“There’s your trot.”
Mark stood in the center of the south end of the arena, near the barn. His long oilskin duster and cowboy hat seemed out of time with the black boom mic he was wearing. His moment-by-moment feedback reached me via the PA sitting on the tailgate of his truck.
“Too late. Circle until she comes back to a walk.”
Sabrina was a beautiful, solid black mare – my first horse – half Friesian, half Morgan, with rockstar hair and an energetic, bouncy way of going. She was powerful, smart, and gorgeous. She and I alternately walked and trotted along the rail of my friend’s big arena. The west side overlooked the long mountain grade down toward San Diego. On a clear day you’d be able to see the ocean, 50 miles west.
A couple dozen folks – other participants in the horsemanship clinic, or auditors just there to watch and learn – looked on from a deck off the barn at the south end, bundled in Carhartt jackets and warming their hands on mugs of hot coffee.
I had been struggling with Sabrina taking off with me right from the beginning. She would launch into her big trot. I’d try to get her to walk. She’d toss her head and swish her tail – signs of frustration. This was how it always went. We were in a seemingly constant battle between her wanting to go faster and me wanting to go slower. I didn’t mind speed, but I felt I didn’t have control, and so I didn’t feel safe going out on rides. Well into my 30s I’d finally gotten the horse I’d dreamed of since childhood, and now I couldn’t ride her.
I had been through two trainers, taking lessons with each for months, working on this. I’d been advised to use a stronger bit to force her to listen to me, “show her who was boss,” “not let her get away with that disobedience.” But Sabrina was a sweet-natured horse without an ounce of malice in her. Force and domination was not the answer. I knew that much, at least. In desperation I’d forked over the painfully large sum of $425 to spend an hour each day for four days working with this guy I’d heard about, Mark Rashid.
“There! Did you feel her walk speed up? That’s when it happens. That’s when you need to address it.”
It was my first time working with Mark, although I’d read a few of his books and liked what he had to say. As modest and self-effacing as they come, he seemed to be a magician when it came to fixing problems with horses. Or more often, problems with their people.
“Nope. Just circle and try again.”
No, I really didn’t feel it. Not at first. But over and over, until I could feel it on my own, Mark called out when he saw her intent building to break into a trot. Maybe her ears would prick forward slightly, her head would come up, she’d pick up the pace a little. She was, in essence, asking if it would be OK to trot now. My timing was off in answering: “Not now, thanks. Please keep walking.” When I failed to notice the signs, she’d start into a lovely fast, rhythmic trot. Naturally she’d get frustrated when I’d then pull her right back to a walk. “But I asked… and you said… dammit.”
“There it is.
“Circle until she’s walking again.”
At first we’d only get a few strides before she’d start into a forward, determined trot. Then maybe 100 feet. Then the whole long side of the arena.
Not even halfway through my first session we were walking the entire distance around the arena. No head-tossing. No tail-swishing. And that was that. It didn’t take months of progressive training and repetitive practice. Just a new awareness and better timing. The problem I’d been working on so long was just gone.
“Great. Now, what do you want to work on for the rest of the weekend?”
A decade or so later – another horse, another clinic, in another arena with Mark.
“There’s your problem right there.”
Rainy was a big goofball. Imagine a 1,600-pound black and white puppy who always wants to play. He was half Percheron, young and athletic. Feet not quite the size of dinner plates. Maybe salad plates. He was big. Big enough that you’d think he wouldn’t have been afraid of much. But Rainy would get scared at a little rustle in the grass every now and again and bolt, heading for the hills, bucking and snorting. I’d been dumped more than a few times. We weren’t safe on the trail.
Mark spotted the problem the moment I entered the arena, with Rainy following at the end of a soft purple and teal lead rope. I stopped walking, but Rainy kept going until his nose bumped into my back, then he stayed right there behind me, breathing in my ear. The big dufus.
“There’s where your bolting starts.”
I have always been a cat person. One simply doesn’t order animals around. I had set a few boundaries for Rainy, and he’d respected those. But bumping me with his nose? He was just being a goober, right? Wrong. Mark explained that Rainy, like most horses, was looking for clear guidance. I wasn’t providing it. I wasn’t being the calm, reassuring presence that would let him relax about those scary sounds in the grass. “You’re with me. We’re fine. Don’t you worry about that.”
Again the root of the issue was in my not noticing a problem was developing until things “got a little Western.” Mark coached me on being in charge right from the beginning, and then keeping that connection alive. He wanted me to give direction for the littlest things – where to stand, when to move, how fast to walk. I was to set and reinforce boundaries. Consistent, clear, direct. It felt mean-spirited to me. Discipline for the sake of discipline. Nit-picking. But I trusted Mark, and what I’d been doing on my own sure wasn’t working. So I tried doing as he said, but it was really hard for me.
Later that weekend, after all the rides were done for the day, Mark asked me if I’d heard of Aikido. He suggested that training in that martial art – which focuses on connection with one’s partner rather than fighting – might help me with my horsemanship.
Another ten years… I was at the dojo preparing for my nidan exam – 2nd-degree black belt, training with a friend who is my mentor, with other senior students, and with junior students, too. There were common themes in their feedback.
“There’s no waiting in Aikido,” they’d say, reminding me of one of Sensei’s mantras.
“Go in before their strike develops force.”
I have heard this feedback so often. You’d think it might sink in eventually. It’s like I need to learn it all over again in each new context.
“Take out the pauses.”
“Keep the connection throughout.”
At the dojo we often train slowly, step by step, from static attacks. Kihon waza. Basic technique. But mastering basic, methodical movements is not the goal. Consider studying music. Playing perfect scales with perfect timing is not what we are trying to achieve. That exercise is only part of the learning process. We ultimately want to perform evocative music with expression and feeling. We may add syncopation, vary the tempo, bend notes. At some point the rules change, and there’s no big sign with flashing lights to tell us to let go of what we’ve been practicing and open up to a more natural expression.
“Take my partner’s balance and don’t give it back? In this technique, too?” “Go in and meet each attacker even with weapons?” “But, but, but…” “That’s not the way I learned it.” “I thought I was supposed to…” “Dammit!” I know these things. (Well, most of them.) I just wasn’t practicing them. Working with the kids, working with beginners, that’s valuable training, but in many ways contrary to the energy I needed to bring to my Aikido now.
“Bigger! Continuous! Be early! Stay close! Enter deeply! No stopping! Relax! Follow through! Breathe!” I joked that I should get these tattooed on my forearm as reminders.
“Move in as soon as you feel their intention.”
It was so frustrating. Like everything I thought I knew was wrong. I know, I know, “the purpose of today’s training is to overcome yesterday’s understanding,” but this was getting ridiculous.
I’d try to run through a few techniques, and each one became a project. So. Frustrating. I wanted to be refining and polishing for my test. Instead it felt like I was slipping backward, having to re-learn everything from a new perspective.
One day I’d meant to breeze through some familiar weapons take-aways. Instead after 15 minutes I was still working on the first one, the simplest technique. My partner patiently attacked again and again with a straight, smooth strike. Trying to hit me in the head with a heavy wooden sword, or bokken. All I had to do was grab between his hands and turn out of the way as the strike came down, sending him into a forward roll and keeping the bokken. I’d done it a thousand times.
“You were late. Try again.”
“You don’t have to be faster. Be earlier.”
I was beyond annoyed with myself by now. I couldn’t seem to get it. I was intimidated, jumpy. I’d flinch. I’d duck out. Too far away and I couldn’t connect with his center. Not in soon enough and the energy of the strike was gone before I could redirect it into the throw.
For a moment I stamped around in a circle and cursed my own ineptitude. “Dammit, dammit, dammit! Why can’t I do this?” Then I shook it off and took a few deep breaths. “Hmm…” I turned back to my partner with a completely different look in my eyes. “Again.”
He raised the bokken and I was already moving in on the line of attack, hand reaching up between his. As his strike came down I pivoted and dropped, extending my energy forward. He flew across the mat.
I didn’t let my focus waver. He came back at me and I was under the bokken and following it down, taking his balance just as the strike should have connected. Again and again, giggling and giddy by now, I took the weapon and sent him rolling away.
“Yes, keep doing whatever you’re doing.”
Before, I had been coming from the perspective of dealing with an attacker, avoiding being hit, trying to get the timing right. Now instead, I tried on the perspective of “Hey, that’s my bokken you’ve got there!” And I just took it. No drama, no fear, no struggle. “That’s mine. Thanks for bringing it to me.”
It was a moment of that same magic Mark could bring to working with a horse and rider, only this time I was the magician. *poof* Problem solved.
Ultimately the solution wasn’t a matter of practicing drills to get my feet to move more quickly, or learning perfect timing through intense focus or endless repetition. Instead it was about approaching the situation in an entirely new way. Not about doing different, but being different. Coming from a confident, centered place of calm, welcoming acceptance.
I took that feeling into other techniques, and then into the rhythm of my training in general, and it worked. When I can remember that state of being – and not fall into old habits of feeling attacked and reactive – it naturally leads to a better outcome.
“Don’t ask how to do this.
Ask who you need to be where this is possible.”
~ Robert Nadeau Shihan
I have gotten feedback since the beginning that I tend to be cautious, tentative, careful. I’ve worked and worked on it. And yet…
“It’s like you’re afraid you’re going to hurt us.”
“Stop holding back”
“We can take care of ourselves. Do the technique!”
It was echoed in how I was managing my training opportunities.
“We are here to support you.”
“Ask for what you need.”
If ever there were “on the mat” coaching that could be taken out into the world, this was it. I just didn’t recognize it until the last moment.
This is another lesson I keep having to learn.
I feel like this time it is sinking in.
I can see the lifelong pattern – hanging back, waiting, being understanding – from looking out for my sister and caring for my grandparents, to defining requirements and managing projects. I am the one everyone can count on to get things done. No slip-ups. No drama.
Be strong. Be capable. Be reliable. Do the grunt work now, and maybe you’ll get a more challenging role someday. Don’t ask for help. Shun recognition. Don’t consider your own needs. Others come first. And whatever you do, make it look effortless. Be invisible.
One begins to internalize these messages. It became my place to help out, to be good, to support. To hold back on going after what was important to me. To not even think about what was important to me.
Patience can be a virtue. Consideration of others is honorable. But always hanging back and waiting is self-destructive.
Waiting for permission.
Waiting to be asked.
Waiting for the right time.
When I’ve fallen into that pattern it has not worked out well for me. I’ve been passed over for opportunities. But habits can be hard to break.
Being clear about what I want? Asking for what I need? That is a very uncomfortable place for me. It’s asking Sabrina to stay at the walk. It’s telling Rainy to keep a polite distance. It’s asking for the role I want, delegating, saying no. It’s hard. But it’s important.
It’s reaching unflinchingly into that strike. “I’ll take that – it’s mine.”
I don’t need permission.
I can ask for what I need.
Now is the right time.
There’s no waiting.