you! It's very helpful to learn from others experiences because a lot of times it parallels our own! I enjoy your blog!

  5. Once again a great post. This horse was really a tough one, and the techniques are excellent for dealing with her.

    Better, everything Mark did was something the average handler/rider can do. No magic, no tricks, no "whispering," just good common sense and relatively easy tasks.

    Now nice to see the horse settle like that.

    Thanks again for some super posts.

  6. Wow, this entry was awesome to read..I'm so glad u wrote all these out b/c I will likely go back and re-read from time to time.
    This beautiful mare reminded me of Laz this spring..high strung and all over the place. Nice to see her calm down and enjoying her work with her rider/partner. It can be so scary when you have an unfocused horse. I agree too, circling and turns are great for re-setting the mind and re-focusing. Also..the breathing! What a great, great point! I find that Laz, exhales once he figures out a reason, or feels safe, or understands something. I just never connected that he may be 'holding' his breath, as I often do when frustrated. I'm sure this Mare will greatly benefit from this work.

  7. This has been such an interesting read over the last week. I am a once and future horse person...similar to your story of being a horseback rider through my youth and then letting it get away for a very long time. This fall, I hope to be back in the saddle, and I can see I have a lot of new things to learn. I feel like I am studying up and getting ready for my re-transformation, and your blog has been a part of my journey. Thank you!

  8. Great series of posts Kate. Thanks.

    This was the hardest horse by far. Glad they got some good advice for setting boundaries, I'm sure this mare and her rider learned a lot and will be a much happier pair in their future rides.

  9. Do you think you could expand a little on what Mark did to maintain the arm's distance boundary with the mare? I've struggled with what is appropriate for establishing those kinds of boundaries with our Paint gelding & could use some tips. The series on the clinic was very informative and helpful!

  10. Jen - it's pretty hard to be specific, since every horse is different and responds to a different level of pressure when getting the distance established. With a horse that isn't out of control, simply facing the horse and raising your hands, making odd noises and moving into the horse's space may be enough; with the seriously agitated horse in the post, who was a danger to the handler, it was necessary for Mark to get much bigger using the halter and lead to get the mare's attention.

    I've done posts in the past on leading, in much more detail - my post on The Pushy Horse (also in the sidebar) -

    contains some links to other posts on the details of leading - pretty much everything in there I learned from watching Mark work and then applying what I learned to a variety of horses.

  11. And many thanks to all of you who took the time to comment on one or more of the clinic posts - I appreciate your comments very much!

  12. Kate,
    This was a very interesting post- to learn more about Mark's insights into setting boundaries. One of the most challenging aspects of working with a horse is knowing when to get big, and when to be softer. Such wisdom is called for, sometimes unexpectedly, when we are with our horses. So it is good to hear his thoughts on it. Thanks for writing about all of the clinic participants, in such beautiful detail. I appreciate it!

  13. This was a really good series of posts and I enjoyed reading them all. This last mare seemed like quite a challenge!


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