Aikido Lessons Continued...

Four weeks in and I am thoroughly enjoying my Aikido classes.

"Staying centred" and "going with" have been the two key principles which I've learnt in Aikido which have translated to my riding and work with horses. 

I have been practicing staying centred in a number of ways; firstly when lunging. In class we had to "feel" how our partner was moving towards us before an attack and mimic their movement so it was easier to blend with their movement as part of the defense. I have tried to do the same when lunging Tintin. 

To start with I have been thinking about where my centre is. It should be about 3 inches below the belly button, where a belt buckle would be. However, our centre changes depending on how we're feeling. When we are overthinking it is in our head, when we are emotional it is in our heart, but when we are balanced and centred it is near the bottom of our abdomen. 

The aim is to maintain that feeling of being centred whilst you are moving. Aikido is all about moving, and centering is much more about being balanced in motion than being rooted in one place. I think I am starting to get to grips with it. 

So whilst Tintin is walking round in a circle, I am focusing firstly on my centre, but then secondly on his and whether I can connect the two. The horse's centre will change (like ours) depending on how they are feeling. But horses are innately more centred and balance than people because they don't overthink it. I imagine Tintin's centre to be in the middle of his ribcage, by his shoulder, just slightly behind where his front leg is. 

As we walk round, I think about our centres and about matching my body language and matching my pace with his. I definitely felt Tintin soften and listen much more the first time I did this (luckily for me he was in one of his more relaxed moods!).

One of the exercises I particularly enjoyed in class was trying to maintain your centre whilst moving round with a partner (we also did this whilst one person was trying to pull you around with a long stick). The aim with this was to try to get your partner to lose their centre yet whilst doing so not sacrificing your own.

This is so much like riding. Often we sacrifice our balance, posture or position is order to ask the horse something. However, if we are not balanced and grounded, we are little use to the horse when he does move, as we have sacrificed our balance in the process. 

The way we regain control is by feeling the movement of the horse's centre and deciding when it is most vulnerable (ie when the horse is most off balance) and use this as our advantage. This is best done in Aikido on a circle. When you are turning, you are more likely to lose your balance than if you are moving forward. So as you turn with the horse, you then blend with his movement and are then better able to redirect the horse's energy and momentum in the direction you want to go.

This, however, is all very subtle. It shouldn't look like you're doing much at all. But after all, isn't that what "feel" and true horsemanship is all about?

This links in to the second principle which is "going with". Aikido is not about fighting or conflict, but rather about blending with the energy and moving with it. 

I find going with a difficult task in all areas of life. I generally want things done yesterday and done my way so I have been trying very hard to "go with" in all areas of my life... not always easy! But this principle did get me thinking about why I resist things and what I can do to overcome this. Stress is such a huge part of many of our lives and I think most people could practice a little bit of "going with" every day.

Practically with Tintin I have been trying to go with his movements a little more and then get my timing better for regaining the direction I want to go. This has actually led him to be more, rather than less cooperative. I feel like he responds more quickly when he appreciates that I am on his wavelength and generally we get to our final destination sooner and with less effort. This obviously merges with my previous description of staying centred , which is at the heart of going with. 

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My first Aikido class was one of the best riding lessons

As some of you will have seen from my Instagram, I have been reading some of Mark Rashid's books in which he describes his journey of horsemanship and how it has been improved by aikido.

I was fascinated. I am conscious that I can be a bit of a bull and use my strength to move things rather than tact. This is probably more evident in my hockey skills than my riding, but I am sure since my shoulder operation last year that I am more tense and guarded than I used to be.

So I found a local class which is designed to develop the person as much as learning Aikido technique..... exactly what I was wanting!

The key aikido principles I learnt really struck a cord and mirrored exactly how I feel about horsemanship, I hope you enjoy! 

1. Staying Centred

This is all about finding your centre, keeping it, being aware of it and being aware of your partner's centre as well as the centre between the two of you. This is your stability. Your balance point. If you lose your centre, then you have lost the movement and your control of your own body. But being centred is not about rigidity and fixed to one spot. Quite the opposite. Its about knowing where you are so that you can constantly move to remain in balance, with yourself and your partner. 

When you are centred, less effort is required to do the movement. Your body stays upright and your feet move. The rest of you should remain loose and relaxed. This is another thing which I find hard... I tense and brace and ultimately break!

This is a direct parallel to riding. When we have good posture and a strong (but flexible) core in the saddle, we are able to move our limbs to direct the horse easily and without loss of balance. If we are rigid and braced, our movements become jerky and we loose than feeling and awareness of where our balance point is. This makes us more vulnerable to being unseated. 

2. You have a Partner not an Opponent

I thought this one was particularly important and is a key principle which separates aikido from other martial arts. The aim is to go with and work with your partner. Not against them. Whatever the situation, go with. This is one of the main reasons I was interested in taking up Aikido. I feel like I can be good at resisting... whether its because I am worrying, or stressing, or not confident in the other person's decision making, I feel like I block initially, rather than allowing, reading the situation and then moving or changing accordingly. 

This frequently can happen when we're riding too. We feel the horse move, squirm or fall out in the wrong direction and rather than going with them, we block, brace and cause tension. By remembering that our horse is our partner, we are honoring their centre and choose to go with them to improve the overall harmony of the relationship. We need them in order to ride, so lets remember that it is a partnership and not a dictatorship!

I am yet to try this in practice, I think it will be a hard one as we are so rigid and fixed in our ways of riding, but I am excited to see how I develop with this!

3. Cheap Aikido vs True Aikido

This one just made me laugh! Cheap aikido uses force and pain to overcome your partner. Anyone can do it, provided they know the moves, but its miles away from the art of true aikido.

Isn't this just exactly the same in the equestrian world? Anyone can strap on some spurs, big bit, draw reins and steer a horse where they need, provided they know the dressage or jumping moves. But this isn't beautiful, or tactful or anything like the art of riding. 

But you can frequently resort to cheap aikido when you end up in the wrong place because you (a) didn't stay relaxed (b) lost circular motion and movement (c) didn't read the situation or (d) lost your centre. Cheap aikido is your fault. You choose to do it because you are too focused on the end task rather than how you get there. 

Again, we are often so determined to get that perfect centre line, shoulder in, or jump-off line, that we focus too much on the goal and loose all awareness of the process which is currently going on around us. It is with tact and softness that we get the horse to work with us and do what we want; but we must have the integrity to keep to true rather than cheap methods to get to our goal.

4. Circular Motion and Flow

Similar to moving with your partner, this principle is about seeing the world as circles and using spirals to get to the floor. Everything in aikido ends in the floor. (Hopefully we can ignore this part when riding!!) I am quite jarry and angular in my movements. I've never been able to dance and think I lack fluidity in most areas of my life.

This principle, for me, is closely intertwined with letting go and going with.

Circles will always come back to facing in the same direction. I think I am scared that being circular will mean I am not being progressive, that i'll remain the same. But actually, I think being circular and using circular motion is about developing. Being able to go into a situation and then come out again, with out any abruptness or sharp edges or lines, is a valuable skill.

Other benefits include being able to see all points of view. Being able to realise that where you are not is not where you'll end up, but its just all part of the motion to get there.

We talked a lot about the DNA helix as an analogy for this moving, dynamic, circular motion. Again, its all about flow and going with.

I know I have just scratched the surface here, but I just loved the principles and how they related to equestrian art. If I haven't done enough to convince you to try aikido, then why not read some of Mark Rashid's books? I would recommend "Horsemanship through Life" and "Nature in Horsemanship" as good places to start.