„We have to learn to understand our horses.“ – Interview with Mark Rashid

16.Aug 2020 | English

– This is the English version of the interview. Für die deutsche Fassung, klicke hier. –

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 you for thinking of me for your interview.

DK: How can we find you or learn more about your work?

Mark Rashid: We have a website, www.markrashid.com, and wel also have a Facebook page „Considering The Horse, Mark Rashid“ as well as an online classroom through Facebook: „Considering the Horse, Mark Rashid Classroom“.

Mark, thank you so much for this inspiring interview.

Über die Autorin

Daniela Kämmerer

Daniela Kämmerer

Horsemanship Coach, Yogalehrerin, Autorin

Daniela möchte Menschen und Pferden helfen, sich wohler in ihrer Haut zu fühlen und aufzublühen. Nicht zuletzt, da sie nur so auch gut füreinander sein können – und für ihre sonstige Umwelt.

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