The Elusive Essence of How

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Susan at a schooling show in Amado, Arizona

By Susan Downs Parrish Ph.D.

Arthur Kottas is seen by many, if not most classical dressage riders, as an artist in the saddle. The former First Chief Rider of the Spanish Riding School wrote two books. In Kottas on Dressage, three statements make me smile:

·        Relax the lower part of your face, smile from the inside, and you will be able to relax more easily.

·        …hold the horse with your chest and belt.

·        The legs alone really do not make the horse go forward: the key to impulsion (forward thrust) is in the horse’s frame of mind.

The question is how to smile from the inside, hold the horse with chest and belt, and influence the horse’s frame of mind.

In Tucson, Arizona, on February 15, 2020, around 10:30 in the morning, Kottas’s statements came back to me as I listened to Mark Rashid. Mark, a tall, thin man wearing a cowboy hat and chaps, guided me through a one hour lesson. Arthur Kottas was the last person on my mind as I entered the ring and put myself and my FEI-level mare in the hands of this cowboy, but as I exited the ring, Kottas’s statements swirled in my head, and I smiled from the inside out.

Mark Rashid. Note: USDF strongly recommends all riders wear protective headgear when mounted.

This wasn’t my first experience with Mark Rashid. At the suggestion of a friend, I audited a day in his clinic in the spring of 2019, and was impressed enough to read two of his books and sign up for a private lesson when he returned in February of 2020. Signing up seemed reasonable at the time, but as February 14, 2020, approached, I wondered what possessed me to say yes to an hour of instruction from a cowboy. As a USDF Silver Medalist who is two scores away from earning a USDF Gold Medal, I am careful when it comes to instructors.

The day for my lesson arrived. Armed with an elaborate diagram (a concept map) of the German Training Scale, I entered the ring. Gerd Zuther, a reitlehrer, who used to manage the One-Hundred Day Stallion Performance Test in this country, helped me create the diagram in 2000. Imagine the six stages of the Scale plus concepts related to each stage. To me, the diagram represented Gerd’s vision of the Scale.

“I have this diagram because I figured you might ask me what I wanted to work on,” I said without hesitation or doubt.

 “I saw this by the ring and wondered what it was.” Mark held the foot and a half by two feet diagram with thirty-one concepts on it. “Okay, so what do you want to work on?”

“Well, I meant it as a joke, really,” I said. “If you look here…” I tapped on Contact (now known as Connection). “All the stuff preceding Contact, helps establish a connection to the horse, not really with the hands but with the whole body. And all this stuff up here is required for Grand Prix. What I need help with is getting her to work through the back and seek contact with the bit.” Then I pointed to durchlasigheit, and said, “When my dressage friends ask me what you helped me with, I can say, durchlasigheit. What else?”

“It doesn’t look like a joke to me.” He stood, put the diagram down, and walked to the center of the ring.

Following behind him, it occurred to me that I had just insulted the man who was going to direct me for the next hour—oy vey iz mir! Humbled, I gave him my full attention.

It isn’t possible to give a detailed account of what I learned during the hour. I was busy trying to grasp everything he said. It’s not that he talked fast or said things with which I had no familiarity: quite the opposite. He was soft spoken and so many things he mentioned were in the books I’ve read.

Note: USDF strongly recommends all riders wear protective headgear when mounted.

Although he didn’t use the term durchlasigheit, he talked about the circle of energy that flows from the hind quarters to the front of the horse and the importance of being through the back and not braced in the poll.  He related Maronda’s response to my aids to the tension he saw in my body. He offered ways to release the tension and encouraged me to pay more attention to what I was feeling so I could grasp what the mare was doing. He instructed me in the art of training a horse. I had studied and knew the mechanics of dressage. He took me beyond the mechanics.

Mark said that blinking worked for some people. By blinking, he meant to close the eyes long enough to see black: no fluttering. I tried it and noticed a greater focus on what I felt rather than on what I saw. It wasn’t until I tried the blink exercise at home that I experienced its power while working on piaffe. The result of the blink startled me. Oh yes, I felt every foot fall, but in addition, my mind’s eye saw the piaffe.

As the lesson progressed, I could see by Maronda’s ears that she was paying attention to my aids. We were in an unfamiliar setting, but she paid attention to me. What would she do at canter?

“May I canter?” I asked.

“Do whatever you want.”

Do whatever I want? Maybe these words had been said to me at some other time in my life, but the exact time or moment doesn’t occur to me. He had to say it several other times before it sank in. Each time he said it, he looked at me with a slight smile and soft eyes. He had my number and knew it. We both knew it.

As with most dressage queens, I don’t consider myself pushy or difficult, but on this day, I looked the part: dressed in black seated breeches on an elegant dark brown mare that is in every way a true diva. With permission, I asked Maronda to canter. Her departure from a walk was impeccable—not one trot step. We crossed the diagonal and performed one flying change—again, impeccable. I have a passion for this mare. Mark loves horses; I knew he would appreciate the willingness and obedience of this horse.

Because I wanted Mark’s opinion on every movement I could squeeze in, I asked if we could do piaffe and passage.

“Do whatever you want.”

Maronda performed piaffe from a walk and transitioned into passage. Keep in mind that this was without spurs and no use of a whip. After a few steps of passage, he urged me to move out of it. He wanted me to reward her and I did.

At the end of the hour, I asked him if he had written a book for people like me.

“Probably not,” he said, flashing a knowing smile.

“Well, why not? I need help.”

His response was not expected. “You don’t need anybody.”

Mark Rashid happens to be an exceptional teacher who really knows horses, and people. I never doubted that he is a gifted horseman, but I lacked the imagination to understand that he might have something—art to be exact—to offer an FEI-level dressage rider. I mentioned one example of what I took away from the clinic (blinking while doing piaffe) but there is so much more. Here are some of his suggestions:

·        The horse is your teacher; listen to what he tells you

·        Don’t tell the horse what not to do; tell him what to do

·        Harmonize with the horse.

In my daily riding, I am paying closer attention to Maronda’s responses to my aids and working to harmonize with her movement. Mark made it clear that mechanics don’t automatically translate into art. I thought that by paying close attention to the mechanics of movements, I could achieve art. No way!

One of Mark’s senior students, Gray Kyle Graves, offered follow-up lessons to students in the clinic. I had one lesson from Gray to help me grasp Mark’s words. Once again, Maronda produced energetic, but relaxed passage steps. She also performed engaged, collected canter pirouettes.

Good teachers empower their students, but not through unlimited praise or harsh criticism. Praise and criticism are easy to deliver and sometimes lead to dependency. Building confidence is an art. Mark let me know that no one was going to swoop in to rescue me. Monitoring my riding was up to me. Now I review my position and pay attention to the tension in my body as we perform shoulder-in, half-pass, piaffe, whatever. Attention to the feeling in my hands reminds me of Charles de Kunffy: “The horse should seek the bit but never arrive.” Mr. de Kunffy’s words are now associated with a wonderful sensation. This review of my body and its position is becoming part of every movement. The addition to my riding has produced a horse that listens to me more than she ever has and an increase in the amount of saliva that pours from her mouth. Thanks to Mark Rashid, I see a path to the USDF Gold Medal.

The most important thing I learned in the first lessons at the Spanish Riding School was that it does not count so much ‘what’ is done as ‘how’ it is done. As in any other sport, in riding it does not matter what kind of exercise the horse is executing but in what manner he performs it.

Alois Podhajsky, My Horses, My Teachers

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