Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Moving My Horsemanship Forward

Here in these cold January days - not much riding going on due to the super low temperatures - I've been thinking about what it takes to continue to move my horsemanship forward.  I've made a lot of progress over the past 10 years in learning how to more effectively work with my horses, mainly through listening to them and approaching our interactions with softness and respect for the horse.  I've also worked hard to improve my mechanics - how I ride - by improving my posture, relaxation, balance and softness.  A lot of those improvements are due to teaching I've had the honor of receiving from Mark Rashid and his student Heather Burke.  But more and more, I find my learning comes from really listening to my horses and what they have to say about what I'm doing or not doing, and how I'm doing it.

I think the really great horsemen and women know that they're never done learning - there's always more to be learned.  And they also know, and teach, that learning can come from many sources - if you've got a strong foundation of horsemanship, you have the ability to decide what elements from others are appropriate for you - what things are consistent with the moral basis of your horsemanship and its underlying specific principles of how to work with and ride horses.

Mark put it very nicely in a recent blog post:
Before we can even think about mastery we must first get to the point of simply being able to practice. Before we can practice, we must first focus on developing our own individual skills. We do that in part by finding a teacher who not only helps us understand and work on the feel and mechanics of what we are trying to accomplish, but who is also skilled enough to be able to teach us how to learn and think for ourselves. At the same time, we, as the student, must also be willing to want to think for ourselves, to take that next step in our learning and be able to move out of our comfort zone so that true growth (and perhaps even mastery) can begin to take place.
Now, I'm not one who spends a lot of time watching videos of various horsemen, or attending clinics. I think there's a risk in doing too much of that, instead of just working with your own horses on a regular basis - the risk is of ending up with a mishmash of ideas/techniques/approaches that can be confusing at best and inconsistent at worst.  I have learned a lot from the wisdom of the Dorrences, Ray Hunt and Harry Whitney, although I never had the opportunity to work with any of them.  I don't follow their techniques directly, and don't consider myself part of the natural horsemanship camp, although what I do overlaps to some extent with some of what the best natural horsemanship people do, particularly the emphasis on the development of feel and timing.  Part of this is due to the fact that Mark specifically rejects the NH label and his approach differs in a number of respects from the approach used by many NH trainers. At my barn, there are several groups of folks - some pretty traditional in their riding/training, and some much more towards the natural horsemanship end of things.  Although I don't do the same things they do, I generally find that I usually (not always) have more in common with the NH crowd, and my barn friends are often drawn from that group, although I'm friendly with most of the people at my barn.

Several years ago, Mark challenged me to do two things:  develop my own horsemanship style - not just an imitation of his; and to ride all my horses consistently.  (Mark says it's easy to fall into the trap of riding each horse the same way its last owner rode, rather than presenting each, different, horse with the same feel from the inside of you.)  This is still a job I'm working on - my consistency between rides and between horses in terms of how I present myself to the horse has improved, and this means that my "style" of riding is becoming my own.

This puts me into the position of being able to examine some other horsemanship ideas and make a principled decision about whether to build them into my repertoire and style.  There are a lot of ideas, and trainers, and training techniques that I have zero interest in, both inside and outside the NH world  - they're either morally inconsistent with how I approach working with horses, or they are primarily just mechanics.  I'm interested in fundamentals - relaxation, balance, blending with the horse, feel and connection.  There are certain mechanical aspects to these - things to do or avoid doing - but at this point I'm only interested in mechanics to the extent they lead to improvement in my fundamentals.

I've recently found a book that intrigues me - there are also some articles.  They're by Mark Russell, who studied classical dressage with Nuno Oliveira, but says that he has his own approach that is informed by, but not identical to, Oliviera's.  I've recently gotten Russell's book (with Andrea W. Steele) Lessons in Lightness: the Art of Educating the Horse, and so far I like the emphasis on relaxation, throughness (allowing the power of the hindquarters to carry through the whole body) and also self-carriage (without driving with seat or leg or restraining with the hand).  All of those principles are consistent with how I try to ride.  I also like that Russell is shown riding in both Western and dressage tack - Russell started out as a Western trainer - this is something I do myself and I believe good riding and good horsemanship should be the same no matter what tack you ride in or what disciplines you and your horse do together.

So I'm intrigued.  I've already gotten a couple of interesting ideas - some of them in hand work - to try out with my horses and see what we think.  One of the things I really like about have several horses to work with is that having feedback from multiple horses gives me good perspective on what I'm doing and its correctness in terms of our mutual principles and fundamental goals.  These initial ideas of Mark Russell's all relate to the development of mental and physical relaxation in the horse.  Relaxation - my own and that of the horse - is something I really want to improve this year.  I like Russell's idea that the horse's inability or resistance to doing something we ask - assuming there isn't a physical problem in the horse's body - is due to lack of relaxation and the blockages this creates in the free flow of energy through the horse's body - the throughness.  Lack of mental relaxation creates lack of physical relaxation.  This is very consistent with the learning I've had from Mark Rashid.

Dawn sometimes has trouble relaxing mentally, which leads her to rush and worry.  Pie gets tight in his body and braced when he isn't relaxed, and Red gets "jangly" - super responsive and compliant with apparent softness, but he's nervous and over reactive and not really soft at all.  So if we can improve our mutual relaxation, all sorts of good things should flow from that.

So this should be fun!  Have any of you seen/worked with/tried out Mark Russell's ideas?


  1. wow kate that's so cool that you found him, i just this week found another nuno oliviera student and i spent the last few days watching him on youtube. teaching relaxation was the first point that drew me to him, and you mention it too. i'm going to publish my post on him soon.

  2. "Lack of mental relaxation creates lack of physical relaxation..."

    Yep. Not just for the horses. These days my area of concentration is my own mental relaxation and therefore physical relaxation. How can I expect my horse to achieve this if I don't.

    Great post Kate. :D

  3. Nuno Oliviera, the maestro of classical dressage. Linda LeGrand is the person I studied with, and she spent several summers at his school...passing on what she learned to her students. Do you know of Bettina Drummond? She has also carried on the work of Nuno. We are fortunate to have had her present clinics in our area. There is quite a difference in true classical dressage and what we see at the highest levels of competition today. I'm utterly amazed at what is considered acceptable in the show ring and pity what has been done to many talented horses.

    1. Bettina Drummond actually wrote the forward to the Mark Russell book.

  4. Good post. I like being able to work with different horses too. Like you, I've been working for a long time on relaxation in myself, physically and mentally, which in turn transfers to my horses. Relaxation makes a big difference for all of us.

    I've actually read Mark Russell's book. He makes some good points.

  5. I think finding your true self within your relationship with your horse is a very important, but sometimes difficult task. I think there are a lot of teachers who want a cookie cutter copy of themselves, who don't believe you are doing it right if you aren't doing exactly like them.

    I wish the Mark Russell book was an ebook.

  6. Brett's been trying to get into a Mark Rashid clinic here in California with no luck. They fill up super fast and I think returning students get first shot. He hasn't given up though. He comes out once or twice a year, a few hours from here.

    1. Once the clinics are announced on Mark's website, they're usually already full. I'd suggest contacting prior clinic hosts in your area now, even if clinics haven't been announced, and volunteering to put down a deposit now. Might get Brett a leg up. And if there's a waiting list, get on it - sometimes people sign up and then can't come.

    2. Brett is working directly with the host and is on the waiting list. Got those bases covered.

  7. Sounds like a wonderful plan Kate. It's interesting to me that several of the best horsemen (in my opinion anyway) don't like the term "natural horsemanship". So many who claim that as their technique, or style of teaching, is anything but...having said that though, it seems to be the easiest catch phrase to describe what I really think of as, "good, solid horsemanship". Whatever you call it - feel, timing and balance is always at the forefront, with mutual relaxation being the key to all those. I so enjoy your writings and your progress, it's always helpful. I always add visualization when I ride. That's a helpful component for me as well. Can't wait to hear more! Oh, and I second what Lori Skoog said about "modern dressage". Wrong on so many levels.

  8. Interesting that you brought up the moral aspect of horsemanship, not many people would consider morals a part of it. There are several training techniques popular now that I consider morally wrong (for me). I also don't like the NH label, some of the big names in NH are doing stuff that I consider morally wrong, again, from my perspective.
    I am intrigued by what you say about Mark Russell, I will have to check out his book.

  9. One of my favorite things about riding and horses in general is that there is still always so much to learn and so many things I can improve on!


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