Feature Article


Mark Rashid, One-on-One … on Passive Leadership

Virgil, who used to check out mentally when things got scary, shows interest in the saddle.

From the heart of Colorado comes a quiet horseman with true compassion for horses. His name is Mark Rashid (pronounced RASH-id) and his ideas differ somewhat from the common belief that man must be the alpha to have control over a horse. Mark's understanding of the horse coupled with his insight into a horse's behavior had sparked the interest of horse lovers everywhere, which launched him into a career of teaching horsemanship and led to the writing of three exceptional and helpful books, Considering the Horse, A Good Horse is Never A Bad Color, and Horses Never Lie. Each of these books are the kind that you just don't want to put down, and from which you will come away with a new perspective on how to view the horse and how the horse views us, as well as how we can influence the horse.

Passive Leadership

Mark is a well-known educator who trains and teaches horses and people at home in Estes Park, CO and travels to give horsemanship clinics, in which he has adopted a unique format - one-on-one sessions with the people and their horses. Just as unique is the concept of Passive Leadership, which Mark has found to be a most effective way to influence the horse, and which is at the heart of true horsemanship.

Mark explains, "There are two types of leaders in a herd situation - the alpha, or lead horse that rules by dominance, and the passive leader that leads by example. The passive leaders are usually chosen by other members of the herd and are followed willingly, while alphas use force to declare their place in the herd.

"Passive leaders are usually older horses somewhere in the middle of the herd's pecking order. They are quiet and consistent in their day-to-day behavior and don't appear to have much ambition to move up the 'alpha' ladder. As a result, there appears to be no reason for them to use force to continually declare their position in the herd. Alphas, on the other hand, are usually pretty far from being quiet and consistent in their behavior. They are often very pushy, sometimes going as far as using unprovoked attacks on subordinates for the simple reason of declaring their dominance. As a result of this behavior, the majority of the horses in the herd will actually avoid all contact with the alpha throughout the day."

Then it only makes sense that a horse would rather follow the human with the qualities of the passive leader instead of the alpha. A horse may respect and follow the lead of an alpha human, but would prefer to follow a passive leader.

How can we as humans be chosen leaders? Mark says that to start with, avoid using force. If the horse isn't performing the task we are asking, we can help him through it instead of trying to force him through it. Give him time to think about what is being asked of him, and allow him time to try and figure it out. Usually, given this time to think, he will try to do the right thing.

Second, we can simply take care of our horses - not just making sure that their food and water needs are met but also by doing what is best for them in all situations. For instance, don't allow somebody to work with them or ride them that will be hard on them, and if somebody is doing something you don't feel comfortable with, stop him from doing it - stand up for your horse.

Mark's one-on-one sessions help riders understand their horses and work through difficulties.

The Clinic - for the Horses and the People

Mark's clinics aren't just about learning for the horse, they are about learning for the owners as well.
Mark says, "Education is what you get when you listen to your horse. Experience is what you get when you don't."

During Mark's interactions with students and their horses, you can often hear him start out with, "Tell me about your horse." As the person answers, and rides or stands with the horse, Mark may be quietly assessing both horse and person, through observation and intuition. Mark talks to the rider, watches the rider with the horse, then determines how best to proceed. There is no set agenda; activities are determined on an individual, as-needed basis, and riders participate during each step of the learning process. Typically, horse and rider start out the first day working on ground issues in the round pen and then may move into the arena for that session or the following session for work under saddle. Riders work on anything from basic skills to barrel racing to flying lead changes.

At Mark's Horsemanship and Colt Starting clinic in Walkersville, MD in October, 2000, this soft-spoken man with an observant eye had four days worth of students and their horses, and many auditors, from various backgrounds, disciplines, and ranges of experience. It was interesting to see how Passive Leadership helped all of them - being consistent, reliable and fair, helping their horses through things rather than forcing, and considering the horses' point of view. There were visible improvements in the horses and handlers from one day to the next.

Mark offers different ways of looking at a situation, mostly from the horse's perspective. "The horse will do the things that she would normally do in a pasture, and will also do the things that she has been inadvertently 'taught' by people," explains Mark, "things that she thinks are right in her own mind." Many times people think a horse has 'an attitude' when actually it is just doing what it thinks is best, or right.

In helping horses and riders, Mark notices things that the typical observer doesn't. "There's a source of aggravation there; she's got a lot of worry," is one comment he made about a young mare. "'Either you're gonna help me or you aren't, and if you're gonna help me you're gonna have to help me all the time,' is the way I think she's seeing the world around her," Mark said. "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem; there's no gray area there for her." This horse was trying to communicate through her behavior that she needed more consistency from the person; she was not 'misbehaving'.

Mark also stands up for the horse. One student rode in and named about six things that the horse did that were troubling to the rider, and Mark quietly said, "OK, now tell me six GOOD things that your horse did today." Mark says, "It's more of an attitude than a technique. Find and reward the try, and give the horse the benefit of the doubt that he is trying to do the right thing."

The students learn by doing so they can apply their new skills at home.

Mark points out things we can't see and are unaware of about our own body position. To one person driving with long lines, he commented, "Notice that you're standing right there in front of her? She can't go anywhere." "That's it, now she's going." "Now you're backing up, and she's going to come into you - stay in one spot. Awareness of where YOU are and how your body position affects her movement is very important, so I'm going to show you what's happening with you and your horse, and some adjustments you can make." After some demonstrating by Mark and hands-on instruction for the person, things went fine. Mark will show or demonstrate something when needed, but typically the owner has the most interaction with the horse so he or she can go home knowing how to actually do the things learned.

When problem solving, Mark uses a straightforward, common-sense approach that guides the owner (and the horse) to discover the solution. This brings about better retention and has a deeper impact than just telling someone a solution. Mark enables the people to be more attentive to the horses and themselves, and therefore rarely needs to spell things out to them.

One seemingly quiet horse, who 'bucked occasionally' and had difficulty turning at times, walked in with a barely noticeable limp, and rather than just state it, Mark had a person walk alongside the horse and mirror the hind limbs' footfalls with her own. By watching the person's strides, it quickly became obvious to all that the horse was limping. Mark said, "A lot of times it's hard for us to see how the horse is walking. But if you put somebody alongside the horse to mirror the steps, it makes it pretty clear." Mark explained the horse's described actions as defensiveness due to pain or discomfort rather than behavior or training problems, and compassionately suggested getting the horse examined. The horse was not worked.

Education is what you get when you listen to your horse. Experience is what you get when you don't.

One rider, to whom it would have been tempting to just instruct, "move your legs back, sit this way…", was given clues by Mark on correcting his entire body position, upon which the leg came back to where it needed to be. This way Mark enabled the rider to find the position himself rather than just placing parts of his body in certain fixed positions.

Mark said about one troubled horse, "It's important to understand what the horse is going through, and help her understand. It's more important for the horse to understand what's going on than for someone to just saddle her up." If the horse doesn't understand what she is being asked, the person needs to be more clear in what he is asking. Being consistent and clear allows for better communication. Sometimes that means a stronger cue, and Mark cited examples for when and why that may be so. "There are situations where I would rather use a little more pressure one time to get the horse to understand than to do it over and over again and not have the horse understand it," says Mark.

However, if things start getting difficult or out of hand, Mark suggests taking a little time to think about it and start over, perhaps even quitting for the day. "Use whatever you need to make it right. I always prefer backing off instead of escalating. It's been my experience that, if you escalate pressure, your horse will be willing to escalate the undesired behavior. By backing off a little, it's easier to get back on the same page, or at least in the same book, and work from there." Mark added that learning should be complete; getting good at the basics is important. It doesn't make sense to go to second grade if one has not finished with first grade.

Keeping the horse's attention is important. Mark says, "Before you can do anything, you have to have their attention." When it starts to drift, we can make a sound or a movement to bring the attention back to us and keep them busy with their job. Says Mark, "Once you have it, you can usually keep it by doing very subtle things, but do what you need to do to keep it."

Heartbreaker is learning that it's not so bad to turn and go forward when asked.

Turning, stopping, going forward, and sometimes going backward was a problem for one young mare at the October clinic. She went where she wanted to and usually when she wanted to, even if it meant going through somebody. She also had the habit of stretching her front legs out and sinking way down to avoid going forward. Mark worked with the rider mounted for awhile, then the horse was worked on the ground with the long lines and halter. "Now THERE's a try," Mark said as the mare began to bend into the turn rather than leaning into it. Through consistency and relief from pressure when doing the right thing, the mare understood what was being requested and learned that it was not so bad after all to do what she was asked to do.

At the end of the sessions, Mark consistently asked, "Anything else you want to work on today?" and "Anybody have a question?" There were many intriguing questions, and Mark always had a horse-logical solution they could try.

Mark says, "Passive leaders have 'earned' that particular title with the other horses by showing them they can be dependable in their passive behavior from one day to the next. In other words, they lead by example, not by force.
This is the type of behavior that I try very hard to base my training on - leading by example, not force, and by being as consistent as possible from one day to the next. I guess when it gets right down to it, it's more of an attitude than a technique. It's being able to give the horses the benefit of the doubt that they will try and do things right for you, and not constantly reprimanding them for things done wrong."

A Mark Rashid clinic is the kind of clinic that gives you new eyes - not only eyes for subtleties and for finding the try, but also for a new perspective. One won't look at the horse and his actions the same way afterward. All participants and auditors leave the clinic with new ideas to work on at home, and with a newfound understanding of, and appreciation for, the horse.

For more information:
Mark Rashid Horse Training
PO Box 3241
Estes Park, CO 80517
866-577-9944 (toll free)

THE HORSE GATHERING - August 20-24 - Estes Park, CO
The primary goal of this horse conference is to expose students of all levels to a multi-disciplinary educational experience. All students will participate in the foundation lectures and demonstrations from each presenter.
The Horse Gathering is hosted by Mark Rashid Horse Training.