“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. :-)

Connection (and Riding)

I’m just back from this morning’s seminar on Connection, and things are only just starting to sink in. So I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts (or feelings?) on this eventually. But here are a few things that stood out for me at first glance.

We did an exercise where we did shomenuchi ikkyo, ura waza, but without touching each other. Just staying together through the technique in a sort of magnetic way. It was pretty easy and slow at first, and as Nage it felt a bit like operating a marionette (a puppet operated at a distance by strings). But then we switched partners and I was working with someone doing it quite a bit faster. And I, when I was Uke, had to keep up! It required a lot more alertness, and willingness to actively move with Nage’s direction. He’d spiral backward and downward quite fast (it seemed), and I had to move to stay with him. A strange experience, throwing oneself!

A little light went on there. I have been relying on Nage to physically move me through techniques. Not actively resisting, but not actively extending into the technique, either. Shutting down. Being done unto.

Later, while doing kotegaeshi, I injured the back of my hand – I think by getting behind Nage’s motion, instead of staying with him. No biggie, but it blew up a little, so I sat out for a while to do the ice, pressure, & elevation thing. It gave me a chance to watch and let things sink in.

Everyone was working on a reversal technique, and exploring the idea that staying connected and active is what lets you be (as Uke) in a position to do the reversal. It occurred to me that staying actively engaged and connected, instead of shutting down and being done unto, is one of the things missing in my riding. I already knew this on one level – that I tend to shut down when “things get a little Western.” It’s one of the specific things I came to Aikido to work on.

Today’s work gave me a slightly different perspective on it. I’ve been thinking in terms of “don’t shut down.” But that doesn’t give me anywhere to go. “Not shutting down” is hard thing to do – because it’s a negative. (Go ahead and try not shutting down.) One of the things I know in horse training is that you can’t train a horse to not do something. You have to train it to do something else that is incompatible with the undesirable behavior. Something like “lower your head in response to rein pressure” is trainable, where “don’t toss your head” isn’t. The head lowering precludes head tossing.

I’d even thought, in my things I want to get out of Aikido, as far as “be able to take effective action in the face of overwhelming physical threat” (like when your 1,400 lb horse is bucking across an open meadow). But that’s hard to do, too, because it’s too vague. Or maybe it a consequence of something. There’s a step missing.

“Stay connected with your partner,” on the other hand, is something specific one can do. It’s specific and immediate (or ongoing, actually). It naturally precludes shutting down and being done unto. So there’s something I can work on. Staying connected with my horse. Going from “being bucked with” to “back in control” is a reversal of sorts, one that connection makes possible.

There was a lot more. It amazes me how much one can get out of two hours of focused work. I did a few things I’m kind of pleased with, some I’m not. In a few cases the things I’m pleased with were things I was doing wrong (or poorly), but could at least tell that I was doing them wrong, and was able to make some corrections. There’s a lot about what I saw on the video (no, it’s not on YouTube) that is in jarring conflict with how I see myself, and how I want to be seen. One of the things Aikido has helped me discover is that abject public mortification won’t kill me. Don’t hide from it, learn from it. There’s never any concern that I might run out of things to work on. ;-)

Aikido? Or Riding?

I’ve had this idea rattling around in my head for quite a while. I think students of either discipline will recognize these points – and will probably be able to cite many more.

Aikido? Or Riding?

Linda Eskin

Heels down, chest open, eyes forward. Breathe.
Relax your shoulders, soften your elbows. Breathe.

Look where you want to go
and you will go there.

Close your hands.
You’re not holding a teacup.

Don’t look at the ground.
The ground isn’t going anywhere.

Drop your center.
Get deeper, more stable, grounded.

Let your eyes be soft.
Take in the entire scene.

Be straight and light, 
Like a string is lifting the top of your head.

Heels down, chest open, eyes forward. Breathe.
Relax your shoulders, soften your elbows. Breathe.

Be firm and clear.
Direct your partner with certainty.

The stick is not for hitting.
It’s an extension of your body.

Flow with your partner.
Feel their energy and go with it.

Ask for no more
Than your partner can give.

Close your eyes.
Feel your way through the movement.

Align your body and intention. 
Your energy goes where your center is pointing.

Heels down, chest open, eyes forward. Breathe.
Relax your shoulders, soften your elbows. Breathe.

Don’t hurry things.
The more you rush, the slower you get there.

We’re all beginners.
It takes a lifetime. Just keep practicing.


I am reposting my introduction (from the AikiWeb.com Forums) here, with a few edits, just to have everything in one place. In the next post I will bring things up to date.

After that this will be a more normal blog, with semi-regular training notes, random observations, and thoughts on Aikido, and applying it to horsemanship, riding, and everything else.

Please join me as I walk this path.

– – – – –
Greetings, and thank you for reading my introduction.

Some basic basics: I’m a 46 y/o woman in the San Diego area. Horseperson for fun. User experience analyst for a living. 30 lbs overweight. Sturdy and strong, but out of shape. Did a little Tang Soo Do in high school (through the 1st test). Loved it, but went off to college and left it behind.

I recently came to Aikido via a book by Mark Rashid, a gifted horse trainer and author. I had been aware of Aikido before, but his book “Horsemanship Through Life” is what prompted me to begin studying it. I was originally hoping to improve my balance, fitness, awareness, relaxation, and breathing, all of which apply nicely to working with and riding horses.

The universe has been making me work very hard to get started in Aikido! After I decided to check into studying it I hurt my hand. Weeks later got cleared to do stuff. Checked out a dojo, was very impressed, and promptly cought the Worst Cold Ever. 3 weeks later, on May 5th, 2009, feeling good but still unable to speak above a hoarse whisper, I started classes.

Lesson one: Persistance. Rrrr…

I got off to a bit of a rough start, with some muscle spasms after my first class. (Tip, don’t start with the longest class your dojo offers, esp. after weeks of being sick. Duh.) I got that cleared up with lots of gentle exercise and was back 4 days later, having a blast, and trying to slurp up information as fast as my brain could absorb it. Things went well for classes 2 and 3, and then in my 4th class I demonstrated some particularly horrid ukemi by landing smack on the top of my right shoulder. Much ice and pain later it seems I have a level 1 (minor) separation of the AC joint, so I’m down for a couple of weeks, at least. I can do whatever doesn’t hurt, but am not to push it.

Lesson two: Humility. D’oh!

I am grateful to fellow AikiWeb citizens Mary Eastland, who posted about being annoyed with a broken wrist, and Darryl Bronson, who posted about having Aikido withdrawal after knee surgery. Aside from feeling less alone and sorry for myself, for being benched before the end of my 2nd week, I now have lots of ideas for productive ways to use the time. I will be continuing to go to class, watching, taking notes, and learning everything I can. As my shoulder improves I’ll join in one-sided or somehow just work on those things I can do. I’ve had a shoulder problem before. With proper care and PT it healed fine. This will too.

Lesson three: Patience. Sigh…

Aikido in general, and my dojo in particular (Aikido of San Diego), felt like the right choices from the first moment, and everything since has confirmed that. Yes, the simple things I had hoped to address in my life and riding are there, but there’s so much more depth to the art than I had considered. The more I learn, the more I find that Aikido applies to every aspect of living, in a way that harmonizes with my temperament. The people I’ve met through Aikido (both in the dojo, and online) have been universally smart, thoughtful, kind, patient, and a lot of fun.

I am looking forward to a very long and interesting journey, and to getting to know people here. And I promise to try to not be so long-winded every time I post.

[And later, from my comments in that introduction thread…]

The similarities between Aikido and horsemanship are really stunning. I’m working (slowly) toward doing dressage, which is basically a martial art in which harmony with the horse is the goal. Dressage tests are very much like kata – demonstrations of a set of skills at each level. Nervousness, confusion, or annoyance on the part of the horse are counted against your score. Training a horse is a little like teaching it ukemi – to follow the feel you are offering.

It’s funny, I have pretty good “eyes in the back of my head” for sensing what my horse might be up to next, but when we try to anticipate an attack in class (respond as soon at uke moves toward us) I’m pathetically slow. It’ll come with time, I suppose.

By the way, I also have donkeys. They will teach one patience. And they respond so much better to trust and polite requests than to authority and force. Besides, they are smart, and cute.

I have found, with my 5 y/o draft-cross greenie, who can buck like a rodeo horse, that tensing up, hanging on, and holding my breath isn’t a very good strategy for staying with him. It’s easier to throw someone who’s not relaxed, I hear. Hoping Aikido helps in that respect…

I’ve not played with weapons yet, but I’m guessing years of forking manure has got to help with jo work. We’ll see.