“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 

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