Life Lessons From A Horse

For legendary horseman and author Mark Rashid, the path of least resistance—in riding and in life—is about softness and understanding.

THE DUST SWIRLS and several dogs bound across the broad, square arena at Happy Dog Ranch, as nearly a dozen horseback riders pilot their mounts in patterns of their own choosing. Some circle. One walks her horse back and forth across a miniature wooden bridge. Another practices hooking and unhooking a rope suspended between two upright poles. She asks her horse to plant his front feet and swing his hind end around, which he does compliantly, and then she asks for the opposite—a half circle with his back legs still and his front legs doing the grapevine until he’s facing the other way.

In the center of the activity Mark Rashid sits atop a quiet chestnut horse. Dressed in a cotton button-down shirt, jeans and leather chaps, the horse trainer from Estes Park has a straw cowboy hat shading his face and sporty sunglasses shielding his eyes; it’s difficult to tell what he’s thinking, but his body language indicates patience. There’s no leaning in or pursing of lips to suggest scrutiny; his eyebrows aren’t furrowed.

Rashid turns his entire body as he watches the students, many of whom have traveled thousands of miles, across oceans even, to attend his 10-day Intensive Clinic at Happy Dog Ranch. It’s a no-pretense place, 53 flat acres of sage and scrub oak 20 miles south of downtown Denver where 40 rescue horses rub muzzles with a menagerie of other farm animals. The equestrians in the arena today are a motley bunch. Some wear tall leather riding boots with breeches tucked into them and ride in English saddles; some wear chaps. Others are simply in tight pants and low boots, a casual outfit that does not suggest the formality one might expect when taking a specialty clinic from a world-famous cowboy and horse whisperer.

One of the horses starts going fast. His trot jostles the rider on his back, and whatever she’s doing up there seems to make the horse scoot along even more quickly. She’s holding her breath, a crimson blush working up from her neck to her cheeks. The bouncing looks uncomfortable for both horse and rider.

“Put your hands down,” Rashid calls out. “You’re bumping him in the mouth. Hands down or forward.” It works. Just like that. The rider lowers her hands and moves them forward toward the animal’s neck, and the small gesture calms the horse, calms herself. The trot transforms from a jackhammer to a glide.

An hour later, that same student, Sue Hill from England, flops onto a leather couch in the parlor of the private residence of Bernadette Spillane, ranch owner and host of this intensive clinic. Several feet away is a dining room table overflowing with tabouli and falafel, pita bread and cucumber-and-tomato salad. All the students are staying here for the duration of the clinic, and meals are catered. But Sue’s tired after her morning, her mind and body whirring as she recounts what it’s

like to train with Rashid. This is her fourth riding clinic (she’s also taken four Aikido-only clinics with Rashid, all in Europe), and she’s absolutely certain there will be more. “Mark’s the best horseman in the world, but he wouldn’t let me say that,” she says. “He’s incredibly humble.”

He’s also famous enough to cultivate a loyal, international following—mainly of equestrians but also non-riders who soak up Rashid’s philosophy, encapsulated in his 13 books, hands-on clinics and practice of Aikido, an ancient marshal art that challenges the very idea of how to achieve success. And what, exactly, does Rashid preach? Passive leadership. Put simply, he wants people to stop trying so damn hard and to start listening. Communicate. Search for the most peaceful solution to any situation and get there with as little effort as possible.

“The goal is connection,” Rashid says as he eyes his students bobbing around one another in the arena. “I have two main messages: Don’t fight and be clear. If you can do those, that opens the door to everything else.”

At 59, Rashid’s had most of a lifetime to learn the art of Passive Leadership, though Walter, his original teacher, never called it that. Walter was a quiet cowboy who kept horses on a decrepit ranch a heart-thumping bike ride’s distance from Rashid’s childhood home in Wisconsin. When he was about 10, Rashid pedaled over to the ranch. He leaned into the barbed wire fence and let the horse on the other side shower him with hay-sweet breath. This went on for days. With one eye on the rattling ranch truck and another on the animals in the pasture, Rashid’s heart quickened in the presence of horses. When the inevitable happened and the old cowboy—Walter—caught him trespassing, Rashid had a choice. Stay or go. When he didn’t leave, Walter tossed him a pitchfork and pointed to a pile of manure. Many decades later, Rashid says it was a small price to pay for entry into the vast and ever-expanding horse world.

“Walter could do anything without raising his voice,” Rashid says. “He taught me to think about the internal when it came to horses. He never said that, ‘internal.’ He just showed me how to consider the horse in everything I do.”

With that foundation, Rashid headed west as a young man, landing in Colorado and working on cattle ranches. Rashid spent more time in the saddle than out of it, and soon enough people took notice of his ease on horseback. They wanted tips.

Rashid preaches only two things: Don’t fight and be clear. Here, he demonstrates a soft hand, relaxed seat and complete harmony between horse and rider.

Then they wanted lessons. Then they wanted him to work with their horses directly. It wasn’t that Rashid set out to become a horse trainer. It’s that horse training came to him.

“There are choices you make and opportunities that come out of those choices, and you either take them or you don’t,” he says. “I never worried about doing the right thing. I never second-guess myself because I always believe it’s going to work out.”

Anyone who’s ever thrown a leg over the saddle knows horses are unwieldy, strong, 1,000-plus pound creatures with spooky instincts and a proclivity for herd life. Getting them to obey cues, regardless of whether you’re roping calves or launching over fancy show jumps in a sandy arena, isn’t always a smooth enterprise. Except when Rashid is the one in the saddle—then it really is peaceful. This might be because when Rashid’s riding, he’s not asking for obedience.

“The Passive Leader isn’t aggressively going after things,” Rashid says. “They’re leading the horse by behavior.”

He’s telling me this in the arena at Happy Dog Ranch and his students, who are supposed to be working on whatever it is they decided in that morning’s group discussion, slow their horses to listen in. Even though this is what they’ve been discussing for days, they can’t get enough of his philosophy. They nod when Rashid says, “when we start looking at things as problems, they become problems.” When he explains that, “horses can muster a great amount of energy and most of us try to fight that energy,” Sue, the English woman, exclaims breathlessly, “Oh, isn’t that always the case?”

Not for Rashid. He begins to talk about herd dynamics and the alpha. Typically male, the alpha stands alone and drives the group with outward displays of force, getting his way mainly by fear. The other leader in the herd, generally though not always a female, is the alpha’s opposite. She’s in the middle of the group, trusted by the others who look to her for direction. She’s quiet but strong, avoids conflict and knows where to find the coldest streams and broadest shade.

“I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be with the group rather than all alone constantly keeping watch and being vigilant,” Rashid says.

In other words, he wants to be that passive leader, the confident and trustworthy cohort. That’s what horses crave most, and when they find a leader like that—in the herd or in their human—they’ll work in sync. In that partnership lies the magical bond between animals, the quiet connection that’s so strong you can’t tell where your body stops and the horse’s begins.

Just don’t ask Rashid about the actual technique for achieving that sublime state. Or go ahead and ask, but don’t expect a prescriptive answer. Sure, he knows a thing or two (which in cowboy parlance means he’s pretty much got his Ph.D. in “horse”), but his emphasis circles back to those original lessons from Walter. His insight—proffered generously and without judgment—lands more as a koan, the Zen Buddhist riddles given to students by their masters as a path toward enlightenment, than as didactic instruction.

Connection and communication are at the core of his approach. Sound familiar? It should. It’s a similar message to the one of yogis, meditation practitioners and martial arts instructors. Be a peaceful warrior. Be present. Be clear. These are important messages, especially today in an ever-connected world that can be fractious and divisive, so much so that even the most peaceful among us can become absolutely discombobulated.

“When we start looking at things as problems,” Rashid says, “they become problems.”

“Horses want to communicate on a subtle level,” Rashid says. “They’re like water looking for the path of least resistance. And if you can present that to them, more times than not they’ll take it.”

He goes a step further. “There are no problem horses,” he says. Problem riders? “Not really, just people who don’t know how to listen yet. But they can learn.”

More often than not, that’s the hardest part of his work. People, unlike horses or water, aren’t always looking for the easy way. Some are itching for a fight. Some want to feel in control. Some are anxious or insecure or worried about how other people perceive them. Some don’t even realize how they’re getting in their own way, and many will continue through life throwing up blockades and fuming when they get stuck. Many of those people are glass-half-empty types. And then there are those who discover Rashid and experience radical change in their lives.

“We’re like a tribe of like-minded folks,” says Texan Lissa Rabon, another student at the Happy Dog Ranch clinic. “I love his truth and authenticity. There are no gimmicks. Mark offers an opportunity to learn how to be one with the horse. He’s teaching a relationship.”

Mark Rashid comes from can-do stock. Before Mark was born, Jed Rashid was drafted by the New York Yankees. Shortly in advance of spring training, he had his tonsils removed. Training camp in Florida proved tough for the aspiring short stop. He “bled through” the entire time, dashing hopes of a professional baseball career. So the senior Rashid went on to play semi-pro baseball and softball. He also became a successful salesman who, according to his son, never regretted the pro career he never had.

Like his father, Rashid doesn’t give in to regrets. When asked, he can’t think of any mistakes he’s made in his nearly seven decades. Sure, he’s divorced. But he’s remarried to the love of his life. And then there’s his other careers—author, inspirational speaker, screenplay writer, movie maker, musician (Out of the Wild, a film based on his novel about an old cowboy and a troubled mustang, will make the rounds at film fests in late 2016/early 2017). This is a man who tries and is at peace and is comfortable in his success.

Rashid makes a great living traveling the world and encouraging aspiring students to soften. Even better, they respond positively. They change.

Left: Rashid is the author of 13 books about horsemanship as well as a novel, Out of the Wild, that’s now a movie making the film fest rounds. Right: Clinics always include instruction in Aikido, a martial art that emphasizes harmony.

At Happy Dog Ranch, most of the students ride school horses instead of their own. Part of this is practical—it’s hard to transport your horse from Austria, Germany or England, and the majority of students at this particular clinic are European. But beyond logistics, many of Rashid’s students ride strange (to them) horses because Rashid’s goal is to teach students to deepen their connection, and sometimes that’s easier to do when they don’t have preconceived notions about the horse they’re riding.

This particular clinic begins with a morning meeting where participants discuss what they’d like to work on for the day. Much of the conversations have to do with softening. Some mention overcoming a fear. Others are apprehensive that they’ll ask for something and not receive it. Although they’re speaking in the context of horses, it seems as though there’s a subtext. Take “horse” out of the conversation, and they’re essentially talking about what it means to be human. And Rashid wants to help them be the best human they can be, a goal he shares.

To accomplish that, afternoon sessions take place in the dojo. In addition to horses, Rashid is a second-degree black belt in Aikido, a martial art. Roughly translated, Aikido means “the way of harmony.” One does not go on offense in Aikido; instead she enters into a situation and directs it to the most peaceful solution possible. (Nonetheless, it is still a contact sport, and when asked if it’s physical, Rashid answers, “It’s martial art, not table tennis.”) Every day after lunch at the Happy Dog Ranch clinic, students change into their Aikido uniforms—loose-fitting white pants and top—and meet in the dojo, a transformed two-car garage with floor mats and filled with props like long poles. Rashid wears the same pants and top as his students, but wrapped around his waist is a black skirt-like apron. They are all barefoot. The students line up as they might in a formal class. They move in unison, following Rashid’s moves the way a herd of horses would follow their leader to the lee side of a hill. Sue, the British woman, stands firm, her feet planted on the dojo’s mats and a look of sheer concentration across her face. Moments earlier she contemplated skipping this afternoon’s session, begging off due to fatigue and a desire to process all she’s learned up to this point. But then she thought twice.

“It’s a real privilege to be here,” she says. “After all, it’s not just about the riding. It’s the companionship, the Aikido and learning together.” And so she’s donned her white pants and top, belted them, and is swaying in a continuous motion, seeking that point where soft and strong intersect. And she’s doing this, as she’s done with Rashid so many times before, because she’s striving for that elusive feel, one that lets her transcend the loud and brash signals from the world and find a much more peaceful equilibrium where physical cues are optional and mind-melding is the norm.

“What Mark teaches is more about feel than technique,” she says. “And if you’ve got the feel right, you’ve got a good connection. That’s when you get what you want with a mere thought.”

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