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Home > Columns > Paul Schweer > January, 2007 - Wherever We Need

Wherever We Need by Paul Schweer


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My memories of dogs and horses must be more my personal myth than how it really was. Couldn't have been we had a dog vicious to strangers that I rode like a horse. Or a horse that liked to bite. But that's what I remember. Part of it anyway.

We had collies. They were good with animals, and good with me. They stuck close to home and raised hell when something went on outside -- they were outside dogs, didn't come in the house. None of our animals seemed like pets; they were livestock or work animals. But the dogs were good company, even if none of them ever really took to me. I liked being around them, and they didn't seem to mind me, but they were Dad's dogs. And they knew it somehow. They moved when he did, were always where they should be, doing what he wanted. Without his telling them. That's what I remember about the dogs.

The horses were a different deal. Didn't matter who took to whom or who minded me, horses were a part of working with cattle; I was expected to be a horseman. So one day, when we had a little time, Dad and my big brother took me and the gentlest horse to a pen out by the barn. My brother held the reins and Dad put me in the saddle -- long way off the ground, is how I remember it. And when my brother started walking everything moved, twisted and rolled. Dad was talking to me, and my brother was watching, so it wasn't so bad. Until the horse stepped on one end of a curved metal spike -- that was Dad's guess anyway, for why I got taken for a ride. I didn't know anything about a spike. All I remember is holding on to the saddle horn with both hands, getting slammed around, then landing on the ground. I held on for a while before getting thrown; my brother held on too, and got tossed around pretty good. Dad didn't get mad like I thought he would, but I do remember his acting funny while he fetched another horse. And put me again up in the saddle.

Once I got a little older Dad brought home a young green-broke gelding. That horse was mine. He was a good size for me, and fairly gentle. Getting him ready to work cattle was my responsibility.

It became my after school routine. The bus would bring me home, and I'd go straight for the barn. Get him saddled up and get out there, while I had some daylight left. Nothing ambitious. Just a ride down the road. I didn't know anything to teach him. Didn't have, really, the faintest clue what I was doing. I was just trying to get him used to me, and me used to him. I needed to rely on him. We'd be expected to hold our end up. To move over rough ground, to push through brush, to keep up. I couldn't watch the cattle, or move us to where we needed to be, if I was worried he'd try to unload me every time he got spooked.

We'd go a little further each day. It would usually be uneventful, but sometimes it would get exciting; a rabbit jumping near his feet or somebody driving by us fast. Eventually we started going far enough down the road to cross the wood bridge. First time I don't think he saw it coming -- it was barely a bridge, really. No side rails or anything. It was mostly covered with dirt -- and he stepped on it in normal stride. And jumped straight back and then sideways. I held on, and waited until we had both settled down a little. Then took him back to the bridge. But he wouldn't cross. His foot would land on it and he'd jump back, turn away; I'd let him move a ways away from the bridge, then turn him around for another try. We did a few circles like that. And went home. Next few days, back to the bridge for a few circles, and back home. Eventually, once I figured out he would cross if I let him run across, we beat the bridge. But I had to let him do it his way. I had to let him go.

And that was the trick. If I gave him his head he would take us across. Or through. Or over. Wherever we needed to be.

Eventually we got to where we held our end up. Even though he probably wasn't much of a horse. Even though I was no horseman.

The herds we ran grew bigger every year. Biggest one I remember came from Florida. Some large-bodied red-haired breed that hadn't seen much of mankind before we got them, and weren't much interested in seeing us. Getting them moving wasn't hard. Getting them all moving in one direction, to the one corner of the pasture outfitted with guide fences and tall-paneled pens, was near impossible. I don't know how long we crisscrossed the landscape before it happened, but they did come together, pointed at the pens. All of them. In the open. Moving slow, for once. Moving where we wanted.

Before they broke and ran again.

I am no horseman. I know this because I've seen riders who don't ride -- there is a dance done, horses and cattle -- riders who blend in invisibly....

But there was that once. That time a red herd on a dead run refused to turn, and all I could do was give him his head. And watch the grassland fly by below. Feel the wind try to take my hat off -- near a part of something; near being a part of it. A large and living thing twisting, rolling -- powerful living things pressing together. Running away.

***

Every week I go see Terry. She runs the electric clippers over my head, rubs something soothing into my scalp with her hands. She talks a lot while she's cutting my hair, but not much to me. She's learned I'm not much of a talker.

Couple weeks ago she's telling the ladies in the shop about her son. He's having a bunch of tests, seeing a bunch of doctors. Nobody seems to know what's wrong with him. Or if he's going to be okay. She says she's starting to run out of ideas. She says it's getting scary.

"You've been around hospitals," she says to me. "What should I do?"

As if I have a clue. As if I might know more than teams of specialists. As if I could ever know what to say to a dying child's mother.

"Don't be afraid, Terry," I say. As if.

***

Pat has vertigo. I didn't know until I asked her one night on the mat, asked if she was okay. She couldn't do rolls for the longest time. Goes very slow now when she does do them. I don't know how she does them at all.

"I'm not ready for this test."

"You're okay," I said.

"I'm not where I was," Pat said, "two months ago. How can I be getting worse?"

"Vertigo coming back?"

"It's always bad in October," she said.

We were near the mat, other folks around us. Class had just ended. A few were still up on the mat practicing, helping each other prepare for testing. A few were on the floor folding their hakamas, talking through what we had covered in class. Pat wouldn't look at me.

"You'll do fine."

"I'm not where I should be."

"Where you are," I said, "is where you should be. You're here doing the best you can right now. That's what you always do. That's more than good enough."

That's all I knew to say.

The quiet back-and-forth continued on the mat. The soft sound of students sorting through lessons learned didn't die down. But Pat had her hand on a wall for support. And her head down, looking at a list of testing techniques. Not hearing the talk happening all around. Not seeing all of us there with her.


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