Martial arts, horses, and the importance of being centered

Or: How Aikido helped me through the period of lockdown

Martial arts, horses...
what is the relationship here you might wonder?
A very old relationship, and it is not (only) about horses carrying us into war... but read on to hear my personal experience and how it can help you as well.

Aikido - the art of connection

Exactly a year ago, in May 2019, a few of months after being hospitalized following an accident with a horse, I contacted our Aikido Sensei in Dubai for the first time and started taking lessons in her dojo.

Prior to that, Aikido had come up a couple of times for me, and always in relationship with horses…

So I was curious to find out if studying Aikido would help me develop a better connection with horses. 

What is Aikido?

Aikido is a defensive art that emphasizes entering into and blending with an attacker’s energy, then directing that energy to the most peaceful solution possible using circular movement as the means of direction. 

Students quickly discover that the strength of Aikido is not in muscular force, but in flexibility, timing, control, and modesty - and this is exactly what we require when working with horses.

For a true partnership with the horse, we cannot rely on strength and force (or what most equestrians do, on devices inflicting pain to compensate for our lack of muscular strength). 

We need to be able to control our body and our emotions,
be perfect in our timing so as not to send wrong messages, 
and be modest and humble. 

The Peaceful Horse-Warrior

Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling

Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling, one of the first people teaching natural horsemanship and the author of the book “Dancing with horses” which I kept reading over and over in the 1990s, believes that martial arts and archery help individuals gain more strength and control over their mind and body.
This in turn allows the human to come across differently to the horses.

Authentic communication and being aware of your body are crucial skills which according to Hempfling anybody must master in order to be able to work with horses, without inflicting pain on the horse and the human.
(Yes, the equestrian sport can cause a lot of pain if it is done the wrong way. Either for the human who gets injured or for the horse who is submitted to constant pain in the human's need to subdue this powerful animal).

Clarity and congruence of inner and outer appearance are important if you want a partnership with your horse.

Aikido for Horsemen

Mark Rashid is another great horseman who promotes a peaceful relationship with horses, and has also been training in Aikido since many years. He even holds a second degree black belt now. 

Mark uses the core principals of Aikido - staying centered, entering in, blending with, and using circular movement - daily in his horsemanship.
He is constantly looking for quiet but effective ways to blend with a horse’s energy - whether that energy is wanted or unwanted - in order to help the horse understand what is being asked of it.

I can highly recommend his book "
Horsemanship Through Life" in which he talks a lot about his profound learnings from Aikido and from horses. From these, he develops principles to live by, both in relationship with fellow humans as well as with our horses.

My EAHAE Colleagues David and Jackie

I received the final push to learn more about the art of Aikido when in 2019 I read the book of my EAHAE colleague Jackie Stevenson "Someday We'll Live Like Horses", an amazing summary of all her learnings and how horses helped her take a different view on how we live. 
Hearing that she as well as David Harris from HorseDream UK had both been trained in the martial art of Aikido before, knowing them and having been in their presence before, I was sure that Aikido can teach us some deep lessons which not only help with horses, but definitely also with more than that.

Aikido at Dubai's Zanshinkan Dojo

I am grateful that I am not simply able to learn a martial art, but that I found such a special teacher in Sensei Cathy Darnell.
Apart from techniques, we learn so much more in our classes (which since March 2020 have continued live on Zoom).

In these Aikido classes, we are taught
Body awareness:

  • Where is my right shoulder?
  • How am I breathing?
  • Where do I step and do I connect to the earth?
  • What is my left knee doing? ...

However, we are also taught awareness of our mind and energy.
Sensei Cathy teaches us to use the strength and energy inside us, to link body, mind and spirit and to become fully aware of everything that is going on 

  • inside us
  • outside of us and
  • around us

Especially in this time of lockdown, insecurity, anxiousness, where our lives had come to a sudden and very unexpected halt, she was one of the first to step up, embrace the change and teach martial arts classes online.
Something that seemed impossible before, worked surprisingly well, and with a special focus on breathing, calming down, and staying centered in these unprecedented times, Sensei Cathy's classes became a regular time to reconnect with ourselves.

On my first return to the stables after weeks of staying at home, I was amazed at the softness I discovered in the horses I spend time with. 
Until today, I cannot fully explain the change, but it was noticeable in all the different horses I met since - a synchronicity between horse and human, an invisible bond connecting two souls, a state where doing was less important than just being...

Thank you and I look forward to learning so much more!

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