Tuesday, June 9, 2015

2015 Mark Rashid Clinic: My Rides - Filling in the Gaps

OK, let's give this a go.  Some of this stuff is hard to describe, so if I'm unclear or you need more explanation, leave a comment and I'll see if I can answer in a way that makes sense to you.

I've been auditing and/or riding with Mark for 14 years now.  I only see him once a year at most. My horsemanship, and therefore my riding, has come a long way in that time.  I'm now at the stage where I know pretty much exactly how I want my horses to go, and I'm getting closer to riding all my horses the same, where I bring the same "me" consistently to the horse and ask the horse to join me there.

What became clear at the clinic was that I'm part way to shifting over from riding with mechanics - cues - to riding pretty much entirely from feel, where the inside of the horse is connected directly to the inside of me and we just do things together based on the internal feel I present to the horse. At the clinic, I made further progress down that road and understand better where to go next.

Now back up a moment.  Mark makes it clear that there is nothing wrong with using mechanics - physical cues - and that softer cues with better timing will allow your horse to do what you're asking more easily.  I've worked on this stuff for years, and it's made an enormous difference in how I ride.  The other thing that's really made a difference is my treating my riding as a "practice".  I ride as though riding were my vocation - and it is.  One reason I ride so much, on all four of my horses, is that this much riding allows me to really work on myself and my awareness of what I'm doing, and to make adjustments and changes on my own, which I'm learning to do.

A little bit more about how Mark works, and then we can get down to specifics.

With someone at my stage of riding, working with Mark is a collaboration.  He expects his serious students to develop their own riding style, not just imitate him and his style.  Since Mark has no "system", it isn't a matter of him just telling you what to do.  What you do has to come from the inside of you, and your perceptions and intentions and not just from him.  He also says that he's still learning to be a better horseman, and doesn't expect or want that to ever stop.

So my having thoughts and guesses about what was going on, as we went through the three days, was part of the conversation, and at day three I had some ideas about things to try/experiment with that ended up isolating the last element of the puzzle.  It took three days to get through to the last little bit, not because anything enormous was going on, but because what was going on was very small.  But it's exactly the sort of thing that makes a huge difference.  This is what Mark wants - for his serious students to be empowered to figure things out and experiment - not just to do what he says.  And he always thinks about things in terms of looking at what's going well and building on that.  If your focus is on what isn't happening, it's hard to let that go inside of you and your focus tends to go there, hampering progress.

As my borrowed horse and I were working, Mark would ask me for my evaluation of what was happening and what I thought needed changing - it is also part of my learning to do this systematically.

* * * * * *

I knew this year that bringing my own horses wasn't necessary to solve the puzzle I was working on.  All four of my horses go beautifully, and we have no issues that aren't related entirely to me and how I ride.  Riding an unfamiliar horse was the perfect way to highlight and work on what I wanted to address.  And it turned out, just by chance (I didn't tell the clinic hosts or Mark in advance what I wanted to work on), I was riding the perfect horse for what I was dealing with.  Her name is Shania, and she was a 19 year old petite, very pretty paint mare.  She had been bred by the clinic hosts and trained from the beginning by the family, including Heather, who have been working with Mark for much longer than I have.  As a result, this mare was incredibly soft and responsive - but only if you present things to her in a soft way that connects the inside of you to the inside of her.  In fact, she's used as an equitherapy horse and even to give lessons to beginners because she tunes all that external stuff out, and if you just ride her from the outside, you're not going to get much.

What Shania won't do is fill in the gaps - she expects you to ride and give her direction at all times.    She delivers to you exactly what you present to her and what you're asking her to do (not what you think you're asking her to do) - she's the perfect mirror.  And if you're not directing, she doesn't fill in the gaps for you. And what I came to the clinic to work on was just that - gaps.  I've been noticing gaps in my riding - gaps in my attention, direction of the horse, and in my timing.  Nothing we're talking about here is huge - it's a matter of mere seconds - but it's fundamental and interfering with my horses being able to do what I'm asking them to do with softness.  I was getting in their way, and that's what they've all been telling me.

The first issue we worked on on day one was upwards transitions from trot to canter - although all my horses transition from thought, I'd noticed that there was a lag in the timing.  Shania and I had a conversation back and forth about this where I tried out various thought patterns with her and she responded. We went back and forth for a bit until I was able to be clear to her and she said she understood.  What it took in her case was my being bit more mentally decisive - sending her a stronger intent - then the canter came through quickly and precisely.  I just needed to stop sending "maybe/sorta canter" - which worked with my horses but created that lag/gap - and start sending "canter now", with transmission of the corresponding energy.

Mark said the goal for me now was to adjust what I do (thought and energy) with any horse so that we can get in sync and the horses can go how I want them to go.

Then we started working on downwards trot/walk transitions.  The gaps in this proved to be more of challenge to fix, and it wasn't until day three that all the underbrush got cleared away.  There were a number of adjustments I needed to make, and it took the three days to uncover and work through each of them.

First I worked a bit with Shania to get us in sync in the trot.  I want my horses to have a quite forward, energetic trot, and before long that's what we were doing.  We were nicely locked in together, and upwards transitions to trot and sustained trot were both soft and entirely based on mutual feel.  Mark commented that this mare won't deliver this quality of trot unless you're really engaged with her and directing her with your thought and energy.

The downwards transition to walk was a mess.  Shania's energy and forward would evaporate and I had to go to secondary cues (taps on my boot with a dressage whip) to get any semblance of a forward walk.  My timing was also off - I was behind the curve on the secondary cue so we got what I call the "train car" effect - she and I were out of sync and there was a lot of small repeated mental bumps between us as her energy faded and then I got it going again with the secondary cues.  Even after that, the quality of the walk wasn't what I wanted.  Mark said the gap in my timing was about 1 1/2 seconds - we worked on my cue timing so I caught her before she faded.  Mark also had me work simultaneously on carrying the energy forward and up and out, which helped but didn't completely solve the problem.  But better - a good place to end day one.

Day two was focussed mostly on my carrying the feel and energy I wanted through the transition without interruption.  It turns out that I'd developed the bad habit of stopping riding - both in terms of my carrying energy through and directing the horse concerning the quality of the walk after the transition.  We worked for most of the second session on that.  It was hard, because I was changing a long-standing habit.  Shania wasn't giving anything away for free.  If I wasn't asking for a certain feel through the transition and into and through the walk, she wasn't volunteering.

Red and Dawn are naturally very forward, and Pie is more and more that way, since I expect it.  Missy is also coming along with this.  With Red and Dawn, I'd fallen into the bad habit - you can even call it a lazy habit - of just taking what they offered me through the transition, since it was close to what I wanted, rather than carrying the feel of what I wanted in me and asking them to match it.  (This became clear yesterday when I started to ride all four horses using what I'd learned at the clinic.  Missy and Pie found it easy - I'd been actively riding them all along, and slightly changing what I was doing and how I was presenting things didn't phase them much.  Dawn and Red struggled a bit more because I was actively directing instead of just being a passenger and letting them make the decisions.  I always described Red as my easiest horse to ride, and part of that, it turns out, was because I was just sitting there and not riding.)

At the end of session two, things were improved - the gap was reduced to a half second or less - but there was still a slight hesitation during the transition and the walk still didn't feel right.  Mark and I agreed that I was using too much secondary cuing, which was because I resorted to mechanics instead of feel in the walk, in contrast to the trot, which was much better.  I needed to direct the horse by feel from my core instead of riding mechanically at the walk - this meant I had to keep riding after the transition and let the horse know exactly what walk I wanted.

Finally, on day three, we got to the bottom of things and pretty much completely fixed the whole package.  I came out on day three with a couple of proposed experiments to try to help us identify more clearly where the problems were.  I suspected that I was doing something in the shift down from rising trot to walk that was interfering with Shania's motion, and I knew the walk still wasn't right.

I proposed a couple of exercises that I thought might help us fix the last little piece by isolating some things.  We looked at what I was doing in changing from rising to sitting trot and back again repeatedly. Shania kept moving exactly the same - Mark said my position stayed exactly the same, and that it was upright, relaxed and correct - it felt pretty darn good to me too.

We looked at the walk - I thought what I was doing in the walk might be a clue to what was also happening in the transition and afterwards. It turns out that my riding at the walk was mechanical - very much on the outside rather than connecting to the inside of the horse, unlike the trot we were doing which was feel based.  I was moving my seat too much in an effort to get more walk, and this was essentially driving with my seat, hampering her movement, and leading to my need to go to the secondary cue.  Shania wasn't going to fix this for me. We were able to improve the walk quite a bit by having me sit more quietly and go with her while mentally sending her the energy and quality of walk I wanted.  This meant much less need to go to a secondary cue, as the walk improved dramatically.

With those things looked at, we went back to the trot/walk transition, and after our close look at the walk, Mark spotted the last thing that was causing a disruption/slight hesitation in the transition.  We took some video on a phone so he could show me exactly what he was seeing.  Just as I came down from rising trot to the walk, I would very slightly collapse my lower back and just for a fraction of a second stop moving - this was blocking Shania's movement, throwing her out of balance and actually directly interrupting the flow of energy from her hindquarters.  Mark had me concentrate on holding my correct, soft, upright posture, together with our energy from the trot, through the transition and into the walk and changing nothing from that trot to walk other than the thought of the rhythm change. This resulted in my posture at the walk being more upright and soft, and meant that I was sitting slightly more on my inner thighs and putting a bit less pressure on my seat - the same posture as I already had in rising or sitting trot.  The energy just flowed right through to the walk without interruption, and I also carried the postural change through into the walk while staying quiet.  Mark made the point that energy isn't necessarily speed, it's life in the motion.

Effectively, I'd been cuing for downwards transitions from trot to walk with my seat - mechanics - rather than thought and direction. You can think of what I was doing with my seat as a half halt - and this, just like half halts with the hands, interrupts the motion and energy.  A side comment - if you use half halts with your hands or seat, that's fine if that's how you want to ride your horse, just realize that you're creating braces (big or small depending how you do it) when you do.  Many physical cues are in fact braces, even if very small ones, and should be as soft as possible to avoid interfering with the horse's motion and flow of energy.  What I was doing in the walk was stopping giving the horse direction and accepting what the horse gave me instead, as well as physically blocking the horse's motion.

We may have only worked on trot/walk transitions, but broke loose a number of things I was doing, some larger and some smaller, and some physical and some mental, that interfered with the horse's ability to give me what I wanted.  Shania and I ended our third session with several absolutely perfect trot/walk transitions and a lively, soft walk afterwards.  All of a sudden, what had become difficult and complicated became clear and simple - funny how that works. Although we worked on this one issue, it contains so much about directing the horse with feel and energy that it will be enormously helpful in the development of my horsemanship.

I accomplished what I came to the clinic to do - and a lot more, thanks to Mark's guidance and a very special mare.

Hoping for some photos tomorrow . . .


  1. It sounds like you got a lot out of the clinic (as usual; no surprise).

  2. It's always such a nice feeling when something "clicks" and you go from difficult to clear and simple. Sound like you accomplished what you set out to do. Shania is a gorgeous girl.

  3. "Mark made the point that energy isn't necessarily speed, it's life in the motion"..... this really makes sense and puts things into perspective! Very interesting about the "stopping riding" as that is what I was taught to do to get a horse to slow or stop. As always, I will try to incorporate what I learn from your posts in my own riding. Thanks!

  4. I searched for "riding from thought" Mark Rashid, and this post came up. It did help me understand what my instructor is going for in our lessons. If I don't think about what I'm asking for, and feel it in my body/energy, my horse will get mixed cues. Also, when we started lessons I told her my horse had issues with attention. It seems like the focus of our lessons have been more attention from me and my horse....working from clear intention and directed energy. Very interesting. I have a lot to learn. Nice post.


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