Would you say that you have a friendship with your horse? And: would your horse say that too? Behavioral science is much further here than most horse owners and we can learn a lot from it. About misunderstandings and myths, due questions and opportunities around the relationship with our horse.
Imagine you have a good friend named Tina. You haven’t seen Tina in a while and invite her over for coffee and cake. Tina brings her newborn baby with her and hands it over carefully: “Would you like to hold her?” Of course you do. While the coffee is brewing, you scoot closely together on your kitchen bench, you look at each other and start bringing each other up to date on your life and all mutual subjects. Then you get up to get the homemade apple pie you made for the occasion. Tina is thrilled, loves it and asks you for the recipe. You spend a wonderful afternoon together and blissfully part ways in the evening with the good feeling that you have further strengthened your friendship.
What do you do to strengthen the bond with your horse?
Identifying as “horse people” we like to consider our horses our friends, too. What do you do to strengthen the bond with your horse? Being the humans that we are, we of course tend to do the very same things: We go up to the horse and pet it. If we want to be extra friendly, we may feed one or two extra treats or we prepare an extra delicious bowl of Sunday mash. We are looking to find the horse’s gaze and make eye contact. We touch it some more. We speak to it in a friendly manner. We “give him a day off” from time to time. We clean it extra thoroughly and maybe even try out this new massage technique that we have read about. We are working through our list of friendly acts as we know them. The thing is: horses are not humans. For horses, these gestures, with luck, are decently nice, with less luck, are uncomfortable and crowding. Because horses lead friendships very differently than humans.
Dr. Emily Kieson and Jessie Sams from the MiMer Center for horse-human education and research in Sweden have spent years researching how horses really feel in our care. What different types of training and handling feel like to them. And whether and how a friendship between horse and human can really be conducted – especially if other factors such as training and riding also play a role.
“Unlike dogs, we don’t usually think of horses primarily as companions, but rather as a partner or even ‘tool’ that we do something with: ‘What are you doing with your dog?’ hardly anyone would ask while the question ‘What are you doing with your horse?’ is perceived as normal”, says Kieson. And that’s the way it is: Most horses are “used” by us in a way – the focus is mostly on riding, training, the mutual tasks. The friendship that most riders would probably state that they’d want is welcome as a side effect but often has a stale aftertaste. Would Tina be your friend if the time you spent with one another are, in addition to many gestures that are not particularly meaningful to you (see above), primarily based on her telling you what to do? With your obedience (or let’s say: your “cooperativity”) being the condition for the “friendly” way of being around each other? If Tina were your boss, you might tolerate this as long as you are okay with quite traditional management techniques – but does Tina also become your friend acting this way …? And why should it be any different with horses?
It is time for us to learn to better interpret communication and attachment behavior, and to understand what role we want to play in our horses’ lives.
It is time for us to learn to better interpret communication and attachment behavior, and to understand what role we want to play in our horses’ lives. Fortunately, it is slowly seeping through in equestrian circles that we don’t have to be the horse’s “boss” in order to successfully handle them. However, as far as I know, hardly any rider knows that horses are completely oblivious to the hierarchical thinking that we put them under. Horses do not think in terms of dominance hierarchies or rank, there are no higher or lower ranked horses and there’s also no “boss” among them, to which everyone is subordinate. “Rather, herds of horses are a complex network of individuals and individually designed two-way relationships. In human care, rare resources also play a key role in observable behavior: space and food. There are horses that need more space around them than others – sometimes more than is available to them in total – and defend their space quite vehemently against most other horses. There are horses that are better at securing food and keeping others away from it. This creates behavior that may be interpreted as dominant. But it is not about hierarchies, not about the relationship of the horses to each other, not about character traits and about securing a status, but about current behavior and the scarce resource of feed, ” says Dr. Emily Kieson. “Leaders among horses, for example in unknown situations or new resources, become leaders because other horses follow them, because enough other horses consider them to be a good leader in the respective situation – not because they previously positioned themselves as leaders to have.”
The stress that we observe in the herds does not arise because “horses just are like that”, but from human management in the past or present. I know – letting these ideas marinate and looking at the behavior of our horses under this new filter feels a bit like we are deliberately trying to break our heads from the inside. At least, that’s how I felt after decades of seeing horse behavior differently. But what opportunities does it offer to get to know the depths of horse behavior?
So how do horses develop friendships? The individual two-way relationships in the herds form through time spent together, mutual observation and consistency in behavior towards one another. Each horse is a little different in its communication and behavior, so no pair of horses is like the other. Horses usually communicate with each other through their entire bodies and are masters of strategic positioning. Friendly horses often like to stand close to one another and move together. The mutual grooming (allogrooming), which we often interpret as a clear sign of horse friendships, is not necessarily part of every friendship. In addition, it is often observed after stressful situations, so that it can be assumed that it is indeed a stress reduction behavior that occurs more frequently in managed environments than in the wild.
Positive contact between horses, that with horses is always mutual, takes place only on the basis of trust and a common communication. If one horse goes out of contact, it ends. “Horses perceive very precisely how the other horses behave in their environment at all times and react accordingly. This also creates trust – they pay attention to one another and respond to each other, ” Jessie Sams states. One-sided touches are usually negative and very short-term. Under natural circumstances, horses use them in short instances to set boundaries – usually the horses understand quickly and permanently. Stressed horses and, for example, early weaned horses show this aggressive behavior much more often. Also important to consider: A horse would never touch or hunt a friend in a negative way.
And even with the apple pie we couldn’t really score if Tina were a horse – at least not really. “While friend horses like to share their space with each other, sharing food does not play a role in bonding behavior,” Jessie Sams says. No wonder: In the world out of which our horses come, there is plenty of food. Of course horses like to eat, especially when they are hungry (which they are more often than we tend to give them credit for). But they don’t combine the eating experience with the “giving hand”. “As soon as the taste is gone, so is the association with the feeding hand,” says Kieson, describing her somewhat sobering insights. So our horses actually don’t like us anymore if we feed them more. Too bad, actually. Or: Good. Because that means that we do not need food in order to be perceived by our horses as better friends. We can simply meet them for what we are: other beings on (mostly) friendly missions.
But how friendly is this mission in the horses’ eyes? “The answer to this question is quite complex – it varies from human-horse pair to human-horse pair and certainly also over time and in different situations,” says Jessie Sams. Basically, it is good to even ask yourself this question. To answer it you need not only knowledge of horse behavior and communication, but also observations of the respective horse in different situations.
When we watch horses we usually like to label their behavior right away. We interpret what we see according to our own tendencies as well as cultural and personal learning experiences. Yet the more we dig into the drawers that are already created in our minds in order to make sense of what we see, the less open we are to alternative interpretations. And therefore: To what’s actually happening. So: Just take some time and watch your horse, without wanting to interpret the behavior right away. How does the horse behave in different situations? What does it look like when it is tense, how does the behavior change once it relaxes again? What about other horses? And here, it is actually very enriching if you do not try to answer this question by means of an alleged ranking, but rather simply observe the horse in interaction with other horses. You will probably find that your horse behaves very differently towards some horses than towards others. And that the context plays an important role. What suggests a friendship and what an antipathy? Horse behavior is very nuanced and looks a little different in every herd and on every horse.
The better we get at understanding the quiet language of our horse’s movement, the deeper the dialogue with our horse can get.
If we know and can classify the range of behavior of the horse and know our own individual horse well, it is easier to read its behavior towards us. The better we get at understanding the quiet language of our horse’s movement, the deeper the dialogue with our horse can get. If we assume that horses build bonds over a lot of time and shared space, synchronous movements and – at some point – shared experiences: How can we shape everyday life with the horse so that the bond can deepen? How can you allow some “friendship time” beyond riding, in which we can really collect “friendship points” with our horse?
For us riders, this usually requires no less than to rethink almost all of our behaviour and thoughts about our horse: If we really want to focus on friendship, we have to practice letting go of our goals (at least for the moment). Get away from the desire to manipulate the horse’s behavior in any way and achieve a certain result. To remember and, even more difficult, to be willing to accept it when the horse says “no”. Spending unplanned time together.
And we have to ask ourselves honestly whether the training as we are currently doing it promotes friendship or is contrary to it. “Every training is behavioral manipulation. But not every training feels the same for the horse,” Jessie Sams says. To dig deeper here, it not only makes sense to learn about stress behavior and the different forms of stress, but also to break down my training technique and understand: When do I work with negative and when with positive reinforcement, for instance? Are there any truly relaxed phases? Situations in which the horse can (co-)decide? Are there moments of defense, flight or freezing? How does my horse behave in training? What does it really like, what less? How do I behave in the horse’s eyes? Are our touches mutual and positive or consistently very one-sided? When does it really feel like “softness”, an inner harmony between horse and human? And at what instant do I end the training situation?
All these questions can bring us closer to our horse, step by step. The more we become aware of what we do with the the animal, how we spend our time together, what experiences it makes with us and the better we know our individual horse, the easier it is to develop our relationship positively. Not overnight, but in a slow, rewarding process. All of this takes courage. Courage to admit that we may presently rely more on techniques and aids than on trust in our horse and our relationship with it. Courage to experience that not everything works like in the movies from the very start, no matter how much we think we already know about horses. Courage to recognize that we have not always acted like a friend to our horse in the past. But it brings us closer to our goal of having a real friendship with our horse. And isn’t that what we all got into this for in the first place?
This article was originally published in German in the magazine “Feine Hilfen”, issue no. 43. For the German version see here.
Never heard of Nahshon Cook? Don’t worry. I felt the same way merely a few weeks ago. Until I heard a podcast interview with him and knew: I need to bring a little bit of this human into our German-speaking horse world. Cool enough, he was totally up for my interview. And my impression was confirmed: I have seldom met someone who can express the fine interplay between horse and human in such beautiful and wise words as Nahshon Cook can. Have fun!
“What meets the eye is the last thing. Most people think it’s the first thing. But, what meets the eye is the last thing, for sure.
That said, I don’t like to make a practice of foreseeing the future too often. Instead, I just try to work with what is. I don’t really like to infer or speculate because I know enough to know what I don’t know, and there is still a lot that I don’t know. But, what I do know is that sometimes the lesson is in accepting that a horse is outside of my expectation of what I think he or she should be and that being enough.
For example: I have a horse, my young horse Remi, who is seven, who had really horrible trauma done to one of his ligaments in his back. He’s ridable, and I want to ride him, but he doesn’t want to be ridden and so I’m not going to. He’s cured. His body is good. But, mentally he’s not, and he may never be, and what do I do with that except understand that a healing can sometimes be very different than a cure.
So, the first part of it is just being open to whatever the answer may be outside of our desire of what we think it should be. The should is the expectation, and if we’re going in with an expectation, then we’re really not seeing with eyes that want to see what is to be seen.
And I hear what you’re saying, and I agree. I do know how to stay in that space. I live out of that space, and this is how: When I’m afraid, and doubts and negativity try to make me run away and hide from the world, I breathe as deeply as I’m able into my love for this life to be full of awareness and surrender so that I may have a clear enough mind to be present, a courageous enough heart to be vulnerable, and a simple enough faith to listen on purpose so that horses may continue to be my help along the way.
To keep it, you have to have the strength not to hold it, and allow it to come when you need it. If you’re always wanting what you had, you don’t get what you need. And each situation is so incredibly different because every horse guides us each in so many different ways.
Learning to trust this process is difficult. Most people want it so bad that they miss it. That’s where a lot of people have a lot of trouble: they want it so bad that they try too hard, instead of realizing that all they have to do is accept it. Help from horses isn’t something you go and get, it’s something you accept, and is only as real as we believe it to be.”
– Nahshon Cook on his Facebook Page, March 7, 2021.
Nahshon Cook is a horseman and poet from Colorado. His interview with Warwick Schiller recently brought him to new prominence: His texts, which he publishes mainly on Facebook, training reports and thoughts on life and the togetherness between horse and human, now reach and touch many people all over the world.
To expose his work to an even broader audience, after I first heard of and from him in those podcasts, I wrote to him right away and asked for an interview. It is very lucky that he agreed right away – for me, but also for all of us. His answers not only help to better understand him, his view of life and his work, they also provide the same underlying tune of universal truths and a deep wisdom that touched me in the interviews. They get us from thinking to feeling – and that is exactly what so many of us need and where our horses can use us best.
How great would it be if we could take a lot more of this view of life and horses with us, when it became more normal for us to have our horses teach us how to feel and thus also a different view of life. In them we have such great teachers in our lives – and yet sometimes it helps to look through someone else’s eyes to see it.
Ladies and gentleman, Nahshon Cook.
Interview mit Nahshon Cook
Nahshon, what makes a great horse person?
-For me, horsemanship means listening to horses, and working with them (as best we can) out of a space from which they feel safe enough to have a voice to teach us how they learn.
Which do you think is the most common mistake that humans make with horses?
-Not understanding that the energy of unconditional love creates trust.
What is the first thing you do when you meet a new horse; given that you have the time and space to do your thing?
-I offer them a treat, if I can. Food helps horses feel safe, and then I let them sniff me. After that, I ask them how I can help them.
What is it that fascinates you most about classical dressage and even the schools above the ground that you teach?
-I fell in love with classical dressage after reading about how masters like Egon von Niendorff and Nuno Oliveria healed horses, whose bodies and minds were broken, with the movements and school figures. The ability to use classical dressage as a tool to heal horses is why I practice. For me, classical dressage is medicine. I’m not as good as they were, but I hope to be some day.
What is the most recent thing you learned (about horses or in general) that amazed you?
-That my practice and work with horses, and the love therein, would be so interesting to so many different types of people.
What do you do when you find yourself struggling (to be at your best) with a horse?
-If they’re my personal horses, I won’t work them. I’ll hand walk them around the farm. If it’s a client’s horse, I do easy work. Maybe we’ll have an extra day of playing games, or a review of something super-easy for them… But, I won’t ride them. That said, and in all truth, I honestly don’t have many of those days.
Also, my horses are on a pretty balanced training schedule. They do dressage from the ground twice a week, pedestal work once a week, we have a games day once a week, and they are ridden twice a week. So, there’s a lot of room in our schedule to relax, and decompress, have fun. The diversity helps all of us be at our best for each other.
Which books do you recommend that may help horse people become better listeners and/or understanders of the horse?
-“Horse Brain Human Brain” By: Janet L. Jones is the most recent book that I’ve read and would suggest. I also enjoy Jutta Weimer’s book, “From Leading to Liberty” very much.
Do you have a vision for the horse world? Is there anything that worries you?
-People treat their horses better when they have inner-peace. How we care for our horses is a reflection of hearts. I’d like to help more people find inner-peace. The practice of being open to there always being a better way is a wonderful tool to help us strive to be the best we can for our horses.
“People treat their horses better when they have inner peace.”
I heard you say that you were led by a deep trust in life. How did you find that?
-My mom taught me how to trust my heart. My heart taught me how to trust life.
Do you have a personal practice of any kind, apart from your work with horses, that helps to Center you and “clear” your mind and heart? How do you relax?
-Yes, I exercise a lot. I love to write. I love to read, and have super-nerdy conversations with my boyfriend. I like to hangout with me mom, and my siblings, and my nieces. I also enjoy just sitting in silence. It helps me feel safe, the way hugs from my great grandma made me feel safe when I was a little boy.
Which would you say is the spiritual path that you are most drawn to?
-That question made me think of this quote: ”Well, while I’m here I’ll do the work — and what’s the work? To ease the pain of living. Everything else, drunken dumbshow.” ― Allen Ginsberg.
I’d like to think that this is the spiritual path that I’m on.
Which convictions, behaviors or habits, that you have integrated within the last few years, have improved your life the most?
-Well, to be quite honest, in the realm of my work, having my own space has been a wonderful thing. A horse’s opportunity to learn grows out of the care that they receive. I’m really happy that I have complete control over their routine, and that I can make life as positively predictable as possible for them. This has been key to the progress.
Where and when do you feel most connected?
-When I am present.
Who and what inspires you?
-Beautiful art. Being with horses—they teach me how to see.
What is your favorite word and why?
-Love is my favorite word. Love is big. The world is small.
What is your favorite view?
-Onward and upward and ever-forward.
Would you like to come to Germany again once it’s safe?
-I’d love to come to Germany again. It’s really beautiful there.
Thank you very much for this Interview, Nahshon. I’m so looking forward to hearing more from you soon.
Mark Rashid is known for his books like “Considering the horse”, “A good horse is never a bad color” and “Finding the missed path”. Communicating with horses has been his passion for almost his entire life. Luckily, because his ideas and visions have been shaping the horse industry for years. I talked to him about what separates horses and humans and their way toward unity. Also he told me, how the martial art of Aikido helps him to connect better to his horses. Enjoy the interview!
„Most horses want to learn and do what is asked. They simply want to be asked in a way they can understand. ”- Mark Rashid
Daniela Kämmerer (DK): … That’s a well-known quote of yours. How do we ask horses in a way they can understand. Or: How can we help them develop an understanding for what we ask of them?
Mark Rashid:The single most important thing we can do to help horses understand what we ask is to keep then out of their sympathetic nervous system while working with them. The sympathetic system triggers instinctual behavior such as fight, flight or freeze. When the horse becomes frightened or doesn’t feel safe for whatever reason, they will be triggered into acting in an instinctual way, and thus will be unable to learn.
Keeping the stress level to a minimum while working with horses can keep them in their para-sympathetic system which allows them to rest, digest and relax. Horses are much more capable of taking in and understanding information when they are in a relaxed and curious state of mind, rather than a concerned or worried state of mind.
DK: It’s the same with us, isn’t it? And still, there are so many stressful situations between horses and humans. You’ve been positioning yourself for a long time against the more traditional, dominant ways of training and have instead established the term “passive leadership”. What do you mean by that and how does that affect our own interactions with the horse? ?
Mark Rashid: One of the biggest problems in the horse world is, that humans want to learn how to be the “alpha horse”. I’m pretty sure that any horse can look at a person and be like “pffftt…. that is not a horse”. Also, the concept of leadership among horses is commonly misunderstood. Eines der größten Probleme im Pferdebereich ist, dass die Menschen lernen wollen, wie sie das „Alpha-Pferd“ sein können. Ich bin mir ziemlich sicher, dass jedes Pferd sich einen Menschen angucken kann und weiß, „Pffft, das ist kein Pferd.“ Außerdem wird der Begriff der Führung unter Pferden oft falsch verstanden.
“The concept of leadership among horses is commonly misunderstood.” – Mark Rashid
Herds of horses are controlled by two different dynamics. The first is herd dynamics in an actual wild herd. The second is the dynamic among our domesticated horses. I have been fortunate enough to work with and observe wild horses all over the world, and the herd dynamics are always the same: all horses are generally very calm, except during the breeding season. Because the main goal of a herd of horses is, as with any other animal species, reproduction. In addition, it is important for the horses to remain calm as they do not want to attract the attention of predators. That means unnecessary expenditure of energy and unnecessary movement are largely avoided.
The dynamics within the herds also always look similar. For example, let’s say we have a herd of one stallion and nine mares. Among these mares, three are high-ranking, three are in the middle of the ranking and three are low-ranking. The three at the top are usually born into this position because their mother mares had the same role, as did their grandmothers, etc., and their daughters will eventually take up pretty much the same place in the herd. At the lower end of the hierarchy, exactly the same thing happens: there are the lower three, and their foals will be born again as the lower three, and so
Most movement occurs among the middle three mares. These are usually mares that are relatively new to the herd, who may have been brought in by a stallion who has since left the herd (normally she would then go with him, but not always), and who are therefore not permanent Have space. Sometimes, not very often, there are arguments among the mares, which the stallion ends when they degenerate.
That said, these real hierarchical wrangles and fights that we humans often talk about don’t exist in a natural herd. Everyone knows their place as they are usually born into it. And if somebody does fight it is during the breeding season and then it’s usually the stallion.
In the wild, there is no reason to argue about food or water, because there is always enough for everyone. Actually, there is no real reason to argue about anything.
But when we look at domesticated herds, things look very different. In the vast majority of cases, herd dynamics are no longer about reproduction but about food. Because here there is usually a shortage, for example because we only feed at certain times during the day. And here you can watch the fighting: At feeding times, the horses start to chase each other away.
However, the “hunter” horse is oftentimes not one that boasts with self-confidence. Rather, it is often precisely this horse that loses its head when the rest of the herd is led away, that is easily frightened when riding, etc. But what we see is: He chases the other horses away, so he must be the boss. When in reality the opposite is true.
A large part of horse training is based on a misunderstanding of herd dynamics: that you have to be the alpha horse that pushes all the others around. In reality, horses are very different. Their natural state is calm.
And because their brain is different from ours, they cannot understand certain concepts that we take for granted. One of them is the concept of “respect”. You often hear people say “The horse has to respect me”. When in reality, it doesn’t even have the part of our brain that makes this form of abstract thinking possible. Our horses just don’t understand the concept of “respect”. And so there are some things that we try to do in horse training that just don’t work. The better we understand how horses work, the more empathy we can develop for their nature, the easier it will be to deal with them.
My friend Dr Steven Peters always says: “We try to communicate with the horse frontal lobe to frontal lobe but the problem is that horses don’t have a frontal lobe .” The frontal lobe (or prefrontal cortex, note DK) is the part of our brain that makes us human, in which our language center sits and the ability to think abstractly, which has allowed us to travel to the moon, etc. Horses just don’t have this part. If we are not aware of this, problems quickly arise.
(C) Crissi McDonald
DK: So we see the world through our human “filter” and miss certain parts. What do you think we can learn from the horses maybe also about communicating with each other?
Mark Rashid: I truly believe the amount of information horses have to offer humans is limitless and how much we learn depends on how open we stay.
DK: In your opinion, which qualities does a good horse person need? What „muscles“ do horse people need to strengthen to be a better person for my horse?
Mark Rashid: I’ve always been missing something in the horse world. The trainers I’ve watched often said some good things but I was missing something on a deeper level. This I found in Aikido. In Aikido, my teachers live what I have missed in many horse people. It is called “mizu no kokoro,” which means something like “a mind like still water”.
“In Aikido you are aiming for ‘a mind like still water”.”
When you look at a lake on a clear, early morning, you see a perfect reflection of the surroundings. If you throw small stones into the lake, they throw small waves and the picture becomes blurred. The goal of training in many Asian martial arts is to develop a mind that is like that calm, clear lake in the morning. Because when your mind is calm, you can see things for what they really are. Not blurry and not faded. When you understand how horses act as animals and you can actually see them as they are, with a calm mind, it helps communication immensely.
There are people who say “My horse bucked me off”, even though it is actually like this: Their horse bucked and they fell off. The horse did not “do” this to them. But we are often inclined to hold the horse responsible. The horse doesn’t do anything to us on purpose. Horses react directly to the way they are feeling at the moment, for them there is no separation between feeling and acting. If we ignore this, problems arise.
My martial arts training has significantly advanced my work with horses because it trains me to take on different perspectives. And of course it’s worth treating people the same way.
DK: So it’s not just about inner calm here but also about using our own unique “higher” capacities to think, right? To consciously expand (or fade out) the filter that we subconsciously use and use that ability to make deeper, more meaningful connections with other people and horses – instead of just reacting. How interesting, that you found this through martial arts, which many people tend to associate with Karate Kid and/or violence.
Mark Rashid: Yeah. In the end, both martial arts and horse training are all about inner peace. That is the goal. Translated, Aikido means “way of harmony”. Its founder, O Sensei, firmly believes that when we find inner peace, we can connect with the universe. In an attack, it’s not you is not being attacked but the universe. And the attacker is defeated before he even started because the universe is not defeatable. And that can be applied to any situation. It’s about staying calm and leaving your ego out of the picture.
“In martial arts aswell as in horse training, it’s all about inner peace.”
In relation to horses, it just helped me understand that sometimes horses just do what horses do without it having anything to do with me. I just take care of what I see in front of me and do it as calmly and “softly” as I can. And “as soft as I can” does not always mean “soft as I want to be” but it is as soft as I can be at the moment. When I am calm from within, I can turn the energy up or down as needed without my emotions getting involved.
DK: “Softness” ist ein weiterer Begriff, den du viel gebrauchst. Wie definierst du diesen?
Mark Rashid: To me, softness is an availability and effortlessness based on trust and understanding between us and our horses, or even us and other humans. Physical and/or emotional tension in us is one of the primary roadblocks that get in the way of that kind of softness being available in our horses. In fact, emotional tension almost always translates to physical tension, and any muscle we tighten when we are on the horse’s back will cause the horse to tighten the same muscle in their body. Because of that, developing softness in the horse will always boil down to both physical and emotional self control in the rider.
DK: What gets in the way? For example, what role does our own muscular or emotional tension play in this?
Mark Rashid: Emotional tension almost always translates to physical tension, and any muscle we tighten when we are on the horse’s back will cause the horse to tighten the same muscle in their body. Because of that, developing softness in the horse will always boil down to both physical and emotional self control in the rider.
Softness: An availability and effortlessness based on trust and understanding between us and our horses, or even us and other humans. The path towards softness leads through mindfulness as well as physical and emotional self control.
DK: That makes sense – but it also sounds difficult. What are you doing to get yourself and your horse “softer”?
Mark Rashid: I try to work on being soft all the time, not just when I am with my horses. It is my belief that true softness isn’t something that can be turned on and off. You either carry it with you all the time or you don’t. Developing that kind of self-softness takes time, patience and practice, not just with horses and other people, but also with ourselves.
DK: How have the many years of Aikido practice and working with horses changed the way you treat your own body? Do you have the feeling that the decisions you make for yourself, even when far away from the horses, have an impact on how you deal with them?
Mark Rashid:The more strength you try to use in Aikido, the easier it is to either get hurt, or hurt someone else. As a result, the serious practitioner quickly learns how to move with or become part of any given technique rather than fight it. Once that skill starts to develop, it is pretty easy for most practitioners to transfer it over into everyday life.
As far as the choices I make in everyday life affecting my horsemanship… The way I see it there is no separation between the two, my everyday life and my horsemanship are the same thing.
DK: That sounds very inspiring – and also efficient: You ‘just’ work on your horsemanship during every moment of your every day life. Still, is there anything you can do to prepare for your time with the horses? Any exercises or rituals?
Mark Rashid:When I first began training in Aikido, I found that anytime a test for promotions was coming up, I would always get very nervous before and during the test. Over time I began to realize my nervousness was coming from the fact that while I was learning the techniques, I wasn’t actually internalizing them. They weren’t part of me. I knew something had to change. My training needed to become part of who I was to the point where there was no separation between my training and the way I live my life. I needed to get serious about my training. So from then on, I began to train in every class I attended as if the class were a test. By the time my next test came around (and every test afterward) I felt confident enough in my skill and knowledge that I was able to easily moved through the tests without even the tiniest hint of nervousness.
This is how I practice my horsemanship. Each time I work with a horse I see it as me taking a test. To prepare for the test, I do everything in my life the same way that I want to be when I am around horses. Because of that, there is seldom any need for me to “set myself up right” before I go to my horse. It just happens.
(C) Crissi McDonald
DK: Let’s stay on subject of Aikido for a minute. You teach specific „Aikido for horsemen“ (Aibado) workshops. What similarities do you see between the two disciplines? Where do they intersect? And also, what’s more important: Technique or feel?
Mark Rashid: Well, both work better when you’re soft inside and out. Aikido techniques just work better when you are soft, and horses can somehow be moved without softness, but it just works better when you are soft.
“You can move horses without being soft, but it just works better if you are soft.” – Mark Rashid
Learning techniques is important, but not nearly as important as connecting. I’ve seen riders who haven’t learned any techniques but had a great connection with their horse and therefore it did everything for them. I’ve also seen riders who have ridden their entire lives and who pull, push and push on their horse. In Aikido, the techniques work either way, whether we hurt someone or not really depends on the softness. There are also such techniques where you end up looking in the same direction as your opponent, you see the world from their perspective. Aikido is primarily about finding a peaceful solution to a potentially dangerous situation. We often do the same thing when dealing with horses.
In Aikido I have observed that those who are really good also practice constantly. This is also a parallel to good horse people and riders.
DK: What does mindfulness have to do with all that?
Mark Rashid:Everything we’ve been discussing so far is all about being mindful. Mindfulness and self control.
DK: … and what breathing?
Mark Rashid: Always.
DK: Are there any differences between young, inexperienced horses and older, “ridden” or incorrectly trained horses? How do I know if my horse is one of the few who don’t want to cooperate?
Mark Rashid: The main difference between young, raw horses and older ones who may have had unfortunate experiences is that young horses have very little history with people, so they are almost like a blank canvas. Horses that have been trained in an unfortunate way bring this story with them. That said, we often have to find a way to make them feel better about their past before we can start any form of training or retraining.
DK: In your book “Finding the missed path” you differentiate between “problem horses” and horses that behave in a problematic way. What do you mean by that?
Mark Rashid: Most horse training is about finding a problem that we can solve instead of finding something good and building on it. I think it’s important to widen our view a little. Of course it helps to understand how horses think. Otherwise, the first thing I do when a horse behaves in a problematic manner is to rule out physical causes: the body, the teeth, the hooves, the equipment, etc.
And then I find it important to understand that it’s not a dangerous horse that we’re dealing with but dangerous behaviour. Those are two different things. In all of my years of work, I may have seen a horse or two that were indeed dangerous horses. But I’ve seen a lot of dangerous behaviour.
The bird’s eye view is really worthwhile here: is it really the horse or is it the behaviour? Because if it’s just behaviour, you can deal with it. However, once we have put the “problem horse” label on a horse, it is very difficult to get it off.
This is often seen in horses that have had a difficult history. People carry this story around with them, “he used to be mistreated”. But he is not being mistreated today and we have to work with him today. If we work with him as if he were an abused horse, he will always be an abused horse. But if you work with him the way you want to work with him, you will be able to work with him that way. Even if we mean it well, it is always important to look at the situation from a distance.
Your story with your horse starts today. The history he brings is not part of your story. Because he doesn’t care about it, I think. We think all these thoughts, make up all these stories while the horse just thinks like, “Man, I wish I’d felt better.” When horses are not doing well, they just want to feel better. If we help them here, they will feel better and be better. Horses are like water, they always take the path of least resistance. When they don’t feel good, they just want to feel better and at some point they do indeed feel better.
When we don’t feel good, we feel “… really not good!” And then we have to tell someone about how unwell we feel. And then we might call our mom and tell her we’re not feeling well, we might join a group to discuss the problem and two years later we might still feel no better … Horses are not like that. When they’re not doing well, they just want to feel better. And when they get better, they feel better again. It’s good if we just do ourselves and the horse a favor and treat them the way we’d like them to feel, and see from there. It’s actually pretty simple.
DK: What role does the right choice of tools play?
Mark Rashid:The tools I use are usually limited to a saddle, bridle, halter, leadrope and from time to time a pair of driving lines. Over the years I have found one or more of these tools will allow me to communicate the ideas I’m hoping to get across in most situations with most horses.
DK: And what would recommend to get less dependent on them?
Mark Rashid: I think most people would be surprised at just how much they could accomplish using almost nothing. The best horse training tool people already possess is their mind and body. If they could learn how to control those two things, actual “physical” tools become less important.
“I think most people would be surprised at just how much they could accomplish using almost nothing.” – Mark Rashid
DK: In conclusion: What usually is it that most gets in the way between horse and rider? Is there anything that all us riders all need to change, like across the board?
Mark Rashid: Yeah, we’re doing too much. Too much help, too much pressure, too much leg, too much movement in the saddle. The horse has to compensate for all of this somehow, which makes learning difficult for him. Many riders use five aids to turn their horse when they just have to ask the horse to turn.
No matter where in the world I teach: One of the first things I practice with almost all riders is to do less. And you almost always immediately see a positive change in the horse.
As riders, we consistently do too much.
(C) Crissi McDonald
DK: Wow. Why do you think this “too much” is so widespread?
Mark Rashid: That’s how we learn. I’ve spoken to very reputable coaches about why they do what they do and the answer sounded like something out of a textbook. And when I’ve asked them what they do when all of this doesn’t work, they often say, “Well, then you have to do more of it.” Get louder, get bigger, get stronger. That’s how they’ve learned it.
And as long as what they’re doing is working well, few people feel the need to change anything. But I love getting better and better, so I keep practicing. My big goal is to have to apologize for as few things as possible at the end of life.
DK: What would you recommend to a well-meaning horse owner to find his or her way in the jungle of different horse trainers, ideas and methods?
Mark Rashid: I would like to use an analogy here. Let’s say we have a large block of wood. And we want to shape a globe out of it. So we’d probably knock off the corners first. We then changed the shape of the wood but also created new corners. So we hit these corners off again, again with the result that we have more corners than before. Every time we knock off the corners, we create new work for ourselves. The good thing about it, however, is that we’re slowly getting closer to our goal and we’re getting better and better at chopping wood.
We are all in the process somewhere. My recommendation is to start looking. When you feel like you are exactly where you want to be: Great. If you want to change something and get better: Search. What you are looking for doesn’t have to be found in the horse world. You can find it in archery, couple dance, yoga, or, like me, in martial arts. It can be anything that somehow brings body and mind together.
Find the principles that feel right to you and start acting on them. Then everything will be a lot easier. It’s not really about the techniques, it’s about finding and applying the right principles. And be honest with yourself and your horse.
“It’s not really about the techniques, it’s about finding and applying the right principles.”
If you take this into account, everything will gradually become clearer and you will continue to learn.
DK: What was the last thing you learned about horse-human communication, that really surprised you?
Mark Rashid: I don’t know if I’d say it surprised me, but the last thing I learned about horses that I found extremely beneficial when it comes to horse-human communication is horse brain chemistry and function from Dr. Steven Peters, author of the book, “Evidence Based Horsemanship.”
DK: What is your favorite “word” in either human language or in communication with horses?
Mark Rashid: My favorite word is “Hmmm.” It’s an involuntary response I have when I see either a horse or a horse and human do something I wasn’t expecting.
DK: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Mark Rashid: Just thank youfor thinking of me for your interview.
DK: How can we find you or learn more about your work?
What is this “yoga thing” and how can it work so extensively?
Yoga is good for riders. This rumor has been spreading slowly. But why exactly is that and how does yoga help to ensure a correct, balanced seat in the saddle, maybe even making us better people for our horses overall? Daniela Kämmerer takes a closer look at the topic for us.
Case Studies: How yoga helped riders to become better horse people
Brigitte has ridden all her life. She runs a riding school, she also teaches herself and regularly rides many of her school horses. Many would consider her a very good rider (even though not necessarily she herself). However, when she saw herself on horseback in a video after a long time of “just riding”, she was shocked: “My back is totally rounded, it looks terrible!”
Brigitte also started yoga last year, but for other reasons : To “calm down” – and because of her regular back pain. When she recently saw a riding video of herself again, she was relieved: the rounded shoulders were gone, she was sitting upright, stable and swinging loosely on the horse again, exactly as she would like it for her students.
However, her feeling had changed long before that visual proof: “I can straighten up much better, I am much freer in my chest and often feel like I am glued to the saddle and my horse even on one with a large trot.” Overall, she felt also more open, more relaxed, happier – and, most astonishingly, “hasn’t had a single day of back pain since her first yoga class”. What had happened there …?
Dorothy used to ride advanced dressage exercises with her mare, but for some time now and having had knee surgery, she’d had trouble riding her even along the fence of the arena. Nothing had been going the way it used to. “I had the feeling that she always pulled in on the left, and the more I worked against it, the worse it got. It was so frustrating.” Although she felt that something was off, she didn’t know how to help herself and her horse. With each ride, the frustration and paralyzing feeling of not being in control of her own body grew.
At some point, a stable colleague recommended a yoga class especially for riders. The exercises helped her to recognize which movements were difficult for her, which side is her own weaker side, and she learned to work with individual muscles in a more precise manner. On days when Dorothy felt focussed and balanced enough, she was soon able to ride her mare on a straight line again. In addition to the new body awareness, she has calmed down and she has realized that her body needs professional help to find balance again. A visit to the chiropractor diagnosed a very clear pelvic misalignment, which she is now slowly compensating for with the help of yoga exercises. She now has more fun with her horse weekly, the old lightness returns and with it the relief that the body can get used to strange things, but also can unlearn them again. And she had the exciting realization that she was able to help herself to a large extent.
Katharina is a dedicated, ambitious type of horsewoman and only wants the best for her horse. She trained her gelding herself and both are very well rehearsed. But like every horse-rider pair, these two had come up against limits, too. Katharina had often felt stressed and has had some physical blockages that kept getting in her way. For example, she hadn’t been able to breathe deeply, it felt like something was blocking her. Also, the circles she rode were rounder on one hand than on the other. The gallop they had completely excluded at first because her gelding hadn’t found his balance. And she hadn’t been able to touch him directly on the head for a while, but she had accepted that as a peculiarity of her horse. One day when she heard about a yoga class for riders, she decided to try again. She had attended a yoga class a few years ago, but decided that she was “just too inflexible” and “therefore not suitable for yoga”.
The original six-week course was repeatedly extended and became a permanent appointment for Katharina. She noticed that she was less dominated by the stress that she felt and that she felt more in her body. Between classes, she soon found more and more opportunities to incorporate yoga exercises into her everyday life. Success has been motivating her: Her breathing has become much deeper and her entire body has become more relaxed, calmer. Her circles are now even on both sides, because Katharina has learned to use her right leg as flexibly as her left. And the two are making great progress in the gallop as well. Not because Katharina is ambitiously dedicated to this goal, but because they both enjoy it. And: After a yoga lesson on “mindful touch”, she can now touch her gelding’s head again. She says that yoga has changed the relationship between her and her horse on all kinds of levels.
The riders described above do exist, they only have different names. They have in common that none of them have blamed their horse for the problems, which is great news for them! And that they have all learned to use yoga to change the situation for themselves and their horse for the better.
What is this “yoga thing” and how can it work so extensively?
It is so difficult for us riders to find the quietness in the mind, the presence and the physical relaxation in takes to be as equally soft, agile and strong in the saddle as we want to be. “Being human” all the time is a versatile and demanding task and becoming present and the best possible riders for our horses basically at the push of a button, is not that easy.
On a physical level, the cause of almost all typical problems with the rider’s seat is stiff hips and low body poise. In the opinion of many trainers, the most important skill of a rider is to be able to switch on and off, tense and let go, individual muscles – but also the mind.
And all of that is exactly what we practice in yoga. Yoga is a holistic philosophy that is over 2,000 years old. The physical exercises are just the tip of the iceberg. Rather, yoga wants no less than to connect body, mind and soul.
In yoga we become aware of our patterns and get the chance to create new, more useful ones. Head and body can get used to almost everything we continue to ask for, but can also unlearn it. In the controlled environment of the yoga mat we notice that we are in charge of our inner and outer posture. Little by little we learn to use our thoughts and our bodies more consciously and effectively – in everyday life and also around our horses.
We move and strengthen individual parts of the body, learn to target them and get out of our thinking mind. This quickly creates a better feel for our body – and its limits. Almost anyone who has tried yoga knows: After just a few yoga exercises, we often feel calmer and more centered. And in the long term, we become more agile and vigorous, tend to promote more healthy movement patterns and can apply the experience from yoga classes in everyday life aswell as in connection with our horses.
And that is exactly the “magical” experience that Brigitte, Dorothy and Katharina have had and continue to have. And which helps them to gradually become better and better people for their horses. No matter what was yesterday.
Which yoga exercises are particularly suitable for riders?
Almost every yoga exercise that we practice correctly and in alignment with our physical and emotional state can promote hip mobility, core stability and calmness in the head, and therefore: further develop the riding seat. Of course, the exercises have different focuses.
I recommend doing the following postures as a small series. Everything helps and has a holistic positive effect on the body and mind. Of course, individual exercises can also be used to reach different goals.
We pick the following objectives:
A: Becoming more relaxed
B: Sitting straight in turns (no sinking in the waist, no excessive rotation)
C: Sitting upright and soft (no rounded back, but also no excessive tilting of the pelvis, safe sitting out at a trot)
D: Finding quiet, long legs
Important: Perform each exercise slowly and consciously, in the rhythm of your own breathing. If an exercise causes pain, stop doing it! Yoga can be exhausting, but it should never hurt. If in doubt, ask your doctor before trying any exercise. And: If you need a break, take it. Always.
1. Seated breathing exercise
Aim: deepening of breathing, straightening of the spine and pelvis (A, C, D)
Find a comfortable seat. Allow your pelvis to find a neutral position. Sitting on a book, a folded blanket, etc. can help here.
Relax your shoulders, take your time to arrive.
Then imagine three balloons in your torso: one in your lower abdomen, one in your upper abdomen and one in your chest. Imagine their color and exact size. Inhale and first fill the lower balloon, then the middle, then the upper balloon with air. Exhale and empty the lower balloon first, then the middle and finally the upper balloon. Take 5-7 deep breaths like this and observe how the upper body widens in all directions. Let go of the picture and feel it.
x2. Cat-cow movement
Aim: Mobilizing the spine, promoting the connection of breath and movement (A)
Come to all fours. Inhale and hollow your back. To do this, tilt the pelvis forward, the head follows along. Exhale and tilt the pelvis backwards (up), pull the navel upwards towards the spine and round the entire back, like a scared cat. Start every movement with the conscious movement of the pelvis. Repeat a few times in the natural breathing rhythm.
2a. Variant for more strength and length
Aim: promoting length in the body, strength in the middle of the body, mobility of the spine (B, C, D)
On all fours, raise your left hand, stretch your arm forward. If you can, also raise your right leg, stretch your leg and flex your toes like you are pressing the foot on a wall behind you. Inhale a little more, and then exhale and lead your knees and elbows under your body to meet and round your back. Repeat, getting a little longer with each inhalation and with each exhalation pulling the belly button upwards towards the spine. Feel the movement of your pelvis. Change of sides.
2b. Variant for “softer” hands
Aim: stretching and stimulating the wrists, promoting communication via the reins, opening the shoulders (A, C)
On all fours, carefully turn your right hand outwards and all the way back, so that your wrist crease is parallel to the front of your mat (if you have one). Take small, then larger circles around your wrist with your upper body. Switch sides. Then repeat the exercise with both wrists. At the end keep both wrists twisted and buttocks towards your heels as far as you can. Stay here and breathe.
2c. Variant for the hips
Aim: More flexibility in the hip joints, stretching the lateral abdominal muscles (B, C, D)
On all fours, inhale and lift your right knee up to the side, like a peeing dog. Exhale and lower it, hovering briefly over the floor. Inhale again and lift your leg. At least 7-10 repetitions, then switch sides.
3. Crescent Pose
Aim: stretching and strengthening the hip flexors and anterior thigh muscles, the abdominal muscles and the back, opening the shoulders (B, C, D)
Take a deep lunge, your right foot is in front. Lower your left knee to the floor, put your fingertips on the floor, lengthen your torso. Press your feet down in the floor, so that you can lift your hands up and stretch the arms towards the sky. Turn your pinky fingers towards each other. Inhale and mentally pull the inner foot and the back knee together, so that your pelvis lifts up a little higher. Exhale and sink deeper into the front knee and lean back a little more if possible. Repeat these movements a few times following the rhythm of your breath, then stay low. The pelvis points forward, the inside of the left thigh wants topulls up. Find the point between too much and not enough stretch. Get out of the posture, go through the cat-cow movement (see above) and change sides.
4. Chair Pose
Aim: Strengthening the entire middle of the body, all leg muscles and joints, opening the shoulder joints, “power pose” (A, B, C, D)
Stand upright, feet hip-width apart. Extend your arms forward. Have your palms face each other, your shoulders remain relaxed and in. Bend your knees now and move your pelvis back as if you were sitting down on a chair. Breathe calmly and evenly, stay as relaxed as possible. Keep your body strong and softly pull the navel towards the spine with each exhale. Make sure your heels are on the floor, and your back is almost straight. For extra strength, make fists with your hands. If possible, pull your arms over your head. After a few breaths, push into your feet and straighten up with a flat back.
5. Wide-legged forward fold
Aim: stretching the back of the legs / inside / outside, straightening the upper body, calming the nervous system (A, C, D)
Take a wide stance. Put your hands on your hips, and have your elbows pull back slightly. Keep your back straight. Bend your knees slightly, exhale and lean forward. Let go of the head and neck, hands on the ground. Find a comfortable stretch in the thighs by bending the knees as much as it takes for you to feel good here.
5a. Variation with rotation
Aim: Stabilization of the pelvis, stretching the sides of the body, opening the shoulder (B, C, D)
From the wide-legged forward fold, but your left hand under your face, straighten your back. Extend your right arm up. Keep pelvis straight and distribute weight on both legs, bend one or both if necessary. Change of sides after a few breaths.
6. Side plank variation
Aim: stretching and strengthening the lateral abdominal muscles, strengthening the shoulder (B, C)
Lie on the side. With one elbow placed under your shoulder, press your forearm down into the floor. Bend your knees. Inhale, move your top arm forward and over your head. Exhale and move your arm back to your side, lowering the pelvis slightly. Inhale and lift your arm, move it forward and over your head, lifting your pelvis, exhale and lower back down, etc. The bottom shoulder remains active and shouldn’t collapse. 7-10 repetitions, then switch sides.
For a greater challenge: Stretch your legs, now lift your knees off the mat, place the outer edge of your feet on the floor and repeat the exercise.
7. Locust pose with arm variation
Aim: Strengthening the back and shoulders, stretching the shoulders, hip flexors and front thighs (C, D)
Lie on your belly. Put your arms in a “cactus position”: shoulders and elbows lined up, elbows bent, forearms pointing forward. Inhale and lift your head, sternum and arms, turn your thumbs up. Hold here and then exhale, stretch your arms forward. Inhale and pull shoulder blades towards each other. Exhale and stretch. Repeat a few times. Then lower your upper body down, put your hands under your forehead and wiggle your pelvis to remove any tension. Two more times. If your lower back is okay, raise your legs as well. Lie down and relax briefly after each run.
8. Piriformis Stretch
Aim: More mobility in the pelvis, loosening solid structures, also psychologically (A, C, D)
Lie on your back. Rest your feet just behind your butt. The spine is in its natural shape, the lower back lifting slightly off the floor (if necessary, tilt the pelvis gently forward). Place your right ankle over your left thigh, flex your feet. Here you should feel a stretch around the right side of your pelvis. If necessary, gently push the right thigh away with your hand. Hold and breathe (for at least 30 seconds). Emphasize the exhalation and extend it conciously. Change sides. At the end pull both knees toward you and swing gently back and forth on your back a few times.
9. Alternate nostril breathing
Aim: deepening of breathing (immediate calming of the nervous system, reduction of stress), balancing the left and right hemispheres of the brain and body (A, B, C, D)
Find an upright, comfortable seat (see above). Raise your right hand, folding your index and middle finger in. Move your right hand to your nose, the left one gets to rest on your thigh or wherever it feels right. Place your thumb on the right nostril and your ring finger on the left. Exhale, close with the ring finger on the left and inhale on the right. Close with both fingers, hold your breath briefly, then open on the left and exhale, keep closed on the right.
Breathe in on the left, close. Hold your breath. Exhale through the right nostril. Inhale through the right side, close, hold. Exhale through the left, etc. Repeat for a few minutes while breathing. End with an exhalation through the right nostril. Feel the change for a moment before moving back into your day.
“Riding is the art of learning to be a good load to carry.”