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?

March 24, 2016

Why Doing It Right Is So Wrong

I took a workshop in Masterson Method bodywork for horses last weekend, and there was SO MUCH GOOD. For one thing, it was a privilege to work with the Thoroughbreds we learned with, who were so willing and who showed so much improvement in their musculature and their relaxation after just one day. It felt great to be doing that kind of good for horses in need of it.

But by far the most good done was the good done to me.

The Masterson Method can have the positive effect that it does, I believe, because it creates a space where there is no wrong.

The horse can do no wrong because everything he does is just part of his process of moving from defending himself to letting go. Whether he chews on things or fidgets and moves around or seems to be completely ignoring you, all of that truly is just information by which you get an idea of where he is in the process of letting go—not a behavior that needs correcting.

And the human can do no wrong because the Masterson Method can only do good for the horse. Even if you’re only “in the neighborhood” of where you’re supposed to be, you can help the horse release. Even if you don’t wait for the release, you’ve helped the horse to start processing. Even if you can’t do all the techniques perfectly, you can do a great deal of good.

This is a radically freeing space in which to exist. By contrast, how often do we feel that we are screwing things up or aren’t good enough to perform in some way? That we don’t know enough, don’t have the skills or the discernment? And how often does the need to be and do things right leave us isolated in our own heads instead of connecting with others?

The amazingly cool result of being in the space of doing no wrong is that you can listen phenomenally well. When your ego-driven need to do things right isn’t running the show, you can suddenly hear all sorts of things your horse is telling you. And the amazingly cool result of THAT is you find yourself truly working with the horse.

In fact, that’s what the Masterson Method is: a process the horse and human go through together, each guiding the other in an endless back and forth of offering and receiving suggestions. It absolutely defines doing things *with* the horse.

Of course many of the people I’ve studied with have emphasized the need to do things with and for the horse rather than to or at him. And I’ve agreed every time. But actually living in that space has been hard for me to do. I may in general have a goal of, say, helping my horse overcome his fear, but when I ask him to do things to build his confidence, I find myself stuck in my own agenda of asking him to confront his fears instead of in a conversation with him about how best I can help him feel better.

So my experience last weekend was almost wholly novel to me. I saw that the horses were just where they were, doing the best they could to manage in the lives they’d been handed. I saw that they were going to struggle some with the process of letting go of their defenses just as I was going to struggle some with the process of learning how to help them do that. And I saw how willing they were to go through the process with me despite all of that.

All of this made me feel great compassion for everyone, animal and human and myself included, who has built defensive patterns to keep themselves safe and yet yearns to let go of those patterns. As our instructor said, a horse saying, “No, no, no, no,” is really saying, “Help me, help me, help me!” True for horses, true for people.

And in this context, worrying about doing it right just doesn’t even factor in.

January 29, 2016


Before I left for Florida I had come to the conclusion that peace--your own internal sense of being calmly centered--is the most precious thing you can offer to someone you love.

In Florida I began to see that it’s even deeper than that: peace isn’t a gift you give so much as it is the environment necessary for love to truly flourish. Without peace, love just doesn’t come through the same way.

I have loved Lupin his entire life. That love has kept me with him through times I felt like there was no way we were going to work things out between us, through times I felt overwhelmed by everything I didn’t know about how to help him, through fear that both of us would get hurt. I’m a stubborn person, but I don’t think you can be that stubborn over that long a time without love lying at the root of it.

At the same time, though, I have rarely felt like that love really came through to Lupin very clearly. In a certain way we were pretty strongly connected, but not in a way that often felt great to either of us. For my part I was always cranked about all the things I didn’t know yet, about not doing it right, about screwing up my horse. Lupin was more often than not only half engaged and pretty quick to shut down. I’m not confident that either of us were truly keen on spending time together. But I kept at it, because I love him.

And I’m not belittling that kind of commitment. Sometimes that’s what love is: working hard and gutting it out for someone you care about.

But I also think we make love into this far more often than we need to. We have this immense amount of love for someone, but only a tiny bit of it manages to trickle through the wall of tension that we’ve built around it. Tension created by the fear that we’re not good enough, or worry about what will happen, or stressing over what the other person/animal thinks or feels, or focusing on things that we perceive to be problems in the relationship.

I think it’s a lot like what Mark says about physical power: our power is far greater than our actual muscular strength, but power doesn’t come through if we are tense. We need to be soft internally for our power to be anything close to fully effective.

To me it’s the same relationship between love and peace. We can have vast amounts of love, but if we aren’t peaceful, it just doesn’t come through.

The best part about my time in Florida was that everything was peaceful. Learning was peaceful, connection to my horse was peaceful, being in general was peaceful. Not only do Mark and Crissi foster this kind of atmosphere; they teach their students how to cultivate the peace that’s within themselves in the form of softness, calmness, and staying centered.

The first day I spent in Florida I lay in the sunshine enjoying how good it felt on my skin and how beautiful Lupin looked in it. As the two weeks went along, it felt more like that sunshine was inside me, inside Lupin, and connecting the two of us together in a soft, relaxed, golden feeling that I can only describe as deeply peaceful love.

January 22, 2016

Getting to the Goal

I realized as I was packing up to leave for Florida that I was scarcely even thinking about my Florida trip beyond its logistics. In fact, despite knowing that my trip would be wonderful on many levels, I was thinking right on past it to when I got back. Because then I would be done.

I’ve discovered a similar tendency in my horsemanship and in most of the things I do. I’ll call it the exam mentality: that looking forward to when the thing that you’re about to do is in the past tense.

It’s a habit that has been exacerbated when it comes to horse stuff by some of my past learning--in particular the idea that the moment the horse does what you want you take all pressure off and quit. That technique, designed to give the horse a clear reward when he does what you ask, has the side effect of causing both you and the horse to look toward the moment of being finished as the happy place. In short, you both celebrate the moment when you can be done with doing things together. Not exactly a recipe for enhancing your sense of connection.

Mark has been pointing out time and again to me that it’s counter-productive to quit just when everything is feeling good. You and the horse both just made an effort to get things going well: why would you just drop it the moment you do?

Yet the only area of my life I can think of where I don’t do just exactly that is dancing. I don’t dance to get to the end of the dance: I dance for the joy of dancing itself. In every other area, though, I am looking for the end/result/stopping place/point of achievement. And that is generally true of positive things as well as stressful things.

I’m not sure exactly how this mentality emerged. Maybe it has to do with lack of confidence, an intolerance for existing in a space of uncertainty, an assumption that effort is negative, or a need to check things off a list to feel successful. But however it came about, I have no doubt that it is just that: a mental pattern, a mindset that can be changed.

And what I’m discovering this week is that how you change it is to focus on feel rather than result. It’s a beautiful thing for my horse to float softly sideways when I just think sideways, but if I’m just admiring the accomplishment, I am losing almost all of my connection with my horse, and with joy, and really with the whole point of doing any of this.

Joy lies in feel. It lies in feeling your own insides hum in harmony with your horse’s insides, in the feeling of relaxation in both of you, and in the lightness of existing in the realm of softly doing rather than the realm of thinking.

Until now the only way I have found peace is in not doing. For the first time this week I’m starting to feel how there can be peace in doing. How doing things without a physical or mental brace lets you be light even in the midst of effort, and how doing things for the feel in the present can erase the weight of needing to achieve.

And I’m discovering that true peace does not come from having done. You may find relief from having done, but peace comes from finding joy in the doing, and living in that joy. That’s the realm we are meant to live in. Not a state of mere satisfaction with our achievement, but a state of active joy in living itself.

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.