Last year at about this time I rode both Red and Pie in a 3-day one-on-one clinic with Mark. I couldn't ride in Mark's clinics this year due to the conflict with my daughter's college graduation, but the chance to have a private lesson came up and I jumped at it. Last year, Mark gave me two assignments - to work on developing my own style, not just imitating my teachers, and to ride all my horses the same - to present them with the same true me, from the inside, and to have in mind a consistent way of going and being for all my horses - the same feel, softness and connection - it isn't about the horses being clones or having exactly the same physical attributes or abilities, it's more about how we relate and work together and the feel and appearance this creates.
So that's what I've been doing this year, with Dawn, Red and Pie - riding, riding, riding and riding some more - 100s of rides - in search of my own style and way of riding all my horses. This spring, I began to feel things coming together - I've made some additional changes in my position and way of riding, and made some decisions on how I wanted to present myself to my horses and what I expect of them - I think this is what Mark meant by riding all my horses the same. It's all about consistency of expectations and feel. When I told Mark that my only lessons this year have been given to me by my horses, he said that they are my best teachers at this point, and that my riding had gotten better since he'd seen me this time last year.
I specifically asked for my lesson with Mark to be on a horse I've never ridden before - this would be a very good test of what my style is and how consistent I am in presenting myself to the horse - would I be able to ride another horse the same as I now ride Dawn, Red and Pie, and have the horse respond to that?
So off I went to Wisconsin . . . We lucked out on the weather - it's been rainy and storming on and off for days, but it was warm and sunny. Fortunately, their arena dries very well after rain and was in good shape.
Here's my horse - her name is Whisper - she was a rescue about a year ago and has been receiving training since then. She has learned the basics, but isn't a finished horse and is still fairly green - for example, she's done very little canter work so far and was described to me as having a "baby canter". She was very sweet and snugglable - isn't she pretty?
I just went about my riding, as if she were any of my horses, and Mark chimed in with advice from time to time. As we were walking, I immediately established the forward I wanted from her, and then made sure we had that from the first step in each halt/walk transition. (Mark: make sure you do what you want (say a walk/halt transition) inside yourself first then ask the horse to do it.) Whisper was a little bit heavy in my hands, so we did some backing to get a proper feel of each other going.
She started out very braced while backing, and although I was getting some good steps, getting it continuously was hard. Notice two things about this photo - her feet are stuck, and my elbows are sticking out.
Mark commented that I was asking her to back, giving her a release after each step and then having to start all over, and that I was carrying muscular tension in my arms. He told me to shorten my reins, which brought my arms and hands into a better position, and to give her a consistent soft spot to find by not moving my hands. Pretty soon, the backing was working pretty well, and as I tested it from time to time as we rode, it just got better and better. By the time we were done, she was backing just like Red, Pie and Dawn do - all I had to do was barely pick up the reins and feel "back" and she softly stepped back.
Walk work, once we had backing sorted, came together very quickly. I just kept asking her for the feel of what I wanted. We did lots and lots of turns and figures - just like I'd do with my own horses - until the softness was well established.
Turns are a good test of connection.
Trot work was next. She started by offering a shuffly trot but I wanted a better, forward, more engaged trot, and she was able to deliver, and the shuffly trot was gone for the rest of our ride. She's a little behind the vertical here but moving very well, and the head position stabilized itself pretty quickly as she moved better from behind.
She looks very nice here.
This is I think my favorite photo - my hands are soft, she's turning very nicely, stepping under herself behind as we turn, and I'm looking where we're going.
We struggled with our canter work for a bit, and it was all due to me. I started by asking her for too much self-carriage and softness in canter - she wasn't ready for that and I just needed to let her move and ask her to keep moving. I was doing too much to "help". And I had to keep breathing (Mark: if you're out of breath at all, you're not breathing properly and this blocks the horse's motion - breathe in for 4 seconds and out for 5 seconds no matter what you're doing.).
Things got better - they said this was the most canter work she'd done since they got her.
Here I'm just letting her move out.
This is a bit better - we're more relaxed.
We ended with some final, lovely, fluid sitting trot and beginning leg yield work - she hadn't done any lateral work to speak of before. In this trot picture, my pressure on the reins is just about zero - just a live connection.
In leg yield, all I was looking for was a step or two on each pass - just the slightest movement under and to the side. Mark had me do less and less - no pushing with my legs or leaning with my body - just present the thought of what you want - and although Whisper still wasn't entirely sure since she hadn't done this before, she did her best to respond and we got some nice steps before we were done.
Whisper is a good example of how horses go the way they are ridden - if I'm braced, or tight, or blocking, or not breathing, the horse will be braced, tight and not moving well. If I'm breathing, soft in my body, focused and presenting the horse what I want with my thought, and giving the horse a consistent soft place to find, the horse responds.
Mark asked how this all felt. I said that, once I got some things sorted out with his help, she rode just like my other horses - I had achieved my goal of riding all my horses the same - and he said "funny how that works."
I asked him what my assignment was for the year. He said, "less is more", in all aspects of my riding. He said that when your horse is struggling with something, it's almost always because you're doing too much. He also says that he thinks of using the core as just using your own core - not trying to "do" the bringing of your core to the horse's core or of getting the horse to connect. Just present the thought and feel of what you want and let the horse do the job of making the connection with you - horses are very good at this and this job belongs to the horse - if you offer the horse a consistent, soft place to be and let the horse find it this involves a lot less doing and lets the horse be part of the equation - it becomes a partnership rather than you doing something to or with the horse.
I am very grateful to Whisper - I told her frequently what a fine mare she is - and the folks at Black Star Farm and Mark for giving me this opportunity. I got just what I wanted out of my lesson - a lot can be accomplished in an hour, and now I have my assignment for the year.