February 27, 2015

Following a Feel: The Remarkable Mark Rashid

If you were to draw a line at the point in this blog that symbolized my most major horsemanship shift, this would be the place to draw it: right at my first clinic with Mark Rashid.

I’ve been reading and loving Mark’s books for years, and last year it suddenly occurred to me: I could study with him.

So I did.            

And wow.

There have been a lot of wow moments in my history with Lupin. In fact, my mind is kinda blown by the amount that I have been privileged to learn and grow with him over the years, and by all the amazing teachers we’ve had. But studying with Mark has been the Wowest of the Wows.

It’s not that Mark is some fancy hotshot who does jaw-dropping things with his horses. In fact he’s quite the opposite: he’s understated and quiet. And it’s not that he says so much that is so radically different from what other horsemen say, though certainly he does say a lot of fascinating things I haven’t heard before.

In fact, in a lot of fundamental ways his approach is very compatible with that of others in terms of its content. But the feel that’s behind it is, well—did I say this already?—wow.

Feel is a challenging thing to convey through words. It’s not designed to be talked about, but to be felt. But since words are what I’ve got, I’ll give it a go, and I’ll start with the feel coming from Mark that I experienced myself.

*   *   *

I actually met Mark for the first time at a demo he gave last year while I was in Florida. I was in the middle of my Horsenality/ Humanality course when I learned that Mark was just down the road. All I could make it to was the demo, but that was enough. That was all it took to make me absolutely determined to study with Mark. Here’s why:

Mark uses his demos to talk about the principles of the martial art of aikido—principles that he incorporates into his horsemanship. He gets auditors up and participating in pairs or groups, and he has us do exercises that are literally hands-on: he asks us, for example, to try to move someone by pushing them, and then to try again by starting, not with the idea of moving the other person, but with the idea that “we” are going to move.

It’s hard to believe without feeling it what a difference this makes. It puts your center of gravity and focus and everything else back in the center of you, and it dismantles the tendency to look at things (like other people and horses) as obstacles and problems. Indeed, it completely rewires our tendency to focus on what’s “wrong” and gets us to envision instead the positive outcome that we’re looking for.

This sounds like semantics, but it isn’t. And it isn’t just psychology either. It’s also physiology. You soften and relax, not only because you’re centered in yourself, but also because you’re no longer in a “me vs. them” mentality; instead, you’re doing things together with others. The brace in you melts, and that feeling travels through your hands into the other person, and even to the person beyond them if there’s a third, starting a chain reaction of irresistible relaxation.

When you’re on the receiving end of this process, the surprise is no longer how easy it suddenly becomes to initiate movement in others; the surprise is the sense of internal ease and happiness that floods through you out of the blue, leaving you smiling and a little stunned at how good it feels just to relax and go with.

And if you’re lucky enough to get to do a few exercises like this with Mark one-on-one, you will know that this is not just profound awesomeness, but game-changing, world-changing awesomeness. And I don’t just mean with horses.

*   *   *

My desire to learn as much as I could about this awesomeness led me back to the same clinic this year, this time with Lupin. I didn’t need the opening demo to get me fired up about being there, but it was fantastic all the same. 

Mark explained that when aikido works, you have a positive impact on the other person, even if they have an aggressive intention toward you. Your internal softness changes their outlook and intention, even as you send them tumbling to the mat (which, however, will feel good to them if you are doing aikido with real softness).

“How do you change the inside of you,” Mark asked, “so that you can affect your partner in a positive way?”

I got the answer during one of my lessons with Mark when he demonstrated feel on a rope to me. Holding the other end of the rope, he showed me how it feels when you lead with hardness (usually unconscious hardness that we might even think feels fairly soft), and then he showed me how it feels when you have the internal softness that comes from relaxation.
photo courtesy of Jeane DeVries

One moment I was standing there with my hand braced on a taut rope; the next moment, without any external change on Mark’s part or any movement of the rope, I felt my entire insides relax and I involuntarily let out a deep sigh. How do you change the inside of you so that you can affect your partner in a positive way? You soften inside, and you communicate that softness through feel, thereby creating softness in them. Amazing. And so beyond any concept of a “soft feel” that I’d ever even thought of, let alone experienced.

We’re not talking lightness here. We’re talking about a profound feeling of peace. That is the essence of softness.

*   *   *

Mark communicated this same sensation to me on the day of my first lesson in a different way.

I felt more at ease at the prospect of studying with Mark than I have with any other new instructor. I trusted him implicitly and knew with certainty that it would be a hugely positive experience before I ever even showed up with my horse.

Nonetheless, I still had a bit of the “first day of something new” jitters. We started out by chatting a bit about what I wanted to work on, and in doing so we touched on a topic that I have developed something of an emotional charge about: leadership. Decades of going back and forth between trying to do things peacefully and having others tell me that I’m not being assertive enough have wreaked some havoc in my brain around this topic and made me incredibly self-conscious about any apparent lack of “leadership” with my horse.

I could go on and on, which is, in fact, what my brain began doing as I talked to Mark. Though I was doing my best (and succeeding decently well) at keeping it together, I have no doubt that Mark could tell I was in a heightened emotional state. What he did about it was really impressive, and it was this: he did nothing.

Actually, that’s not true. I’ve been in that same scenario with other people who did nothing—people who, like Mark, just continued calmly talking with me until I settled back down and then carried on. But Mark did something more than that. I can’t tell you exactly how he did it, and I didn’t realize until later on that he had done it. It wasn’t just that he stayed calm. It was that he held a center of calmness that he waited for me to find, and when I did, I was at peace again.

It was the feeling of peace that let me know that Mark was doing something different. In that same scenario with other people the external trajectory would look the same, but as I got back to whatever we were working on, I wouldn’t return to it with a sense of peace. I would still be right on the verge of getting emotional again the next time I felt challenged. I might finally earn some hard-won peace by having a breakthrough with my horse or reaching a new understanding, but I would be exhausted by the process.

With Mark I felt just the opposite: I felt lighter and more peaceful with each lesson. There was no feeling of the weight of great learning at the end of the lessons—just a sense that something had shifted. But it wasn’t a shift I needed to analyze or work to keep. It was just a shift I needed to feel and continue to allow to happen. I have never felt less exhausted at the end of a clinic. In fact, I felt good.

photo courtesy of Bo Reich

That’s not to say that I moved into a zen bliss trance where nothing could bother me. Periodically another emotionally charged subject came up—our lack of motivation/impulsion. But again, this was charged for me because of my past experiences and perceptions, not because of Mark.

Indeed, it was Mark’s calm presence that gave me the space and tranquility to realize just how charged I had allowed the issue to become for me. Because my lessons with Mark were predominately peaceful spaces of finding a new kind of feel rather than chaotic spaces of processing information and trying to perform well, I could more easily recognize the baggage that I was carrying around when it showed up. And I could more easily let it go and move back to a peaceful state myself.

I imagine that this is also how horses feel around Mark. They may have histories that have created some emotional baggage for them, but when they get in that emotional space, Mark doesn’t make a big deal of it, or get them busy, or do a bunch of things to “fix” them. He just keeps his own calm, peaceful center and lets them find it.

It’s a remarkable thing to experience. And what is more remarkable is that Mark can teach it. Am I going to find every opportunity I can to learn it from him? You bet!

*Note*: To clarify, Mark is not a Parelli instructor. He does his own thing, and he writes delightful books about it. You can find all of them here. I have yet to read anything by him that wasn't fascinating and enjoyable, but if you're interested in the topic of this blog post, his newest book A Journey to Softness will blow your mind—in a calm, understated, and subtle way, of course!