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Less is More: Thoughts on Getting Along With Horses

18 August 2011 No Comment

Less is More: Thoughts on Getting
Along With Horses
By: Mark Rashid

A Report of the Mark Rashid Clinic – Rivendell Farm – Chapel Hill, North Carolina; October 19, 1999

“You’ve gotta be Alpha horse in his eyes.”
“Show him who’s boss.”
“Get after him, make him do it.”
“He has to respect you, no matter what.”
You’ll hear those words a lot around the horse world, but you sure won’t hear them from Mark Rashid. The soft-spoken Colorado horseman spreads a philosophy that favors partnership instead of dominance, guidance instead of restraint, support and help instead of correction, faith instead of fear.

Mark’s clinic in Chapel Hill included seven one-hour private sessions, offering a good sampling of the Rashid philosophy applied to various mounts and issues. Common themes ran through all the sessions, so that’s how I’ll share my impressions.

Theme #1 – Horses don’t disobey; they obey what we’ve unknowingly taught them.

Behaviors we might perceive as disrespect are generally not so, Mark says. “If he’s always been told it’s okay to do that, it’s not a matter of loss of respect.”

For example, working with a horse on the ground, Mark asked us to watch what the horse did after he committed to the halt with one foreleg. Did the second foreleg stop behind the first foreleg? Square up? An inch ahead? Three inches ahead?

In ways as small as this, the horse asks us, “Is it okay if I creep up on you?” If we’re busy thinking of bigger actions, chatting with friends, or admiring the scenery, we might be saying to the horse, “Sure, that’s okay. I don’t mind if you creep up three inches.” The next time, he creeps up three inches twice. Then three inches thrice.

“Pretty soon, you have the horse running into your elbow or passing you by, only it’s because you’ve allowed him to”, Mark said. It appears the horse is being disobedient, but, in fact, he is only obeying what we accidentially taught him.

Now, this isn’t news to anyone, is it? We all know the aphorism: “Every time you’re with your horse, you’re training him, for better or for worse.” But it can be enlightening to really, truly watch closely and wee how subtle this accidental training can be!

Theme #2 – It’s more about awareness than about action.

Theme #2 is a natural corollary to the previous theme. With greater awareness of the beginnings of behavior, you don’t have to engage in such big actions to direct the behavior where you want it. Therefore, Mark urged us to tune in closely to nuances that perhaps we’d overlooked; feeling for that moment when the horse is setting up for a response, rather than the moment it takes place, or the moment after. You’re looking to release at the first indication of compliance, not after the request is fully obliged.

This principle was where I had gone awry with my gentle homebred, not as “in front of the leg” as I wanted. Intuitively, I knew to ask with the lighest aid, and release when the life came up. Intellectually, I’d have said that’s exactly what I had been doing. But when challenged to really put awareness to the task, I agreed I was releasing a second or two too late, and sometimes applying the leg out of sync with what I was getting from my horse.

The “less is more” philosophy, coupled with miscroscopic attention to timing, worked like a charm. Within 20 minutes, Chance was coasting in a ground-covering free walk, no reminder necessary. Such a tiny change in how I rode him, producing such a big change in how he rode.

If sombebody related this example to me before the clinic, I’d have thought, “Big deal, just good timing and proper aids.” That afternoon, I received a new picture of what “good timing” and “proper use” can mean.

Theme #3 – Do less to get more.

“I want the horse to pay attention to me, not to my tools”, Mark said. “That’s why all the tools you’ll see me use to train a horse are right there in that bag.”, he said, pointing to a duffel bag barely big enough for a trip to the gym. All we ever saw emerge from the bag was a plain web halter and a rope lunge line.

How do we get results without tools to make ourselves bigger, extend our reach, overcome our human frailties? By being aware of behaviors when they are very small, supporting and guiding the horse at that stage, and not allowing behaviors to escalate to where tools and gimmicks would seem to be the only way out.

How do we get away with doing less? By releasing more, and with better timing. For instance, Mark pointed out that one rider, when using a soft leading rein, kept contact on the rein even as the horse was turning. “If you keep pulling the rein when he’s starting to turn, he’ll start to brace.” Release when you get the response, or else you are breaking the trust.

He asked anouther rider how many times she tapped her horse to move past the gate. “Three times”, she said. “SEVEN times”, Mark responded. “He was telling you way back there that he understood you, but you couldn’t feel it because your legs were too busy.” Breaking the trust.

Mark’s sugggestion to hold the squeeze until the horse got livelier, then release immediately, was foreign to me. I’d been taught that squeezing makes a horse dull to leg, and a lively tap was more effective. Not so, according to Mark. “With a tap, tap, you’re rewarding him every time you take your leg off, rewarding him for doing the wrong thing. He learns from the release.”

Theme #4 – If you’re going to err, err on the side of helping the horse.

What to do about shying? The conventional dictum many of us were raised on was the need to have the horse face up to the object of his fear. Mark has a different take on it.

“Ten years ago, I’d ride through it”, Mark said to the owner of a spooky mare. “Now I’d more likely get off and walk her through it. Think about it: She’s screaming at you, ‘I’m really troubled’, and then do you want to drop her off the deep end anyway?”

Sometimes the best thing is to let it go. If you don’t make a big deal out of it, the horse is likely to figure it is no big deal. Granted, it’s not always necessary to dismount and lead the horse through the demons, but as Mark put it, “If you’re going to err, err on the side of helping him out.”

Theme #5 – Look at the whole horse.

With each horse brought before him, Mark looked beyond the obvious and explicit behavior, asking questions that provided a holistic context; questions about feed, management, related behaviors, medical history, and prior experience.

The questions were all part of troubleshooting, often yielding clues to behavioral problems. Of course, if we look at the big picture, there’s always the fear of getting the answers we don’t want, like “You’re to blame for this issue”, or “Find another job for which this horse is more physically suited.”

“Dont’ look for the solution, look for the cause”, Mark said. “When you find the cause, you’ll have your solution.”

Theme #6 – It’s not about doing battle; it’s about finding a way to get along.

“People make corrections like they really enjoy doing it”, Mark lamented. “You’re not supposed to like correcting him.”

Mark emphasized finding ways to help the horse to success, rather than setting him up to fail only to be corrected for it. “He just wants to get along, and we can help him find a place where we can get along.”

“You don’t want to be fighting with him”, Mark said to a rider whose horse was pushing through the bit during the walk-to-halt transition. What Mark considers to be a human fighting with the horse is what many/most folks would call the horse bracing against the human. Sense a different connotation here?

“The softer you’re getting, the less brace you’re getting from the horse”, he told one rider. “The arguments are going away because now we haven’t argued with him.”

It did seem that the less the riders did, the more their horses were open to being asked for more. The horse doesn’t shirk working with the human, just looks for a place where he can get along.

Theme #7 – There’s a difference betweeen riding ON the horse and riding WITH the horse.

Assemble all the prvious themes: timing, release, awareness, attitude, mutual respect, helping the horse, and you’re starting to ride with the horse rather than on him, by Mark’s definition.

It’s an intangible concept, but there are visible manifestations that convey the idea. For instance, it’s anticipating the downward transition and riding the first step of the new gait as it develops, rather than getting the downward transition and then adopting the body posture/rhythm of the new gait.

It’s having a clear vision of the response you’re seeking, and being absolutely consistent guiding the horse to that vision and appreciating him for reaching it. It’s seeking maximum softness in every interaction, on and off his back. It’s identifying the most subtle messaging between horse and human, and responding at a point when you can be very quiet, not waiting until the little messages become arguments.

It’s communicating with seat, wherever and whenever possible, following up with the hands only when necessary.

It’s looking for a mental connection with the horse, seeing where his mind is and responding to that rather than fixating on the physical. The ideal is a mutually respectful connection in which the horse is engaged in a two-way communication with the human.

Folks who want to quietly get along with their horses and offer their horses the best deal they can; folks who credit their horses as having value to bring to the “conversation”; those folks will find affirmation, new ideas, and a new level of awareness from the soft-spoken cowboy from Estes Park, Colorado.

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