From Inside Out

Several years ago I experienced a major breakthrough in my horsemanship. The interesting thing about this particular breakthrough was that I wasn’t anywhere near a horse when it happened.

I had been invited to dinner after aikido class one evening by the instructor, Ikeda Sensei. It was a great honor to have been invited and even though it was already after nine at night and I still had nearly an hour to drive to get home, I graciously accepted. Three of us, Sensei, myself and another student who had also been invited, drove to a nearby restaurant where we sat down at a table and ordered our meals.

We engaged in small talk for a few minutes before Sensei asked what I did for a living. “I work with horses.” I told him. “It’s why I began studying aikido. I wanted to find something to help me improve my work.”

He smiled, folded his arms over his chest and leaned back in his chair. “Has it?”

It was clear by the expression on his face that he already knew the answer. “It has.” I smiled. “Very much.” He nodded.

He then asked me what the similarities were between horsemanship and aikido, and for the next few minutes I shared with him and the other student at the table what I had found so far. I also told him that my ultimate goal with horses would be to find a way to communicate with them on the same level with which they communicated with one another, a level that is so subtle that it is often difficult, if not impossible to see.

“I know nothing of horse,” he said, placing his hand flat on the table between he and I. “But maybe this how they do.” He asked me to place my hand on his and then push down so that he would be unable to lift his hand from the table. I did.

He tried to lift his hand, but I was holding it down with as much pressure and energy as I could, and his hand wouldn’t budge. “For example. This how we do.” He said, motioning for me to continue holding his hand down. “We fight, go against partner.”

Then, without warning, I felt my body begin to change. The change, an uncontrollable relaxation of all of my tense muscles, began in the hand that I was using to hold his hand to the table, but very quickly passed all the way through me all the way to my feet. Then, from somewhere deep inside him, what I can only describe as a slow wave began to build. He smiled again.

“This how they do.” It was more of a question than a statement. “Unity first. Then go together.” His hand, with mine on top, and me trying in vain to keep his from moving, lifted effortlessly from the table.

“Change outside by change inside first.” He took his hand from the table, crossed his arms over his chest, and leaned back in his chair again. “In aikido, unity difficult to see. Feel for unity inside self and partner, make more easy.”

The idea of developing a change in ourselves from the inside in order to help change or soften a partner – in aikido – was not new to me. In fact, the class Sensei had just finished teaching as well as a number of the classes he taught and which I had attended, was entirely on the internal elements of aikido. I had even found a great deal of success using the same principles when dealing with a number of difficult horses since I began studying with him.

However, he had said something here that really caught my attention. He said that unity is difficult to see, but if one feels for unity in self and parter, it can make it easier. Was he saying that the “internal” unity can actually be seen? If so, would that be the key to being able to somehow physically see the kind of subtle communication that horses offer each other? The kind of communication that appears invisible to us?

As I continued to attend Sensei’s classes, I tried to pay very close attention, even closer than I had been, to what he offered his partners and if I could see any kind of minuet visible change in them prior to him making contact with them. I found that there were times when a change was visible, but to be honest, no more than I would normally see in a similar situation.

Then, during one class, I saw it. Well, actually, I think we all saw it. In fact, a blind man could have seen it. Sensei had asked a student to be his partner during a demonstration. The partner was to take a hold of Sensei’s wrist so Sensei could demonstrate unity through contact. And that’s when it happened.

Just as the partner (uke) went to reach for Sensei’s wrist in a very powerful way, a little smile crossed Sensei’s face. As the smile appeared, and before the two made contact, there was an ever so slight dissipation of uke’s intensity. A quiet but unified “ooh” rippled through all of us watching, then, upon actually making contact with Sensei’s wrist, the student collapsed uncontrollably to the mat.

“Unity inside first, then inside partner,” Sensei said. “See unity?”

We all nodded, having witnessed the obvious connection between the two before contact was made. Sensei motioned for uke to try again. The student again reached for Sensei’s wrist in a powerful way. Sensei again smiled, but uke didn’t seem to lose any intensity in his reach. Still, when he made contact, uke again crumpled to the mat. Sensei turned to us, still smiling.

“See unity?” We all sat quiet, none of us having actually seen the point of relaxation in uke that we had seen previously. “In aikido, unity difficult to see. Feel for unity in self and partner, make more easy.”

It was then that the point I believe he was trying to make struck me. We have a tendency to look for outside physical changes, but seldom look for changes on the inside. Yet it is the internal changes that lead to the external changes – in both us and our partner.

It’s very much the same in horsemanship. We are taught to watch or feel for external changes in the horses we work with, but pay little attention to the internal changes. Even when we do look for internal changes in the horse, we often are paying little attention to what is going on inside of us.

I continue to attend as many of Sensei’s classes on the internal elements of aikido as possible, and not surprisingly find that the concepts I learn from him could be directly applied to horses in almost any situation. I have also been able to improve my own internal awareness as well, which is in no way at the level in which Sensei operates, but still light years better than it was before I began studying with him.

One of the things I also noticed as my own internal awareness began to improve is that my ability to see and feel internal changes in horses has not only improved, but it has gotten more accurate as well. Whereas in the past I might have had to wait for some tiny external change to occur before I would pick up on what the horse might be thinking or feeling, now I could sort of “feel” what was going to happen before the external change in the horse would actually show up.

These changes in awareness translated directly into the level of softness, or feel, that my body was able to produce and replicate. So much so, in fact, that just five years ago I was completely unaware that such a level of softness even existed in me or in horses. This change was like suddenly being able to see in three dimensions after a lifetime of only been able to see in two.

Of course, when any major shift in skill or understanding of concepts begins to take hold, the mind and body have a period of adjustment, or recalibration, if you will. It’s a part of growth that can be pretty uncomfortable at times. And it was no different for me. As I tried to navigate between what I had always known and done and this new understanding, I found myself floundering a bit, making mistakes I didn’t usually make, struggling with my feel and timing and even questioning the direction I was going. It was very unsettling, to say the least.

But as time went on I decided to just accept what was going on instead of fight or worry about it, and soon after that things began to smooth out. Eventually the fog of uncertainty lifted, as it always does, and the path became clearer and a bit easier to navigate. Now, several years later, I find this new direction not only very exciting, but also endless in its possibilities.

Five years ago, I could not have imagined the level of softness that would be available to me today. Today, I can’t imagine what will be available in the years to come. But one thing is certain, I am sure looking forward to the journey.