Whole Heart, Whole Horse by Mark Rashid

"Time spent with [horses] rekindles feelings that many of us [miss in daily life], but are longing to experience: to be seen, to feel we are heard, to connect." -Forward by Crissi McDonald. 

"Even the strongest things in nature have their weaknesses. And even the weakest things in nature have their strengths. It's a balance."

As humans I think we are constantly striving to find balance in our lives and to connect with something. That special, real connection we create with horses is often the nucleus to our passion for them. However on our way to building a bond with our equine partners we can run into so many issues, and nearly all them stem from unintentional miscommunication, and isn't communication the key to any relationship? Even more so for a species that speaks a different language altogether and has a different perspective on life than we do; horses are a precocial species which means they are relatively mature and mobile from birth, humans are the opposite, or altricial, which means we're born helpless. Finding that ability to communication with each other and that precious balance is what this book is all about. It was such a beautiful and fun read, and his perspective was such a refreshing approach to horsemanship! While you still have to respect John Lyons, Parelli, Clinton Anderson and the like for being the great clinicians and trainers they are ... move over "natural horsemanship" methods! Because Mark Rashid's approach is so much more real and just plain simple. His analogies through his story telling were wonderful; loved reading about The Black. Great, well written book!

"If we understand that horses can't separate the way they feel from the way they act, then we can start to see that unwanted behavior isn't bad behavior at all. More times than not it's just the horse expressing the way he feels at that particular moment in time." -Mark Rashid

Whole Heart, Whole Horse really shows the reader why we should not fear making a mistake with our horse. Why we should instead approach training and working with our horses as (always) an opportunity for growth and to learn from each other. Because if you learn something is it really a mistake?

This book was organized into three parts each encompassing a main topic that was broken down into subtopics within its chapters.  

  • Part One Perceptions
    • Mistakes; boundaries; trauma; and information.
  • Part Two Leadership
    • Speed, direction, destination; energy; and balance point.
  • Part Three Whole Horse
    • Consistency; dependability; trust; peace of mind; and softness.

The first part had some great insights into Rashid's philosophy and how it differed from "natural horsemanship" (or NH) methods. NH basically states that during training you make the wrong thing (or undesired behavior) difficult or uncomfortable for the horse to do and the right thing (or desired behavior) easy for the horse to do so as to encourage it. But through his experience it doesn't always work that way, nor work well because that concept is more about obedience than partnership. Sometimes a horse simply needs to expend excess energy because he cannot separate how he feels with how he acts or reacts; his physical expression is a direct correlation to his inner thoughts and feelings, a mirror for his emotions in real time. We need to be more aware of the whole picture and should not escalate a situation potentially causing further trauma. But it is not to say horses should get away with things either! Boundaries have to be set, but it is how and when you set and enforce them that truly matters.

Misu no kokoro means mind like still water, it is seeing something for what it is without distraction or distortion, a true reflection. As equestrians we need to practice this more often so as to not distort or be distracted by our horse's behavior and misinterpret what they tell us. Essentially a quiet mind will allow us to take in and process what our horse tells us through their body language and behavior. Then in a more true and correct manner that quiet mind will allow us a better response to the situation, if a response is even necessary.

The second part delved deeper into our part in the equestrian partnership and how we could better contribute to the communication and balance of our two member team. We do need to set the example. If we can better provide direction, focus and intent along with clear physical aides/cues and energy we can develop a better balance point for the partnership to thrive around. It is as much about a positive emotional state as it is a positive physical state of being for both horse and rider. Training is really about finding that balance and harmony; it will have ups and downs and that's OK, that's healthy and normal! 

The last part covered the horse and what he needs to truly be soft, and what softness is. You could ask a rider from every discipline what softness is and you'd get varied responses. Rashid define's softness as "the whole horse willingly available at all times no matter the circumstance, discipline, or breed." True softness is effortless, unlike lightness which is primarily technique based.

"Softness comes from inside and is technique, trust, conviction and feel that is exchanged between horse and rider and back again, it is a way to be, a conversation, not something to do."

A horse needs its rider to be consistent so that you become dependable. The more dependable you become to them, the more relaxed and at peace your horse becomes around you. They begin to trust you, then and only then can they become soft. 

"Once they trust you, they can start to feel at peace with you, and once they're at peace, they can be soft."

Whether you're riding for recreation or riding for competition this book has insights that are a must read. However if you do compete --synchronicity had this article by The Chronicle of the Horse blogger (and eventer) Matt Brown come up while reviewing this book -- I think with relation to horses we should also consider the competition aspect and how it can drive us in our training. Today it can sadly be more gamesmanship than sportsmanship. Either way we should practice more mindfulness and awareness of what we do and how we do it, and more importantly why and Rashid's book helps you do just that.   

Whole Heart, Whole Horse was one of those equine books that reaches in and touches you deeply. It was simple, yet so honest that it was hard to put down. As a fairly quick read, go get a copy today! No doubt more of his books will be reviewed in our blog!

Live. Love. Horses.