December 14, 2015

Softness Is Always the Answer

One of the things that most appeals to me about the art of Aikido is that it develops the ability to soften even – in fact, especially – when under attack. Softness disarms your enemy internally: it melts the brace that is inside him. And even if it doesn’t achieve this, it gives you some space to work because you are more fluid, and it allows you to be more powerful because you can use your energy more effectively when you’re not tense.

Until I learned about all of this, life seemed divided into two areas to me: times when you could be soft and peaceful, and times when peace wasn’t going to cut it and you had to fight. 

The idea that softness is the answer even in the most extreme and threatening situation was a game changer for me. If softness is the best answer when your life is at risk, then what reason can there possibly be for anything other than softness the rest of the time?

I guess I should be clear that being soft doesn’t mean being a pool of jello on the floor. It means that you are not tensed – in body, spirit, or mind – against what is happening.

Acceptance, releasing tension, and breathing are all components of softness, but it’s so much more than that. Most importantly, it is an attitude of opening yourself to others, looking for openings and opportunities to blend with others, and using joyful energy instead of strength.

Softness is dancing with life.

Generally I am predisposed to be tensed against life. If I feel bad physically, I tense against it, achieving nothing except escalating and prolonging the pain. If I feel tension in those around me, I tense in response, upping the tension one more level. If things aren’t going the way I want, I brace against them, trying to regain control, instead of flowing with them to find a new opening (which I can’t see because of my control-induced tunnel vision).

Now, however, I don’t just believe that softness is always the answer; I know it. I also know that softness is a practice – a practice of embodying that belief every day, of translating it into a physical reality inside yourself. It’s an alchemy waiting to happen in every moment that I choose to practice it.

I am far from mastering this practice, but now at least I know that life is divided, not into when softness is appropriate and when it's not, but merely into this: when I am practicing softness, and when I am not.

November 4, 2015

To Thine Own Self Be True

This past January (was it really only this past January??) my horse guru Mark Rashid shook my world a bit with his very simple advice: do what feels good.

Mark wasn’t advocating hedonism or following your bliss or any of that sort of thing. He merely proferred the suggestion that if we do what genuinely feels good inside us, it will probably feel good to others, and then look, there’s a whole bunch of us feeling good together.

A radical notion. Especially for one with a life-long habit of doing things the hard way, complicating things unnecessarily, stubbornly clinging to her own clearly ineffective methods, and thinking—rather than feeling—her way through life.

In the intervening months I’ve gotten a lot better at following the path that feels good. And I’ve generally found that when I do that, I’m still going where I both need and want to go—I just get there with a lot less drama, agonizing, analyzing, and head banging than I used to. And way less second-guessing and obsessing.

I’ve noticed, too, that how I feel gives me a lot of helpful advice about where I want to go. I used to think that feelings were just things that got in the way of where I wanted to go and that I should be able to tamp them down and carry on. Now I get that my feelings are probably much more valuable as information than my thoughts.

For instance, I’ve been to horse clinics with three different teachers this year. I enjoyed and learned something from each teacher. All of them were very engaging and had an interesting perspective to share. But when I started thinking about how I *felt* after each clinic, the difference was staggering.

After Mark’s clinics I felt calm and clear and as if the path in front of me was a simple and happy one. Perhaps not entirely easy, not without some difficult moments, but still peaceful in the way that moving forward in harmony with who you are gives you peace.

After the other two I felt excited at the hope that there might be a better answer out there than what I had found so far, but I also felt fairly cranked up about all the things I had been doing wrong, all the things I felt I had failed at. And even my successes in those clinics didn’t feel right to me, despite the fact that they got results. I didn’t realize this, though, until I stopped thinking about the ideas at the clinics (which sounded very good) and started thinking about how I felt as I responded to them.

I want to be clear that I’m not saying this to dis anyone in any way. I say this because it’s a fairly radical notion to me that my mental and emotional state tells me something about the influences around me rather than just being something that I need to sort out, dammit, so I can get on with what I’m trying to do.

I react differently to different people and different ideas, and that’s not a judgment on them or on me. What it is is information about the best way forward for me—the opening that I can move through with softness and peace, hopefully bringing that softness and peace to others as I go.

August 19, 2015

Finding an Opening

When I first met Mark Rashid a year and a half ago, he talked about creating openings. He said that horses are like water and will flow through whatever openings we create.

This image really struck me because of the beauty, ease, grace, and peace of it. I had gotten used to having fights with my horse, and I had been assuming that he wanted, not necessarily to have those fights, but at least to resist what I was asking. It was beyond refreshing to consider that there was an entirely different way and that, if I gave him the opportunity, my horse could be an entirely different (and happier) horse.

One hugely wonderful part of my 10-day course was learning more about openings. In the dojo, I learned not only to soften myself from the inside, but to allow a connection to happen that in turn allowed my partner and myself to move together with our insides connected. Opening myself like this became the first step, always, for finding and creating openings with the horses.

Masterson Method instructor Vicky Devlin
showing us how to help horses feel better.

The Masterson Method work, geared toward helping the horse release tension and allow his joints to be moved freely in a state of relaxation, then taught me how to look for openings in the horse. I learned to feel for where the horse *could* relax and to start there, instead of focusing on the area that I felt he needed to relax or on the technique that I was trying to do. Any place the horse was able to relax was the opening to creating more relaxation.

And this idea carried through to the riding too. If we focus on what the horse can't/won't/doesn't want to do, that generally means that we're focused on where the brace is, which means that movement is difficult and, if it does happen, filled with tension.

But if we focus on where the horse is already moving with ease, we can go through that opening together with him and build from there. That may mean turning left instead of right, or walking instead of trotting, or backing up instead of going forward. But what it means above all is being truly dedicated to listening to what the horse is telling us feels okay and blending with and building on that instead of pursuing our own agenda of what we think he should do.

This doesn't mean that we do whatever the horse wants. But it does mean that we let him tell us how we can get where we're trying to go instead of just pushing him into it.

The moment this really became clear for me was when I was working with Comet on backing. Comet tended to put his head down and brace defensively against going backward. Mark showed me how to lift his head to where he didn't have a brace and ask for a soft backwards from there, rather than continuing to focus on backing from the point where he was braced. And then Comet and I moved easily and beautifully backward.

Maybe if we want our horses to move like water, we need to be willing to have a little of the ability to flow to where there's an opening ourselves.

                                             * * *

On the last day I realized that looking for openings is my own opening to a better perspective. I tend to focus on what needs fixing, what still needs work, what we can't yet do. In short, I see only the negatives. And it's all well and good to say something like, "Focus on helping the horse relax," but it takes my critical brain only a nanosecond to turn that into, "My horse isn't relaxed!" And then we're right back to focusing on the negative.

If I am looking for openings, however, I don't have room to see negatives. If it isn't an opening, then I am simply moving on to what is one. There's no point in making judgments because I'm not interested in judging: I'm interested in finding.

And it's pretty amazing what you can find when you're not wrapped up in focusing on what isn't working. Among other things, Comet and I found a little bit of harmony and joy. And *that* is something worth building on.

August 13, 2015

On Goals and Struggle

I've spent a good deal of time over the past several years pursuing goals--willing myself into doing things, aspiring to do things better, etc. And boy are there a lot of people out there with strategies to help you change your life and achieve your goals.

Generally these strategies involve big money words like courage, determination, heart--and what all of that implies: struggle. And the people who are promoting them generally have lots of positive things to say about struggle and how it is healthy for us to do the work, face our fears, develop our emotional fitness, etc.

Before I go further, let me be clear: it is a hugely valuable thing to know how to persevere in challenging situations and extra bonus points to you if you have a good attitude while doing it.

But if this becomes our normal operating procedure for life--if we're always on some quest, always turning dreams into goals so we can chip nobly away at them--well, for one thing, that's not very much fun.

It's becoming clear to me that there's a much better way. Mark calls it doing what feels good.

Here's an example. As I was riding Gracie, I was having trouble with finding softness at the walk. Mark asked if any part of me was tense. Lo and behold my legs were, from a long-time habit of believing that I needed that tension in them to keep forward movement.

As our ride continued I had a choice. I could say to myself, "I need to change that habit and create a positive new pattern. I need to have constant vigilance on this and do it better." Or, I could just carry on riding and when things weren't going quite right, I could check in with how I felt inside. Could I feel better in myself? Why yes, I could let go of that tension. Which of course made things better with Gracie too. And then carry on.

A more mundane example is my late-night Facebook habit. I can set a goal of getting off FB and going to bed by a certain time and do all sorts of external things to make this more likely and then stay up anyway and berate myself for it. Or I could just pay attention to whether I feel good staying on FB when I'm exhausted and do what would feel much better: go to bed. But, of course, I have to be willing to listen to what my insides tell me and not over-ride them.

And this is true of larger dreams as well. At one point my goal was to do an externship with Parelli. But a big part of me wasn't having it. I thought I was being lazy and fearful about hauling my horse to Colorado and that I needed to get to work on my attitude and confronting my fears. But a friend finally helped me see that actually, I just didn't want to do it that much.

Conversely, at the end of one clinic, Mark thanked us all for making the effort to come to the clinic and all I could think was, "What effort?" I dreamed about studying with Mark for years and it is all I hoped it would be and more and all I feel at the prospect of going to a clinic with him is happiness. "Effort" in this context seems irrelevant.

Now, I'm not saying this to either bash Parelli or make a plug for Mark. Different things feel good to different people. I'm just saying that maybe, just maybe, doing what feels good is the answer. And dreams coming true might maybe should feel good most of the way through and not just at the end.

August 12, 2015

Feeling Good is the Reward

Mark has been talking a lot this week about our tendency to quit just as the horse softens. A lot of us have been taught to quit frequently as an antidote to the all-too-common tendency to just keep asking more and more of our horses: we are trying, by quitting, to give our horses a reward/release for doing what we ask.

But Mark has been showing us how little sense this makes from the horse's perspective. We ask them to soften and then we just kind of drop them. It would be like going up to a dance partner, smiling, getting in a nice comfortable frame with them and then stopping before you ever start dancing.

I think that that's the key right there. We are not thinking about our horse time as dancing. We are thinking about it as training.

And looked at from a training mentality, we are asking our horses to do things that are, on some level and to some degree, challenging for them. So we don't want to ask too much and we want to give them a big reward when they do it well. And those are both good things to bear in mind.

But what if, as Mark said of his border collie Ring, the reward is to do things with them?

It's true that if we just want our horses to "do stuff" and if we are doing things with our horses without softness and awareness it probably does feel like work to them and the only reward they'll be interested in is getting to quit. 

But if we really are thinking of our horses as dance partners--if we're interested above all in finding that space where we both feel good moving together--then why not, you know, dance?

July 20, 2015

A Few Musings on My Horsemanship "Journey"

If I've heard once that horsemanship is a journey, I've heard it 132 times.

Until this year, what that phrase meant to me was that horsemanship was like one of those mythological quest journeys, full of wonder and new worlds, yes, but also fraught with hardships, set-backs, and some seriously ugly monsters.

You manage to sail through the narrow strait with scary-ass perils on either side--hooray!--only to be blown back through it again because some moron decided to open the bag that contained all the winds.

This was the nature of my horsemanship journey for the past 14 years. It involved a lot of people telling me, "It's about the journey--not the destination," and me trying really hard not to be dispirited by the fact that there were a lot more monsters in my future and that I would spend the rest of my life, apparently, sailing into the wind. Happily, I guess, digging deep is my most fundamental, my most unfaltering skill. And boy did I get to use it a lot.

But all of that changed when I met Mark Rashid. Suddenly I realized, Hey! Vacations are journeys too. Why not let horsemanship be *that* kind of journey?

There's the same flash of new understanding on vacations, the same exhiliration of adventuring in unknown lands, but the difference is that we don't have to constantly remind ourselves that it's "about the journey" -- of course it's about the journey! That's the whole freaking point! To enjoy the trip!

With Mark, this is obvious, because studying with Mark is exactly like being on vacation. I feel all the mental burdens that I've placed on myself lighten. I move easily into the present moment and delight in being there. I feel how simple things can be when I just let them be. I pay attention to how I feel, and I do a lot more of what feels good. Things become easier, simpler, truer, and more clear. I go to sleep thinking about the amazingly cool vistas that opened up before me that day, and I wake up keen to experience more.

And the monsters and the winds? Funny how those things pretty much disappear when you're on vacation . . .

July 7, 2015

Just Breathe

One thing I've become really aware of since studying with Mark in February is how much I hold my breath (which is to say, how much I'm either not breathing or breathing very shallowly in the top of my chest). Basically, most of us walk around in a semi-adrenaline state all the time because of this tendency. Here are the reasons I can think of that we tend to hold our breath:

--We are actually fearful or on adrenaline. Sometimes we really are in a scary situation that demands action, though at *least* 80% of the time, I'd say, these fears are imagined responses to all the scary stuff we see in the news and in the movies and to our general culture of fear that tells us every day all the many different ways we might die.

--We are waiting for something. The original "holding your breath" phrase derives from the tendency to hold our breath whenever we're waiting for something to happen. This can be on a large scale, as in, "I'll relax when the semester's over, I've finished this project, etc. etc." or it can be on a tiny scale. I learned that we actually hold our breath when we take a bite of food because we're waiting to taste it and chew it. Since then, I've caught myself holding my breath while I'm waiting to start the car, say, once I have the idea that I'm going to do it. This goes beyond just living in the future in our minds: we are literally waiting to live (i.e., breathe) in the future.

--We are concentrating on something. Try learning a new physical skill, for instance, without holding your breath.

--We are braced against something, either physically or mentally, or, more likely, both. If there is something that we don't like or don't want to happen, we tend to clench up against it, which naturally restricts our breathing. So we’re getting less oxygen *and* a bunch of tight muscles.

It's gonna take awhile to change this habit, but I think it will be a huge piece of both getting more grounded/centered and actually being able to perform better, not to mention live more calmly, happily, and healthily. I'm starting just with awareness and reminding myself to breathe in a way that expands my lower rib cage in all directions and also to breathe out fully. (Mark: "Some of us have some breath left in there that we've been carrying around since 1967. I mean, that was a good year, but . . . ") Anyone who wants to chip in further suggestions, feel free!

July 3, 2015

The Limits of Strength

"In muscle there's strength, but in softness there's power." — Mark Rashid

You learn through aikido that strength is based in muscle, which means that you are only as strong as your muscles. But power comes from energy and transcends your physical strength. If you are using power rather than strength, advantages of size and weight are nullified.

The key here is softness because energy can only move through you when you are soft. When you are using your muscles with tension (which is what most of us do most of the time), you are actually blocking your energy and so reducing your overall ability to be effective. (Not to mention doing things in a way that is hard on your body.)

Another advantage of using energy instead of strength is that it eliminates resistance in others. If you are tense/braced, then others brace in response. (And rightly so because that’s when you’re likely to hurt them.) But if you are soft, they soften.

The difference became very clear to me in the dojo. When my partner used physical strength only, it had a completely different feel than when he used softness. Both moves resulted in my arm being twisted behind my back and the rest of me lowered to the floor, and both were effective in disabling me. But one felt good and one felt like something was about to break me. If you're going to achieve your goal--in this case to protect yourself--either way, why not pick the route that feels good to others? Aren’t they more likely to take a better perspective on things if they’re feeling better?

And obviously when we’re talking about horses we are only working against ourselves when we use strength instead of energy. A horse is stronger than we can ever dream of being. We get away with what we do in part because of leverage, but that only works up to a point. Mainly we get away with it because horses are beings looking for connection rather than a fight. I think a nice way to repay them for this is to stop fighting on our end and instead offer them a connection that feels good.

June 28, 2015

Not a Problem

Auditor: "But there's a right way and a wrong way."
Mark: "No, there's a right way and a *long* way."

One of the most refreshing things about Mark Rashid is that he doesn’t see problems. He sees how he would like things to be inside him and inside the horse and between the two of them, and then he does what he needs to do to communicate that to the horse. He doesn’t get lost in what the horse is doing.

Of course he’s aware of what the horse is doing, but that isn’t his focus, and he doesn’t see it—whatever it is—as a problem. Nor does he go to analyzing it or troubleshooting it. He just calmly stays with what he’s asking the horse to do. If the horse needs him to do something different, he will, but it won’t be a big deal.

Lots of people talk about looking for solutions instead of looking at problems, but Mark lives it. His mindset and the very words he chooses just don’t admit problems.

I will always have in my memory an image of Mark at a demo with a fairly substantial person holding onto his wrist and putting their entire effort and strength into holding Mark in one spot. Mark, however, was calmly walking around where he wanted while the person who was holding him strained and twisted and wound up off balance and in a mess.

Mark first explained and demonstrated that, when he thought about the fact that another person had his wrist, he literally couldn’t go anywhere. However, when he remembered that he had control of all the rest of his body and focused on that, he could move easily.

It was more than a mental trick. When our minds identify a problem, two things happen. First, in thinking of something as a problem, we tend to brace, which usually just makes us part of the problem. Second, when we focus on a problem, our minds go to where the problem is. When this happens, we have lost our center and therefore our ability to shape what happens next. We are off balance both emotionally and physically.

When we come back to our center, we are at our ground zero for both making decisions and moving our bodies, and we have, at that point, a lot of options.

Studying with Mark has made me realize how often my mind is out, not just finding problems, but hanging out with them, developing a nice cozy relationship with them, and quickly forgetting that there is any part of the world that is not a problem. If my horse does something—anything—that I didn’t ask for, my mind immediately lights up with, “Ooo, a problem!” And so derailment begins.

Obviously the first key here is that I am finding the behavior problematic. Labeling it a problem means that I am braced against it. I have also lost, not only my center, but my connection with my horse because my mind has disengaged with him in order to engage with the “problem.”

The second part of the deal is that, once my focus goes to the “problem,” that leaves exactly nobody focusing on the original plan. So we started out with my having one idea and the horse maybe having a different one, but now that I’m focusing on what he’s doing, then we're both having the horse's idea instead. And he wasn't necessarily all that married to his idea, but now that I'm over there in it with him, where else are we likely to go?

Here’s an example of what that looks like: I was working with a horse named Sebastian doing transitions from inside of me using just a change of energy. Sebastian would generally shift his energy in response to mine, but not always to the point of changing gait. So I would change my energy from, say, trot to walk, and Sebastian would change his noticeably but still be in the trot. At this point I tended to focus on the fact that he was still in the trot, which meant that my brain was where? On trotting. Which meant that we stayed doing what? Trotting. Mark explained that the key was for me not to get distracted by what Sebastian was doing but keep my idea and energy at the walk until he found it.

Once again, as always, this stuff applies way beyond horsemanship. Show of hands: how many people spend the majority of their time seeing and solving problems? (Those of us who are particularly advanced in this field have even been known to *create* problems from time to time.) What would life be like if, instead of letting our attention get sucked into the problems, we calmly carried on with a positive, happy focus on what we originally intended to do?

June 27, 2015

Feel It, Baby!

As I might have mentioned in my last post, basically what Mark teaches is how to live through feel rather than the mind. We all did this as kids, but then we started analyzing and looking for results instead of experiencing and, well, feeling.

I'm not talking about being in touch with your emotions here, though I'm sure that helps; I'm talking about having awareness and intentionality about what's going on in your body, what it takes to move your body, how you change your energy to do different things, etc., and then having awareness about those same things in the horse.

So much of the horsemanship out there is physical application of an external technique learned through the mind. It is mechanical in nature. And Mark will be the first to say that there's nothing wrong with that: technique, mechanics, and knowledge are important things.

But horses themselves don't operate like that. They are feeling creatures. They don't analyze; they just act and react. You're not going to be truly in harmony with them if you're using your mind instead of your feel. For one thing, you're always going to be at least a second or two late in everything you do. (And if you're an academic by training, you can add several more seconds if not some minutes onto that.)

This weekend I'm learning to let the inside of me talk to the inside of the horse and vice versa. We're having a conversation entirely through what we feel happening inside each other. Which sounds mystical, but it isn't: it's what happens if you pay attention to what's going on in the parts of you that aren't your brain. It's what happens if you stop analyzing and judging what your horse is doing and just feel what he's doing.

As it turns out, it feels pretty darn good to feel. And it feels even better if you have a horse under you to feel with. And at that point you don't have to think about being happy either, because that's just the way you feel when you feel.

February 27, 2015

Following a Feel: The Remarkable Mark Rashid

If you were to draw a line at the point in this blog that symbolized my most major horsemanship shift, this would be the place to draw it: right at my first clinic with Mark Rashid.

I’ve been reading and loving Mark’s books for years, and last year it suddenly occurred to me: I could study with him.

So I did.            

And wow.

There have been a lot of wow moments in my history with Lupin. In fact, my mind is kinda blown by the amount that I have been privileged to learn and grow with him over the years, and by all the amazing teachers we’ve had. But studying with Mark has been the Wowest of the Wows.

It’s not that Mark is some fancy hotshot who does jaw-dropping things with his horses. In fact he’s quite the opposite: he’s understated and quiet. And it’s not that he says so much that is so radically different from what other horsemen say, though certainly he does say a lot of fascinating things I haven’t heard before.

In fact, in a lot of fundamental ways his approach is very compatible with that of others in terms of its content. But the feel that’s behind it is, well—did I say this already?—wow.

Feel is a challenging thing to convey through words. It’s not designed to be talked about, but to be felt. But since words are what I’ve got, I’ll give it a go, and I’ll start with the feel coming from Mark that I experienced myself.

*   *   *

I actually met Mark for the first time at a demo he gave last year while I was in Florida. I was in the middle of my Horsenality/ Humanality course when I learned that Mark was just down the road. All I could make it to was the demo, but that was enough. That was all it took to make me absolutely determined to study with Mark. Here’s why:

Mark uses his demos to talk about the principles of the martial art of aikido—principles that he incorporates into his horsemanship. He gets auditors up and participating in pairs or groups, and he has us do exercises that are literally hands-on: he asks us, for example, to try to move someone by pushing them, and then to try again by starting, not with the idea of moving the other person, but with the idea that “we” are going to move.

It’s hard to believe without feeling it what a difference this makes. It puts your center of gravity and focus and everything else back in the center of you, and it dismantles the tendency to look at things (like other people and horses) as obstacles and problems. Indeed, it completely rewires our tendency to focus on what’s “wrong” and gets us to envision instead the positive outcome that we’re looking for.

This sounds like semantics, but it isn’t. And it isn’t just psychology either. It’s also physiology. You soften and relax, not only because you’re centered in yourself, but also because you’re no longer in a “me vs. them” mentality; instead, you’re doing things together with others. The brace in you melts, and that feeling travels through your hands into the other person, and even to the person beyond them if there’s a third, starting a chain reaction of irresistible relaxation.

When you’re on the receiving end of this process, the surprise is no longer how easy it suddenly becomes to initiate movement in others; the surprise is the sense of internal ease and happiness that floods through you out of the blue, leaving you smiling and a little stunned at how good it feels just to relax and go with.

And if you’re lucky enough to get to do a few exercises like this with Mark one-on-one, you will know that this is not just profound awesomeness, but game-changing, world-changing awesomeness. And I don’t just mean with horses.

*   *   *

My desire to learn as much as I could about this awesomeness led me back to the same clinic this year, this time with Lupin. I didn’t need the opening demo to get me fired up about being there, but it was fantastic all the same. 

Mark explained that when aikido works, you have a positive impact on the other person, even if they have an aggressive intention toward you. Your internal softness changes their outlook and intention, even as you send them tumbling to the mat (which, however, will feel good to them if you are doing aikido with real softness).

“How do you change the inside of you,” Mark asked, “so that you can affect your partner in a positive way?”

I got the answer during one of my lessons with Mark when he demonstrated feel on a rope to me. Holding the other end of the rope, he showed me how it feels when you lead with hardness (usually unconscious hardness that we might even think feels fairly soft), and then he showed me how it feels when you have the internal softness that comes from relaxation.
photo courtesy of Jeane DeVries

One moment I was standing there with my hand braced on a taut rope; the next moment, without any external change on Mark’s part or any movement of the rope, I felt my entire insides relax and I involuntarily let out a deep sigh. How do you change the inside of you so that you can affect your partner in a positive way? You soften inside, and you communicate that softness through feel, thereby creating softness in them. Amazing. And so beyond any concept of a “soft feel” that I’d ever even thought of, let alone experienced.

We’re not talking lightness here. We’re talking about a profound feeling of peace. That is the essence of softness.

*   *   *

Mark communicated this same sensation to me on the day of my first lesson in a different way.

I felt more at ease at the prospect of studying with Mark than I have with any other new instructor. I trusted him implicitly and knew with certainty that it would be a hugely positive experience before I ever even showed up with my horse.

Nonetheless, I still had a bit of the “first day of something new” jitters. We started out by chatting a bit about what I wanted to work on, and in doing so we touched on a topic that I have developed something of an emotional charge about: leadership. Decades of going back and forth between trying to do things peacefully and having others tell me that I’m not being assertive enough have wreaked some havoc in my brain around this topic and made me incredibly self-conscious about any apparent lack of “leadership” with my horse.

I could go on and on, which is, in fact, what my brain began doing as I talked to Mark. Though I was doing my best (and succeeding decently well) at keeping it together, I have no doubt that Mark could tell I was in a heightened emotional state. What he did about it was really impressive, and it was this: he did nothing.

Actually, that’s not true. I’ve been in that same scenario with other people who did nothing—people who, like Mark, just continued calmly talking with me until I settled back down and then carried on. But Mark did something more than that. I can’t tell you exactly how he did it, and I didn’t realize until later on that he had done it. It wasn’t just that he stayed calm. It was that he held a center of calmness that he waited for me to find, and when I did, I was at peace again.

It was the feeling of peace that let me know that Mark was doing something different. In that same scenario with other people the external trajectory would look the same, but as I got back to whatever we were working on, I wouldn’t return to it with a sense of peace. I would still be right on the verge of getting emotional again the next time I felt challenged. I might finally earn some hard-won peace by having a breakthrough with my horse or reaching a new understanding, but I would be exhausted by the process.

With Mark I felt just the opposite: I felt lighter and more peaceful with each lesson. There was no feeling of the weight of great learning at the end of the lessons—just a sense that something had shifted. But it wasn’t a shift I needed to analyze or work to keep. It was just a shift I needed to feel and continue to allow to happen. I have never felt less exhausted at the end of a clinic. In fact, I felt good.

photo courtesy of Bo Reich

That’s not to say that I moved into a zen bliss trance where nothing could bother me. Periodically another emotionally charged subject came up—our lack of motivation/impulsion. But again, this was charged for me because of my past experiences and perceptions, not because of Mark.

Indeed, it was Mark’s calm presence that gave me the space and tranquility to realize just how charged I had allowed the issue to become for me. Because my lessons with Mark were predominately peaceful spaces of finding a new kind of feel rather than chaotic spaces of processing information and trying to perform well, I could more easily recognize the baggage that I was carrying around when it showed up. And I could more easily let it go and move back to a peaceful state myself.

I imagine that this is also how horses feel around Mark. They may have histories that have created some emotional baggage for them, but when they get in that emotional space, Mark doesn’t make a big deal of it, or get them busy, or do a bunch of things to “fix” them. He just keeps his own calm, peaceful center and lets them find it.

It’s a remarkable thing to experience. And what is more remarkable is that Mark can teach it. Am I going to find every opportunity I can to learn it from him? You bet!

*Note*: To clarify, Mark is not a Parelli instructor. He does his own thing, and he writes delightful books about it. You can find all of them here. I have yet to read anything by him that wasn't fascinating and enjoyable, but if you're interested in the topic of this blog post, his newest book A Journey to Softness will blow your mind—in a calm, understated, and subtle way, of course!