August 27, 2016

Control of the Roll

One of the things I have most enjoyed in my time studying with Mark Rashid this August has been learning rolls in our aikido dojo. 

Many thanks to the lovely Vicky Devlin for demonstrating.

Mark teaches aikido alongside horsemanship because so many key elements of horse work are present in this martial art form: internal softness, blending, finding openings, directing energy, feeling what your partner is doing inside, and many more. Aikido translates as "the way of harmony" and that is exactly what we are trying to find with our horses: a way to work with them rather than against them. (Mark has recently coined the term aibado, which means "the way of harmony with horses," to explain what we study in the dojo.)

But there are more mechanical reasons to pair horsemanship and aikido as well, and one of the most empowering skills we can learn is how to fall.

If you ride horses for a decent chunk of your life, you are going to fall off. My grandmother used to say you're not a real horsewoman until you've fallen off at least three times. (Being an overachiever I've fallen a substantially larger number of times than that.) 

Sometimes falling is no big deal, but as we get older it's easy to feel less comfortable about the idea, particularly as we hear stories of injuries or become seriously injured ourselves. And fear, once it has a small foothold, tends to keep growing whether we're conscious of it or not.

The fear of falling is, Mark explained, the reason that most of us are so intent on controlling everything when we're in the saddle. Fear can lead us to micromanage our horses and be overly quick to shut them down. It leaves us in a slightly wary, slightly tense state that makes true connection with our horses almost impossible because we don't trust them enough to let go. 

What we need to trust, however, is not so much our horses as ourselves. If we don't believe in our ability to take care of ourselves, we will never be 100% relaxed no matter how steady the horse that we are riding. 

And part of our ability to take care of ourselves is knowing that we still have choices even when the wheels come off, as Mark would say. Even when we're flying toward the ground at a rapid speed, we still have choices about how we will land. Even when someone comes at us with a weapon, we still have choices about how we respond. The key in both of these situations is knowing that, no matter what happens, we are never simply victims of external circumstances with no say at all in what happens from here. 

Mark said that once we recognize that we have control over how we fall, we don't feel such a strong need to control every other piece. We know that we can be okay even if the worst happens, so we can allow things to be a little less certain and ourselves to be a little less in control. 

As Mark was explaining all of this, I couldn't help but think how we do the exact same thing in the rest of our lives that we do in the saddle. We fear that, when the worst comes to pass, we will be completely powerless. We believe that we have no control over the really critical stuff like a serious injury, or a partner leaving, or losing a job. So we try to control everything else in an attempt to prevent these situations rather than learning skills that might help us cope with them better. 

Knowing that we can choose to be soft and responsive in any situation instead of bracing and defending ourselves has been one of the most important lessons I've learned in the dojo. We can always choose to move into and blend with whatever is coming toward us--choose connection and relaxation over resistance and reactiveness. In the things that really matter we have the kind of control that really matters: we have control over how we respond. Will we roll with what comes our way? I love that aikido teaches this skill in its most literal sense.

August 14, 2016

Having Faith in Doing Good

I have spent the past week participating in the first half of a 10-day course with Mark Rashid and Crissi McDonald. For this course all the riders have been borrowing horses that live here at Happy Dog Ranch.

For the first few days we practiced aikido in the mornings and rode in the afternoons. But on the fourth morning we were getting ready to ride both morning and afternoon.

As we had our post-breakfast meeting before heading to the barn, one of the women in our course said that she was a bit dreading riding twice that day. She said she'd been feeling guilty all week because her horse didn't seem to enjoy being ridden and now she was feeling even more guilty to ask the horse to go out with her twice in one day.
When Mark asked her why she thought the horse didn't want to be ridden, she cited the horse's unwillingness to be haltered in the paddock, resistance to the bit being put in, and refusal to stand by the mounting block. She added that she had encountered these issues with some of her own horses and had been unable to continue riding them because she couldn't enjoy riding if the horse seemed unhappy about being ridden.

I wish that I had an exact record of what Mark said in response because it profoundly changed my perspective. But here at least is what I remember.

First and most importantly Mark said that we don't know the horse doesn't want to be ridden. 

Just that one statement changed the whole conversation. 

We tend to get a bit lost in our own stories about what is going on. But as Mark went on to say, all we really know for sure is that the horse has certain behaviors (like putting her head in the air when the bit is offered). 

It may be that the horse was handled roughly at some point in her past and developed these patterns of behavior as a defensive response. Our job, however, is neither to suss out the horse's past history nor to figure out what her present behavior might "mean." It is simply to help her do the things that we are asking in a way that feels better to her.

We don't achieve this by backing off when she seems resistant to something. Nothing changes that way. We achieve it by having a clear idea of how we would like the thing to feel both to the horse and to the human and then staying with it until she finds that feel.

Ultimately yes, we require our horses to do things that they might not choose to do. However we also have the opportunity to help them find softness and relaxation by finding those things first in ourselves and then offering them to our horses. And if they then tap into their own softness and relaxation, we can be fairly confident that, whether they would have chosen to do that thing or not, they are no longer bothered by doing it. They might even be happy about doing it.

In short, we have to believe that we can be agents of change in our horses' lives--that we can be a positive force to help them rather than just something they put up with because they have no choice. 

And this belief carries over to the whole of life. What if we work from a space of assuming that we are making a positive impact? What if we keep in the front of our minds the joy that we have to offer others? What if we look at the sky at the end of the day and say, "It was a good day. It started out good, and then I was able to make a couple of things a little better," and then we enjoy some dinner and go to bed?