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Sunday, 19 June 2016

This week, the horsemanship world lost a great teacher and horseman and I lost a friend

The news struck me fast and furious.  Mark Russell suffered a horse accident at a clinic a week ago and he was being flown to Boston, unconscious with serious neck injuries.  A quick exchange with his wife Hela who was waiting to fly to meet him left little doubt... We had to prepare to say goodbye.

A day later, Hela posted the sad inevitable news.  Mark was gone.  He died doing what he loved, pursuing his life's work - riding a young horse and teaching.  The horsemanship world and I have been mourning since.

You see, there has been a huge outpouring of love and sadness at this news.  Mark was widely appreciated and loved by his students and all who spent time with him.  How could they not love him?  He was wise, patient, incredibly giving, highly intelligent, generous and so knowledgeable.  He was an advocate of the horse.  He smiled and shared his wisdom and understanding with generosity and passion for the horse and the people who love them.

I could go on and on about his career, but they are many people in much better positions than I to do him justice.  I want to speak of the man, the friend that Mark was to me.

He started by being my farrier.  My young Lusitano Menina was quite particular about her front feet, and since my trimming skills were only budding, and no other professional was having much success with her, I happened upon Mark.  He showed up in his truck and trimmed her right in the parking lot without fuss or dust.  I instantly knew he was different.  She loved him.  She did not love everyone, especially when it came to holding her precious feet.  Little did I know that Mark and I would share as much as we did.  I did not know Hela then, they were not married and he had kept her to himself.  Every time he showed up at the Rhode Island farm where I worked, we would talk horses, especially young horses, as I learned to educate my spirited young filly.  He told me to 'get a deep seat and a far away look' as he tickled her right on the loins and she cabrioled on the spot!  I knew I had my hands full with this one. He knew what she was apt to do, and how great she could become, I accepted the lesson and the challenge.

Mark had not yet published his first book, Lessons in Lightness: The Art of Educating the Horse.  That was going to come soon after.  Only a small select group of people had seem him ride, and he was not yet doing much in the way of clinics.  He was self-effacing and never put himself forward, he was easy to miss. Unless you had an eye for horses and how they respond to humans.

Then suddenly, he was married to Hela and they moved to Tennessee!  I am not sure how that happened, it just happened.  I was getting out of Rhode Island and preparing to enter Parelli University hoping to become a Licensed Parelli Instructor.  My only riding horse was diagnosed with DSLD and had to be retired a few months before my move to Florida.  Menina was just a baby.  So Mark offered a horse - Easter - who is featured in his first book!  He said I could have her for however long I needed her to go through my training with the Parellis.  She had some baggage from a previous owner, and he only had a few hours on her, but, as he told me, 'she is tough as nails, very well bred and she is a good horse.  Take care of her and she will take care of you'.  He had liked how I handled and ridden the horses at the farm and thought we would be good together.  What a gift!

I drove to Tennessee with baby Menina in the trailer to pick up Easter, and spent a few days on the new farm.  This is when I got to know Hela.  Mark and I talked horses, Hela was adjusting to life on a farm. Mark gave me his book, signed it and wrote something about 'lightness'.  We talked some more, I helped with chores and I cooked for them.  The farm has an old plank barn on it, there was barbed wire everywhere, and the house was not even heated!  The only riding enclosure was a round pen, which I believe was Mark's playground for several years until he build an arena.  This is where we introduced Easter to Menina, and left them overnight to bond before I headed South.  They have been pair bonded to this day. Easter adopted Menina as a mother adopts a baby and they have been best friends ever since.

Several months later I returned to Tennessee with both horses and left them in Mark and Hela's care for a few weeks while I went home to visit family and sort out my life before returning to the Parelli campus, this time in Colorado for the summer months.  Once again, we shared stories, sat on the porch and I cooked for them.  Hela was adjusting, learning, still doubting, but faithfully doing her best.  She loved Mark and she was going to embrace the lifestyle.  I gathered my horses and I left for Colorado.  Throughout those first months with Parelli, I was learning to get to know Easter.  She had huge confidence issues, especially with riding, at least my riding! It took me a while to recognize it and I had to learn to earn her trust.  But what she did have, and I take no credit for it, was a deep understanding of contact and flexion, and a lightness to the bridle I had never felt before in my life.  She taught me what light could be, and I have since been able to take that feel to my other horses.  She taught me only because Mark taught her!  Her flexion started from way in the hind and carried on through to the hand and rider.  I was left with a big responsibility, and that was to preserve it! That horse was going to return to Mark, and I kept thinking, what if I 'break' her?  I remember a session riding with Karen Rohlf and Karen was explaining connection with the reins.  She took a feel of Easter's bridle on the ground, and with surprise, said 'Wow, that is light'.  It is all Mark's doing, I replied, I am just trying to keep it that way.

At the end of my year at Parelli, I returned Easter to Mark, hugely grateful for this wonderful mare and a fabulous gift of learning.  By then, we were doing most of the higher level tasks in the Parelli program, and Finesse was definitely our best savvy.  Mark liked what I did with her, he saw the bond we had developed, and he told me we had done well together and she had to be my horse... he would keep her until I could come back to give her a home. Six months later, we met in Connecticut and I took her home for good. Now 21, Easter is retired from riding due to old scarring in her legs from the damage done to her earlier in life and resulting arthritis, but I still play with her on the ground. She is a wonderful friend and partner, the lead mare in my small herd and a reminder of all I have accomplished in my journey.  Today she takes on a new aura as she carries Mark's memory and the full meaning of the gifts he left me before moving on.  Did I ever really thank him?

My last visit with Mark was at a clinic in Florida in 2014.  I still remember his smile and warm hug as we finally reconnected, and I spent the weekend watching him teach and ride.  We joked and reminisced about past days and mishaps, and I intently watched and listened as he shared his extensive knowledge.  I told him I thought I had finally learned enough to begin understanding what he was teaching!  He laughed at that.

At one point, he was riding a student's horse and no one was paying any attention to him or to what he was doing, least of all the owner.  The horse carried many physical and emotional scars from years of poor riding and handling, and Mark was softly and patiently working through the tensions to help him relax, find a better posture, soften, while explaining what he felt.  He did that so well, he knew how to restore a horse to health and comfort.

Later in the day, I asked him if it bothered him at all that everyone seemed so uninterested and disrespectful. He smiled and said 'I am here and this is what I do.  Not everyone is here to learn.  But you are here to learn.  So it is all good.'  What a lesson!  As a coach and teacher myself, how could I find that grounding and forgiveness in myself, and be able to be genuinely humble and loving in the presence of less than stellar students?  Knowing that we all have our own journey and that it is not be measured by who is doing what at the time.  Another gift.  I promised I would find a way to see him again.  Then life happened and I could not keep my promise.  Now he is gone.

Mark will remembered fondly and his beautiful spirit lives on. I will cherish Easter girl until she is ready to leave this world as one of the greatest gift I got from Mark. Without him and her I would not be where I am, I would not be the horsewoman I have become. They taught me a lot. I will cherish all my memories of times spent with Mark and Hela, in New England, in Tennessee, in Florida. Farewell Mark, we love you, we hope to make you proud as you watch from the heavens.

Hela is left with a farm full of animals and horses, medical bills, and the grief of losing a husband unexpectedly.  Mark Russell passionately, progressively and uncompromisingly worked to become a remarkable horseman. He was a teacher whose communication skills transcended the horse and made him a respected, sought after clinician worldwide. His work inspired horses and horse lovers, "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts".

The impact of his immediate loss to the horse world is profound, as is the hardship for his family that will be felt far into the future. We are coming together to show our support for a man who has changed the lives of so many of us forever. 

Because of all the generous donations, Hela and her friends will be able to keep producing more of Mark's work. That is a blessing. Thank you for everyone that has contributed so generously, and if you would like to contribute, but have not had a chance to do so, that would be wonderful!

If you would like to donate to this fund, click here.

You don't dance by forcing your partner into movements

Dressage should serve the horse, not the horse serve dressage

Sit on your horse like a champagne bubble

Any retraction of the reins leads to compression, not collection

Mark Russell

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