This month's The Mirror column was written by Linda Eskin © 2010.
I originally came to Aikido to improve my riding and horsemanship. My big, young 1,400 pound horse, Rainy, and I had been through a few big spooks, spins, bolts, and bucks. It was getting to be a regular thing that my normally calm and unflappable horse would go from "a little worried" to "outta here" with little or no warning. Sometimes I could stay on, sometimes not.
From Aikido I hoped to gain specific skills. One cannot flop around in the saddle and hope to be an effective rider. I needed to improve my balance and core strength. When we can be secure and quiet in the saddle it's easier for the horse to carry us, and we can give clearer cues and aids. I wanted to be able to move fluidly with the horse's motion. And when all else failed, knowing how to fall safely could only be a good thing.
For those times when a ride might "get a little Western," I needed to learn to breathe, relax, stay present, and take effective, decisive action. Tensing up and holding one's breath are predictably ineffective ways to help one's horse through a scary experience. The horse can feel everything we do, and seemingly everything we think. They are amazingly perceptive animals. Their survival depends on being able to read the body language of their herdmates. When another horse raises its head from grazing and stops breathing to listen it could mean there are predators lurking. In an instant the entire herd could be running flat out. Last one to leave is lunch.
Maybe most important, I needed to learn to be a better leader, someone my horse could turn to for direction when situations got scary, instead of having to resort to that instinct to run for his life. I had been uke a little too often. I needed to work on being nage in the partnership, owning the energy between us and channeling it toward a mutually beneficial outcome.
Backyard Ukemi Practice
For most of my first year practicing Aikido I didn't do much with Rainy. He spent the year growing up, mowing the lawn, chasing the donkeys, and basically being a big spoiled pet. After a few false starts at getting back to working with him I finally hopped on to putter around the backyard on Christmas day. I got to put my ukemi skills into practice a few minutes later, doing a diving roll over his right shoulder into the rough trunk of a 50 year-old avocado tree. Rainy charged off to the far end of the yard and stood there, snorting back at whatever had startled him. Not quite the return to riding I'd hoped for. Instead, I came to the realization that I was essentially dealing with an untrained horse. It was time to take a different approach.
Putting New Practices into Action
Some of the things I have been learning from Aikido that can be applied to horsemanship are very basic practical matters: Find a capable teacher to guide you; train regularly; have a place to go and supportive people to practice with. With that in mind I arranged to move Rainy to the ranch of a friend who is a highly skilled and experienced horseperson. There I would be able to take regular lessons with her and work with Rainy consistently.
Now on weekend days and a couple of nights a week after Aikido I head up to our local mountains. We are starting over from the beginning, filling in the holes in Rainy's training and laying a foundation of trust that will help keep us both safe for the next twenty years or so that I hope we will have together. It's not been easy.
Feeling Like a Big Meanie
After our first few weeks at the ranch, Rainy and I participated in a three-day clinic with Kathleen Lindley. Kathleen is trainer who was essentially an uchi-deshi with the horse trainer who introduced me to Aikido, Mark Rashid. She traveled and trained with him for a year before going out on her own to help people like me make a better connection with their horses.
On the first day of the clinic, I was trying to be "nice" to Rainy. But Kathleen pointed out that being "nice" was how I'd arrived in this situation of having a poorly-trained, badly-mannered, dangerous horse who was going to hurt me if I didn't shape up. I was told to expect more of him, require that he pay attention, to be demanding in my requests, and quicker and stronger with corrections. I was too generous with praise. Once he had something down, I was to simply expect it of him without further positive reinforcement.
I felt it wasn't fair to suddenly jump from the permissive, undisciplined way I'd always worked with him into what seemed like a harsh, mean-spirited way of training. The first night, thinking back on the day's work, I wasn't very happy. I considered sitting out the rest of the clinic. But even I had to admit that with her coaching, unpleasant though it seemed, the change in Rainy that first day was huge. He had been pushy, getting "in my space" too much, and now was standing politely at the distance I specified. He had been ignoring my requests, mentally wandering off, and now was looking to me for direction. There was something to this new way of being around him that was worth exploring, even if wasn't comfortable with it. I resigned myself to giving the process a chance and seeing where it took us.
Being the Student
One of the fascinating aspects of Aikido training has been paying attention to my own experience of Sensei's teaching. I want to do it right! It's so hard to not understand, or to be on the verge of getting it and then lose it. I think I know what a horse must feel when we ask something of them that's unfamiliar or difficult. Rainy gets worried and upset when he's unsure. He gets in a hurry, or tries random behaviors that worked in other situations. Sometimes he just pitches a little fit, pawing at the ground or shaking his head as if he were cussing under his breath. I can relate to his frustration, and it is very difficult to see him struggle to find the answer.
A Realization About the Relationship
The next morning on my way to the ranch I was thinking about how uncomfortable I was with being so "mean" to my poor horse. But then I looked again at my experience of being a student. Sensei expects us to pay attention and try our best. He is direct in his instructions, and sometimes sharp in his corrections. While classes are light-hearted and friendly, we train hard. There are no hugs or pats on the back, no "Hooray for you! Great job!" A simple, rare "yes" is reward enough, and powerful motivation. What I realized, driving through the mountains that morning, was that in spite of this "harsh" treatment I do not despise my teacher. Quite the opposite; I admire and trust him, and work very hard for his approval.
This is just what we would hope our horses feel toward us. We want them to trust us, to rely on us. It is not important to them that we be tons of fun, or their best buddy. Horses are most comfortable with the security of knowing what is expected of them, in a herd, and with people. Being unclear, uncertain, or inconsistent with them leaves them floundering and stressed. When there is a strong, trustworthy leader the horse can relax and feel safe.
Sensei demonstrates in his teaching exactly what I should be doing with Rainy. He shows what to do, and then waits. We get lost, and he shows us again. We do it wrong, and he corrects us. He does this with patience and clarity, knowing that it takes time, giving us a well-bounded space in which to struggle with the question and to find the answer for ourselves.
Providing that clear direction for my horse has been challenging. I am learning to relate to him in a different way. I'm as clear as I know how to be, and then I wait. I'm patient, and show him again. I make a correction, and let him work through it. And he gets it. "Yes." He seems proud of himself, and looks to me for what to do next.
It finally occurred to me that I'd been looking for answers to the wrong question all along. Instead of learning how to be a better partner for my horse I see now that I need to become his teacher. That's what I'm learning to be, and Sensei is a great role model.
"The Mirror" is a collaborative column written by a group of women who describe themselves as:
We comprise mothers, spouses, scientists, artists, teachers, healers, and yes, of course, writers. We range in age from 30s through 50s, we are kyu ranked and yudansha and from various parts of the United States and styles of aikido. What we have in common is a love for budo that keeps it an integral part of our busy lives, both curiosity about and a commonsense approach to life and aikido, and an inveterate tendency to write about these explorations.