Philosophy | Mark Russell Natural Dressage

Philosophy

Mark believed that development of lightness and freedom of movement in the horse hinged on the confluence of many factors including a continuous awareness of self, maintaining connection with the horse, and removing blocks to create the free flow of energy throughout the horse.

Most importantly Mark emphasized that the single most important lesson in educating the horse was teaching the horse how to relax and how to access and maintain that state throughout each session.

Relaxation, a basic tenet of Art Form Dressage, is obtained through connectedness and trust as well as through teaching the horse to let go in both his mind and his body. Gymnasticizing exercises which are introduced to the relaxed horse teach him to comfortably flex the spine and open the joints; which in time supports the creation of strength and impulsion. Impulsion which is created through relaxation and flexion means that energy can flow freely from the haunch, up through the back, through the withers, and ultimately through the horse’s whole body.

In a relaxed state the horse’s postural (balancing) muscles are developed in addition to his global (thrust producing) muscles. As an additional ‘missing link’ in most riding approaches, development of the horse’s postural muscles is crucial as these tiny muscles enhance the horse’s proprioception and balance. Development of proprioception and balance helps alleviate anxiety by providing the horse with the tools to both move himself efficiently and to avoid injury. As a prey animal, the ability to move readily and efficiently is necessary for the horse’s survival. An out-of-balance horse is a worried horse and a horse prone to injury.

Art Form Dressage differs from today’s more commonly seen competitive style of dressage and in fact, any style of riding, due to its emphasis on relaxation as a near-constant training tool. The prioritization of relaxation opens channels of energy which the rider can then direct. Having first been taught to relax and release tension, the horse is more likely to respond correctly to an aid and hence the aids can become lighter and lighter. The resulting ride has a very different feel; fluid, free, and unobstructed by tension or physiological blocks.

Thus Art Form Dressage can be defined as a method of suppling and gymnasticizing both the postural muscles and global muscles of the horse to develop him in lightness with the inclusion of relaxation of the whole horse all of the time. With attention to how the horse uses his body and by addressing each area where he may hold even the smallest amount of physical or emotional tension, the horse is able to find a comfort zone for learning balanced, healthy, movement. The horse’s balance then is able to shift beneath the rider creating a freedom of movement which is experienced as the lightness which so many riders seek.

After residing in the world of Art Form Dressage Mark had delved into the world of Natural Horsemanship. He discovered many commonalities with Art Form Dressage; specifically their shared approach towards the horse with keeping the horse’s needs at the forefront. Natural Horsemanship has brought forth to the riding community the ideal of learning to speak horse’s language. Natural Horsemanship philosophies teach riders to recognize subtle messages from their horses and how their horses interpret their rider’s actions through the rider’s body language and energy. A development of self awareness, and especially self awareness in the presence of the horse is key; as is an openness to the energy and to the presence of the horse. Here begins connection and mutuality; responsiveness rather than reaction on the part of both the horse and the rider. Modulation of our selves through our body language, our thoughts, feelings, and our energy has made it possible to change the very nature of our equine relationships.

Along with emphasis on relaxation and the development of postural muscles, Art Form Dressage and Natural Horsemanship diverge in the gymnasticizing process; the alignment of the spine, impulsion, engagement, self carriage that Art Form Dressage creates. However; both entities should not be considered as mutually exclusive but rather should be seen as supportive of each other. In pursuing the Art of riding, the two cannot be separated and are inextricably intertwined together as they are responsible for developing the horse and the rider’s relationship with the horse.

Mark’s years of intense practice of Chi Gong and Tai Chi beginning in his 20s and continuing for his lifetime, had opened his being to connecting to all the energy around him.  For Mark, Tai Chi and Chi Gong had allowed him to delve deeply into the of the nature of the horse: connecting, understanding, and communicating with the horse. Horses by nature were naturally drawn to Mark and his quiet connected energy. Mark had always agreed that without mastery of our own selves, teaching the horse would become quite difficult if not impossible.

When all these qualities are all bound together, the “whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts”. For Mark, each path deepened the understanding of the other. This fluid combination is a wholistic approach which transcends mere mechanics and represents an approach to riding and training horses which was rarely seen in his time.

By incorporating constant awareness of self, connection with the horse, and maintaining relaxation while educating the horse; the lightness which eludes so many riders emerges. Mark passed on his depth of knowledge to all his students, allowing them to find the lightness and artistry they desire. Mark was unique indeed; his quiet energy, demeanor, wealth of knowledge, all expressed while he taught both horse and rider made him a popular clinician.