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Understanding Softness – An Interview with Mark Rashid and Crissi McDonald

The following is a brief interview I was able to do with Mark Rashid and his wife, Crissi McDonald, over delicious Mexican food after the second day of their Aikido for Horsemanship clinic in North Carolina, in which I was a participant.

Mark Rashid is an internationally acclaimed horse trainer known for his ability to understand the horse’s point of view and solve difficult problems with communication rather than force.

Crissi McDonald is also an accomplished clinician, and has been an instructor and horse trainer for over 20 years. Crissi is also guided by the same principles of building trust, communication and seeking softness when working with and riding horses.


Mark Rashid and Crissi McDonald


Aikido is a Japanese martial art developed for practitioners to defend themselves from attack while also protecting their attacker. The word aikido is roughly translated as “the way of unifying with life energy” or “the way of the harmonious spirit”. The “techniques” or moves in aikido are always initiated from an attack by another person, whether that is a punch, a grab, or a strike with an object or weapon. Aikido has many parallels to riding and horsemanship because the moves are flowing and always initiated from one’s center. Also, softness (not pushing or muscular strength) is key for completing the techniques effectively, and developing feel and timing for the movement of one’s opponent or partner is critical.


Example of an aikido technique


Many other principles of aikido can be applied to riding and horsemanship, as Mark explained in the latter part of our interview.

I scribbled notes as quickly as I could while Mark and Crissi talked, then typed this up as soon as I arrived back in my hotel room. Some of their responses are direct quotes and others are paraphrased as best as I could recall them from the conversation and my notes.


Me: You refer a lot to “softness” – what is softness?

Mark: “Softness is an availability in the human and the horse.” It is when all options are available.

Me: Is there a difference between physical and mental or emotional softness?

Mark: They are different but you must have both to have one, it’s more of an internal softness.

Crissi: Softness is an “internal relaxation”, an openness. In today’s world, we don’t have that availability because we have a tightness within, worrying about bills, family, jobs or other stresses.

What we do (in an event such as the aikido clinic) is show what availability feels like. Softness is a choice, it’s not something you do. “It is a noun, not a verb.” It is a different way of living.


Me: Is horsemanship more art or more science?

Mark: It starts with art. Without a connection (with the horse), what good is the science? There is also a lot of faux science out there.

What the horse needs is what you should do. If you are too caught up in the science of it, then the one thing you could do to help the horse you won’t do.

Crissi: Science can also be used just to sell things. It can be used as clever marketing. A good question to ask before doing something would be, is it going to help the horse and I be closer?

Mark: A friend of ours lost both legs mid-thigh while serving in Afghanistan. He has a wonderful attitude and has taken up rowing. He’s very good at it – he won the bronze medal in the Para-Olympics.

I asked him what he does differently now, what has changed.

He told me that in everything he does he asks, “Is what I am doing going to make the boat go faster?”

For us, that question could be, “is what I am doing going to help this horse be ok?”


Me: If there is one thing you could tell your former self, what would it be?

Mark: Quit drinking sooner. There’s not a whole lot I would change, not sure I would have liked myself back then, but I’m pretty happy with how things are turning out. I also would say take more naps.


Me: What are the biggest parallels you find between aikido and horsemanship?

Mark: It only works well if you are soft inside and out. The techniques in aikido work better when you are soft, and we can make horses go along, but they will also work better when we are soft.

Learning technique is important but not as important as the connection. I have seen riders without much skill have a great connection with their horse and a horse that will do anything for them. I also see riders that have been riding all their life and they are pushing, pulling, and kicking at their horse.

In aikido, the techniques will work either way, but softness is the difference between hurting someone and not hurting them.

There are also techniques in aikido where you end up facing the same direction as your opponent, and you see the world from their perspective.

The main thing in aikido is about bringing a peaceful solution to a potentially dangerous situation. Many times we do the same thing in horsemanship.

I have noticed that in aikido, those that are really good at it practice it all the time. The same is true with good horseman and riders.

Thank you to Mark and Crissi for their time answering my questions and allowing me to share them here!

You learn more about Mark on his website:

Or learn more about Crissi here on her website:

Our aikido clinic class, January 2015

Our aikido clinic class, January 2015

What is one concept or new thought you could pull from this interview? For me, it is asking this question a lot more often –  “is what I am doing going to help this horse be ok?”

I look forward to your comments!







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