“The Kihon Waza of Horse Training” by Cherie Cornmesser

This post is a “reprint” of a Facebook Note written by Cherie Cornmesser. Cherie and I seem to operate on the same wavelength about a lot of things. We are both long-time horsepeople (although she is much more experienced than I am). We are both new to Aikido, starting in spring of 2009, and are both 6th kyu now. We are fans of horseman & aikidoka Mark Rashid. We both like playing with nages who don’t baby us. About the same time I was flying off Rainy last week, Cherie was writing this.

Cherie Cornmesser lives in Southwestern PA. A graduate of Meredith Manor Equestrian College in Waverly, WV. She has gone on to train horses professionally on a limited basis, focusing on developing a partnership between horse and rider as a team. She is also a professional hoof care provider using the barefoot methods commonly referred to as natural hoof care. Cherie was introduced to aikido and began to study it in June 2009 after seeing clinics by horse trainer Mark Rashid and with the encouragement of her friend, martial artist, Rodger Pyle. She currently trains under Garth Jones and Tara Meyer at Allegheny Aikido in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, PA.

Thank you, Cherie, for allowing me to share your writing. With that, grab a cup of coffee and get comfortable. This is well worth reading:

While the rest of the world has been immersed in celebrating the season, I have spent today deeply immersed in my favorite subjects. Aikido and horses. Now, to be honest I’ve mainly been reading books, web sites and viewing video on aikido but always horses are there in the back of my mind. Most times, during my training at the dojo, I am looking for ways to relate the things I am trying to learn to the thing I know best which is training and riding horses. Occasionally things flow in the opposite direction.

This afternoon I took a drive out to see my mare, Baby, and drop off the monthly board check. As usual I checked in the lounge to see if anyone was around. A couple of fellow boarders were there so we had a little chat which led to me telling them about a recent trail ride.

It was the first real snow of the season. Just a week ago. My friend Joanna and I were excited to finally go for a trail ride in some real snow. Minion has just come off of 8 months of stall rest for an injury and spent the summer slowly getting back into shape. Baby was barely ridden last winter due to bad weather conditions. Needless to say this was an exciting event for the horses too.

Every little plop of snow falling from a branch was a cause for suspicion on Baby’s part. Every time Baby slipped in the mud Minion found it a reason to spook. Needless to say it was keeping both of us on our toes. 

As is our usual pattern we stopped in a field to let the horses graze a little, while we were chatting and catching up. It was beautiful and quiet up on that hill. I wish I had been able to take pictures. Then in that silence there was a sound. Some other people were out riding as well from two hills over, about ½ mile or so away. The sound carried across the valley to us even though we could not see them. Both horses reacted.

Baby and I heard the sound at about the same moment. I felt the energy ripple through her body as her head started to come up. I lifted my right rein and put my right leg on her in a firm but quiet manner. And she stepped quickly around to stand facing the direction that the sound had come from. 

Minion OTOH reacted as if shot. His head flew up and he bolted like a race horse from a starting gate. I should mention that both horses have been raced, on the track, in the past. Baby for two years and Minion for six. So anyway as I watched him fly past me I observed this. Joanna’s reaction was a little behind but she quickly caught up, lifted the left rein, applied the left leg and had her horse shut down in three strides. Within a few moments a potentially disastrous event became a non event. All because of the time spent on basic training…kihon waza.

In the Japanese martial arts Kihon Waza, basic training is the foundation of all that comes after it. Without it one cannot develop the instinctive memory to move in the ways that one will need later when performing full techniques in real time. Often as new students we are told again and again to go slow, to work on each step little by little. Not to focus on the end result. Not to worry about the technique or the throw. In other words don’t be in such a hurry to hit the trails when you don’t know how to stop, start and turn. 

Many people who have not focused on those basics might learn how to move in a pattern and create the technique, but it will only work in artificial surroundings. Planned circumstances and such. When a real situation occurs they lack the ability to react because they have not instilled those all important basics into their core. Sure they can think their way through it but they cannot use it without conscious thought. In the real world this is not going to work. And so this is part of the reason, I think, that many people believe that aikido does not work in real life. People seem to feel the same about equine basics.

There are many different methods of performing these steps but the steps themselves are generally the same. Some training methods focus only on using the rein, some use leg, some both. Some use clicker training. All have the same goals and general pattern.

The method, I describe below, most closely resembles that of John Lyons but incorporates techniques and ideas from many other trainers as well as from my own experiences as a horse trainer and college education.

So what are the equine basics that saved my friend and prevented the accident on that snowy ride? First and foremost give to pressure. A horse’s natural inclination when pressure is applied to him in any way is to lean into it. To fight it and go against it. People are very much the same way. If someone pulls on your arm you lean back and resist. In aikido we are trained to let go of resistance and to move forward into and around the pressure. So too, horses are taught. We teach them first to move one spot. Just to yield the smallest bit. Slowly we build it until we can ask them to move any body part away from pressure that is put on it. 

Commonly the first thing taught to a horse beginning saddle training is give to the bit. Pressure on the rein asks the horse first to dip the nose only a small bit. A fraction of an inch. Slowly we teach the horse to continue to yield by way of rewarding the horse’s give with a release. That is the full taking away of the pressure at the moment of the give. We begin to ask the horse to stay in the give position for longer periods. Never asking him to stay longer than he is comfortable but teaching him that he can comfortably do so for longer periods by the reassurance that there will be a release. The horse begins to trust us to take the lead.

After the horse has mastered this give on both sides of his body we add to it. We begin to apply leg pressure and ask the horse to move his hind end. In time and with many hours of training we teach the horse to yield his body in different ways. To become, as it were, in the martial sense a good uke (ooo-kay). 

Uke in Japanese means to receive. The one being acted upon. The one who is guided through the technique. A good uke will stick close to his leader, nage (nah-gay) and follow them as they are guided through the technique. It is in uke’s best interest to do so since, in aikido, techniques can be quite abrupt, even violent and not to follow nage closely could mean serious injury.

For the equine uke, following his rider’s guidance is important as well. The rider’s guidance insures the safety of both as they perform maneuvers such as the amazing patterns of the cutting horse or the feats of the cross country jumper or even to negotiate a slippery trail on a steep hillside. The two must work in harmony in order to remain safe. 

Through the basic steps of training the horse and rider learn to act as one. Without having to think about all of the steps needed to perform a maneuver no matter how quickly that need may arise. Many people neglect these long tedious boring sessions of training, in favor of getting out there and doing the technique, enjoying the ride. But when the test comes… can they pass? Will they maintain the unity with their horse, flow through the technique and come out safe and centered? Most likely not. In the best case they wind up with an excited nervous horse and a rider who finds the entire experience unpleasant. These incidents will continue to occur more and more often until the two can no longer remain a team and the horse is sold. In the worst case one or both of the pair will wind up severely injured… or worse.

That day’s ride in the snow was a good lesson. Not only did it show my friend how well all of that tedious boring time spent in the arena, instead of out on the trails, paid off. She has a long way to go in building her relationship with Minion but she also has a lot to be proud of in bringing him so far. I know I’m very proud of them both as my students. It also reminded me that, even though my horse and I knew it well, it was in our best interests to make sure we continue to revisit hose basic teachings and keep them fresh so that when the time comes again they will continue to stand us in good stead.

Cherie Cornmesser 

Rainy, and Real-life Ukemi

You might recall that the person who introduced me to Aikido is Mark Rashid, a teacher of horsemanship, author, and Nidan in Yoshinkan Aikido. I had participated in one of his horsemanship clinics in February of 2009, after my large, young horse, Rainy, got scared at the beginning of a ride in the mountains, gave a few good bucks, and I came off.

I’ve not ridden Rainy except maybe once or twice around the backyard since starting Aikido in May 2009. Now that I’m a lot more fit, and in somewhat better control of my breathing and body language, I thought it might be time to start riding again. My plan was to ease into it with a few minutes of walking around the backyard. Walk, turn, walk, whoa. That kind of thing. Easy peasy. Maybe another little ride tomorrow, and one Sunday, maybe.

Everything went fine today until a neighbor somewhere out of sight made a small, sudden noise. That wasn’t a problem, but Rainy’s reaction was. He spun and bolted. My limited ukemi skills served me well. When I realized I was so far off balance there was no recovering I bailed in an organized way. I was able to let go as I fell, which is surprisingly hard to do. I was able to aim away from Rainy’s legs, and toward a clear patch of soft ground just beyond a log and before a tree trunk. I must have rolled, and slammed into the tree, because I know I was diving forward and to the right, head-first, but ended up on my left side, with my feet tucked under me. Most of the road rash and bruises are down my right side: elbow, upper arm, upper and lower rib areas, hip and thigh. I have matching small-but-hard hemotomas on my mid-forearms, where I must have hit an old irrigation pipe that sticks up there. (At least I had the foresight years ago to cover it in 2" PVC pipe, to soften any such collision.) The thing that couldn’t be helped by rolling and splatting into everything as softly as possible was that Rainy’s hoof caught an 8-foot-long 6-inch peeler log as he ran by, and tossed it across the middle of my upper back.

Michael was watching, and I hollered that I was OK, but I didn’t want to move until I was sure everything was working properly. Fingers, check. Toes, thank goodness, check. Neck, no pain. Back, only the breath-catching feeling that I’d just been hit with a heavy log, but no real damage. I got up, gathered up Rainy, who was standing near the house, snorting, and got back on. After a short but successful little ride to assure us both that Riding Isn’t Such a Big Deal I hopped off and let him loose in the yard.

There’s no real damage – nothing that time and ice packs won’t heal, thankfully. But it was a pretty clear wake up call that I need to take a few giant steps backward, and start training Rainy from the beginning. No hopping on and riding for a good while yet, even around the yard. Lots of groundwork ahead. Lots of tiny steps, and tiny goals. Patience, and diligent, focused work on a thousand little details that make up the bigger picture of a good working relationship with one’s horse.

Today’s little wreck was discouraging, but diagnostic. I know where we stand, and the direction we need to go. It’s going to take some work, but the challenges are not insurmountable.

Everyone, please meet Rainy (“Right As Rain”).

Rainy is my Percheron x Paint/Quarter Horse gelding. He’s about 5 years old, 16 hands tall, and 1,400-some-odd pounds. Rainy loves water, carrots, oranges, and belly scratches. He is a sweet-natured, pushy, friendly kind of character. Not a mean bone in his body. But he’s young and “green” (not highly trained). He can spin quickly enough and run fast enough to avoid being eaten by the lions he imagines are lurking in the bushes.

Some of my upcoming posts are going to be about applying Aikido to riding and horsemanship, so you might as well know who I’m talking about. :-)

Enjoying the first beautiful, quiet morning of a 4-day holiday weekend. No classes for a few days, but the two last night were so rich it may take 4 days for everything to sink in. The first offered a powerful new perspective on familiar techniques, and the second taught calm focus under pressure. I am so lucky to have such amazing teachers.

I’ve been much more relaxed, and really enjoying training, having discovered and let go of my energy on testing. Last night when Sensei was walking around watching our practice I was still trying to get it right, of course. But instead of worrying that he’d notice my mistakes when I made them, I was hoping that he would. He did, of course, and provided very useful feedback and clarification. So grateful for amazing teachers, and for being able to take responsibility for my own attitude about learning.

And now, a few days with my sweetie pie, family, and friends, puttering in the yard, time with the critters, and riding Rainy for the first time since starting Aikido.

Iriminage – A Duh Moment

In a recent post (December 18th – the one with the video of Christian Tissier Shinan doing iriminage something like 46 times) I mentioned that we had done iriminage in class that day, and it was the “first time I’d seen it live.”

If you read my blog here at grabmywrist.com (as opposed to on AikiWeb) you may have see this mention in the left-hand column: “Any inept or incorrect information is my own responsibility, and should not be a reflection on others. ” This is one of those times.

Tonight in class we did a very familiar technique that we’ve done dozens of times: iriminage.

<smacking forehead>

It wasn’t until I heard the name tonight that the lightbulb flickered on, and I realized the familiar technique and the new one I’d never seen before are the same thing.

The version we usually have done involves (roughly – not complete instructions here…) taking Uke off balance and into you while turning, and then stepping into them to put them into a backfall. The “new” one involved taking them nearly to the mat in a descending turn, so they have to catch themselves with a hand to keep from going down completely, and then releasing them a bit, and as they pop back up (as Tissier does) stepping into them to put them into a backfall.

So there. For anyone who’s been wondering how I could possibly have been training for 7th months without seeing iriminage, mystery solved. Note to self: Pay closer attention to the names of techniques in class. Sheesh…

Soft eyes, quiet mind.
Notice thoughts and let them go.
There! Feel it and move.

Great seminar today, about getting off balance, returning to center, discovering what’s possible now, and acting on that. How wonderfully appropriate (and enjoyable). I’m left with noticing when I’m thinking, planning, and trying to direct, rather than just seeing what’s in front of me, and doing what’s available.

When Goals Go Bad

A couple of months ago, roughly, I set a goal for myself of training as if I were going to be testing for 5th kyu on February 6th, the next day tests are held at our dojo. As I said in a post about it then, my goal was not to test that day, or even to be ready to test that day, just to train so that I could be as prepared as possible.

What I was hoping to avoid was what I did before my 6th kyu test. In that case I was bopping along happily training in whatever came along in class (which is great), but not paying any particular attention to what techniques that would be required on the test. When my name appeared on the Dreaded Dojo Whiteboard (where Sensei writes the candidates names), I found I had a lot of learning to do. So I was hoping to at least be less blindsided if my name were to appear this time around.

If you’ve read my last few posts you know that I’ve been uneasy about something recently. I couldn’t put my finger on it, though. It felt like some mashup of grief, disappointment, pressure, and feeling very inadequate. But I couldn’t put my finger on a reason. There were no circumstances to support feeling like that, or none that I could see.

What was really out of character was Thursday night, in weapons class. I was freaked out at not feeling like I had one of the techniques down clearly. I didn’t know it, and felt like I should’ve known it. Sensei was walking around the mat watching and correcting people, as senseis do when they are teaching, you know, normally. I was really concerned that he might see that I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. Mind you, I fully realize the absurdity of that thinking, on a lot of levels. Just the same… I could hardly make myself breathe, I was so wound up.

I blogged about that on Friday morning (“Stupid Ego”), and one of my friends commented “hmmm just wondering but would it have anything to do with you having set a deadline for your next test? Perhaps not realizing it but feeling the pressure to get up to the next level by a certain time period might be part of the issue.” My first reaction to that was basically “no, no, that’s not it, I wasn’t really trying to test then, blah, blah…” But the more I thought about it, the more I see she nailed it. I was saying I wasn’t really trying to test this time around, but really… I was kinda hoping I’d would.

(For those readers who aren’t familiar with martial arts, you test when your teacher decides you are ready. You don’t ask to be considered. You, of all people, are the least qualified to make any determination about your own readiness. You just train. If your teacher says you’re ready to test, you test.)

How it works at our dojo is that before you can be considered to test for 5th kyu you have to have done at least 40 training days (not hours or classes) since your 6th kyu test. I  have been really pushing to get there, and just hit 40 just a couple of weeks ago. Suddenly at 40+ there’s the possibility of being considered for testing. At least a month before your test you need to find a senior student who is willing to mentor you. I’ve talked to a few, and have had a few in mind, just in case, because if your name appears on The Whiteboard you’d best get busy finding a mentor, fast, especially if you have a preference for who you work with. Because the next test date is February 6th, and everyone needs to have a mentor at least a month ahead of time, if you’re not called to test by the first few days of January, you’re not testing this time around. So there’s a pretty narrow window time there.

Anyway… I’ve been assuming (probably wrongly, but there goes my little mind & ego, running off together) that Sensei has been watching to see if I’m within shooting distance of testing in February. And I’ve been putting a lot of pressure on myself to not screw up, and really feeling it when I do (inevitably) do just that.

My friend’s comment finally rang true when I put the dates together and discovered that the unidentifiable knot in my gut started about the time I hit 40 days, when testing became a possibility. Once I realized that I really did have some attachment to, or at least attention on, being called on to test, I was able to let that go a little, and the knot started to unwind. I had a wonderful time in Friday night’s class, just training.

Enthusiastically getting to the point where something is a possibilty, and actually doing it, are two very different things. Like signing up to go skydiving is a different experience from jumping out of the plane. I’ve spent a few months training as though I intended to be ready to test in February. I signed up for the skydiving trip. Do I have an opinion about whether I could actually be ready to test? Sure. I have a lot of opinions about that, some of them in direct contradiction. And, quite correctly, they count for nothing.

I find I’m consciously having to let go, and let go, and let go of any attachment I have to the whole testing thing. What there is to do is to train, relax, learn about Aikido, and have fun, so that’s what I’m going to do.

Big sigh… There, that feels so much better…

I can’t resist sharing this video. This is the technique we worked on tonight in class. First time I’d seen it “live”, as best I can recall*. Our versions were a little less dramatic, but still fun to do.

Watching this reminds me all over again how excited I am that I’ll be participating in a seminar with Tissier Shihan next month. He has been practicing Aikido since the same year I was born. I am not a young ‘un. It’s hard to imagine the level of expertise one could develop in Aikido, or anything, by practicing it for my entire lifetime.

*Please see another post, updating this statement: “Iriminage – A Duh Moment”.

An Aikido Dream

I usually don’t dream weird dreams. I usually dream about work, or about something I have to do the next day. Boring. But last night I had a really strange dream. I’ll tell you about it first, and then what I think it represented.

The dream started with me arriving, as if by transporter, or warp in the space-time continuum, in a room. It was obvious there was no way of going back where I’d come from. There was a doorway or hall, and women were coming in or walking through in small, quiet groups. I was pleading with them to tell me where I was, who they were, where I should go, what I should do. They could see I was lost, and seemed sympathetic, but couldn’t understand what I was asking, and I couldn’t understand them. They took me to another room where I met with an older woman who seemed to be their spiritual leader or counselor. She could see I was very upset by this time, but she too could not give me any answers. Through body language and touch she let me know that I was safe there, and that she understood, if not my story, at least what I was feeling, and that I was OK.

At first glance I figured I must be watching too much Star Trek, and didn’t give it a lot of thought. But as I started going over the details in my mind I came to a different interpretation. The rooms were simple and plain, white and wood, with no decoration. The women were soft-spoken, and clearly part of a tight community where they knew and understood each other without a lot of talking. They were all dressed alike, in loose-fitting cotton garments in subdued tans and beiges. I was in a new world, with a new language, and it was clear I was going to be spending the rest of my life there. I felt utterly lost. I couldn’t understand what was going on, or what was being said, and was sad and frightened about that. I didn’t know what to do, what was expected of me, or how to find out. Their leader, who clearly had the confidence of the others, was kind and sympathetic, but could not give me any answers, only reassurance and support. I knew they were good people, that I was safe, and that they were willing to accept me into their community.

Given my frustration in class yesterday over feeling completely incompetent, along with the past week’s sense of feeling closed off or guarded, I’m thinking the dream was showing me a picture of Aikido. It’s a new world, a new language, a new community. Most answers can’t be gotten by simply asking. My usual ways of learning don’t work. It’s understood that I’m lost. But I’m safe, among friends, with a caring, perceptive leader, and in time will feel at home.

The weirdest thing about the dream might have been explaining to Sensei tonight before class that in it he was a wise old woman. :-)

Stupid Ego

I like to imagine that I am a rational person. I would like to believe that I don’t care so much what other people think. It’s nice to pretend that I have enough sense to know that a beginner is not expected to do things perfectly all the time. Or ever.

So why was I wound tighter than a sharp E string last night in class, when I felt like I didn’t know how to do a technique correctly? I reminded myself to breathe, drop my shoulders, settle, breathe, drop my shoulders… It had no effect on the fear of humiliation turning my stomach into a knotted wet rag.

Watching myself from a sort of disembodied perspective it was pretty funny. Like “You idiot. Knock it off. You’re a freakin’ 6th kyu. Get over yourself.” But even when you know you’re being ridiculous it’s not always easy to shift to a more effective way of being.

It’s easy being a total newbie. It’s OK to know nothing at first. There’s no pressure. Maybe I’ve reached a point where I expect that I should know something by now. After a whole, what… less than a year?

And so here I am, being impatient with myself for being impatient with myself. Stupid ego.