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Considering the Horse - Diaries 01/2003

 

KIM LANKFORD 2003 MONTHLY DIARY

People are always asking me how Mark and I got hooked up. We met through a mutual friend, Harry Whitney.  I was talking about horses with Harry one night while having dinner. I was looking for some changes in my work with horses and brought up Mark’s name.  I asked Harry what he thought.  He had nothing but good things to say about Mark and strongly recommended him. He said it might be a good change for me to work with someone like him.

A few months later, I had the opportunity to ride with Mark in a clinic (May, 2002), and found out that Mark and I have a lot in common. Not just when it comes to horses, but also the overall way we look at life. We got along very well at the clinic, which was ultimately the beginning of a long distance friendship via the telephone. After a number of conversations which consisted of talking about everything from family, friends, movies, riding, playing guitar, writing music and movie scripts, to my work with Pilates and his work in Aikido, we began playing with the idea of having me be his assistant for clinics in 2003.

In August, after visiting him and his family in Colorado and riding again with him during one of his week long sessions there, we firmed up the idea of working together and began making plans for me to start working with him full time in 2003.

Fast forward to January, 2003.

Moving from Los Angeles to Estes Park, Colorado, is a big change for me.  I’ve been an actor all my life and have also had horses for most of that time as well.  My horses have always kept me grounded in a business - show business - which can be very ungrounded. A lot of things are based on “exterior”. How you look, how you move, how you sound…I’ve critiqued myself up one side and down the other.  Always trying in my own way to be better…to be the best ‘me’ I could be.

To that end, I was very intrigued by what I was hearing Mark say in regard to his work with Aikido and how he was implementing it in his horsemanship. Aikido is a martial art that is designed to move in harmony with a potential attacker.  It is based on blending, timing, feel and balance…All things we need in our work with horses, and in life for that matter!

Oddly enough, it would also be at the heart of my very first lesson in what I am now referring to as “horsemanship through life”. 

We’re in L.A., actually coming out of Malibu headed toward the 101. We’re in the truck pulling Mark’s 30 foot trailer with horses in the back. Mark is unfamiliar with the area, so I’m giving directions. I’ve lived in the L.A. area all my life, and I know how to work the traffic.  You get in, make your move when you can, and don’t miss your opportunity because it just may cost you.  Cost you what?  Time! Everything in L.A. is based on time.

I say to Mark, “Its time to move over into the other lane.” And he doesn’t move! And I say again “We need to get over, now! We’re going to miss our turn!”  And we do. We miss our turn.  I’m wondering ‘What’s wrong? Why did we miss our turn?’ Now we’ll have to go two or three miles down the road before we can turn this big rig around, costing us probably fifteen minutes!  I’m trying to breath, breath, breath my way through this.

I ask Mark, “What happened?”

He said, “There wasn’t any room for me to get over.”

“What do you mean, ‘no room’? says I. “There’s always room!”  I ask him if I can help him understand how to maneuver in this kind of traffic. He says “sure”.

“Okay, this is what you do…After putting on your blinker, you roll down your window, sticking your arm out, overtly signaling that we need to get over NOW. Surely the people behind us will stop and let us over, these are my people…This is how it’s done. You just do it.”

Well, turns out that’s not how Mark moves through traffic. Blending, feel and timing. Remember those things? ‘Oh yeah’, I say to myself as he begins to explain.

We need to think about everything, everybody. It didn’t matter that we missed the turn and had to go another few miles before we could turn around and get back to where we needed to be.  If Mark had done what I asked him to do, people would have had to slow down, maybe even stop in order for us to change lanes. It would have interrupted the flow.

“Yes, but we would have made our turn.”

“But what else would have happened?” he asked.  “People would have been disrupted. I don’t always think that’s a bad thing. It can give people an opportunity to start over fresh.  In this case, though, we’re trying to blend, move with, not against. They shouldn’t have to pay for our lack of planning.”

Lightbulb… Suddenly I can see how sometimes I am moving against my horse, not with him or supporting him, but wanting to get done what I feel is important without taking him into consideration. Maybe I want to do some riding, but he tells me groundwork is what we need today. How I must confuse him sometimes. I’m so lucky to have a very wise, thoughtful, confident horse who forgives my lack of understanding and is always there to support me. I know Bridger feels this in me - me wanting to do right by him, so he goes with me and our work continues.

Moving on to our first clinic from Colorado to California…I’ve given this a lot of thought, what from the clinics to include in this series of diaries.  And now, after having been through a couple of clinics, I can see there is no way I’m going to be able to recap the clinics in their entirety, there is just too much information and too much going on to do it all justice.  What I’m thinking I’ll do instead is pick out one or two things that really stand out for me (and hopefully will for you as well) that enforce the common thread of “Horsemanship through life”.

We’re leaving Colorado at 7:30 am, 18 degrees. Ice and sleet on the road. Quite beautiful actually. We’d been working on helping Bridger to load better in the trailer, to do it with less hesitation. He’s always been a pretty good loader, but I’m suddenly beginning to see little holes in some of his training.  We don’t want to dilly-dally anymore, we’ve got work to do, places to go, clinics to get to and its 18 degrees. We want to get loaded and on our way. And we did. Smokey (Mark’s primary clinic horse for the past two years), and Bridger both jump into the trailer and off we go.

Our plan is to make Las Vegas, NV, by nightfall. Thirteen hours later, we make it to Tommy’s place (a friend of Mark’s just outside of Las Vegas), where we have a nice turn-out for our horses and a place for us all to rest.  We’re up early, at 3:00am, and off to Arroyo Grande, California which is still about nine hours away.  We pull into the venue with about forty five minutes to spare to get ready for our afternoon demo.

The demo is interactive between us and all of the people who are attending, and is designed to let people know what we’re going to be doing in the clinic, and why we’re doing it. We set up in a nice grassy area along side the arena. Mark begins by giving a little talk, then goes into some Aikido-based exercises that all participate in. The exercises help people with blending, as well as feel, timing and balance. When he finishes, I begin with exercises reinforcing, or in some cases, helping people find their center…Their neutral pelvic position.  When on the horse, this position can help people to find the center of balance between them and their horse, which ultimately can lead to a “shared” or “connected center” with the horse.

Our center is directly above our horse’s center when we are on their back. In other words, we are sitting on our horse’s center. Ideally this is the place where we begin to share our breath, timing and feel with the horse.

The demo lasts about three hours. It’s always very interesting to see and feel what we (the collective ‘we’) are all about, and it’s a great way to break the ice with everyone. It also gives us a chance to start looking for the same things. A way to get better, feel better, about what we’re doing and what we bring to our horse.

I have been working for quite some time on trying to develop ways of incorporating my work with Pilates into my work with horses. Keep in mind that Pilates focuses on the stabilization of one’s core, the center/trunk area. It also focuses on breathing properly to promote the postural awareness that we need to stay centered throughout the day, throughout our life. Having formed some solid ideas on how to transfer this to the saddle, I began implementing them with myself while riding.  I started to see that these ideas were actually very beneficial for me in the saddle and after talking it over with Mark, we decided that it would be these ideas that I would try and teach to the riding students at the clinics. 

For the last several years at his clinics, Mark has been looking for ways to help riders stay balanced in the saddle, particularly when making transitions, and in the faster gates such as the trot and canter.  He and his assistants had tried a number of different approaches and had, what Mark called, limited success.  He told me that while the majority of the riders could keep their balanced position in the saddle while in the walk, that often it would fall apart in those faster gates.  This was the main thing he and I wanted to address when it came to rider position.

One very exciting thing for me at the first clinic was that after the work we had done with each person on breath, and body positioning and awareness, each person got better. They were able to hold their position through their transitions.  As I said, we had been talking about this for months, and suddenly, there it was.  We saw it, what I dreamed in my mind’s eye, how it could be done.  And what’s more, the rider’s saw it and felt it and their horses felt it and responded just like we knew they would, if we could just make it simple and clear.  On top of that, each day there was improvement!  Riders that were already good wanted more and were getting even better!  Horses were getting even softer, smiles were getting bigger.

Another lesson for me was being part of another gal’s work.  She was working to get her horse, a 17 yr old Arab gelding who had never been driven, into a driving cart - a sulky. She was thinking about joining a driving club. Sounds very cool. Of course I, myself, have never given this very much thought.  I never thought about how a horse might have to learn how to move, turn, back and stand still while in a harness.

Wow, was she good. She had worked with driving lines from the ground, getting the horse to back, she worked with the harness, the crouper, the horse was so comfortable that all she had done, all this preparation had been going on for months.  So, when we got there and the time had come to work with Mark in the clinic, all of her efforts paid off.

There was some fine tuning that had to be done with the cart itself, which was done on the second day. She never wanted to rush Mark or her horse and each day we got a little closer to hooking the horse up. It gave me pause just how patient and mindful she was during all of this.  When we put the sulky behind the horse, the shafts that hold the cart in balance to the horse run along side the horse’s barrel, which keep the horse from bending. What a change for the horse. So he really can’t turn as he is accustomed to doing, he must do a sort of side step, or side pass to turn. And when backing, there is pressure on a piece of the harness which is around his hind quarters and under his tail called the breeching. All of these sensations are completely foreign to the riding horse, especially at 17 years old, and it looked like he’d been doing it all his life.

Still, Mark took his time. Never did he/we push on this giving horse. “You only have one shot at hooking them up for the first time. You want the experience to be positive.” I kept holding myself and my thoughts back.  Just help, learn and breathe.  On the third day, we got the horse hooked into the cart. Mark and I walked along side as the horse took his first tentative steps forward, with a lead on either side just incase we needed to help shut him down, but there was no need.  Things were going so smoothly that I kept thinking to myself, “let’s get in the cart.”  Those thoughts are my excitement, getting just a little bit ahead of myself. 

The owner worked the horse from behind the cart with long driving lines. Again, she was working from the ground.  She went forward, turned, stopped and backed. All of her hard worked was paying off.  We even turned too short one time, and step by step, Mark and the owner helped the owner through this side-stepping.  Never did we trouble the horse, we just kept helping him find his way.

I started to think about how you needed to position yourself in the cart, and we worked on that.  How ‘in your center’ you must be in order to balance all of this.  And we worked on that as well.  The next day, if everything went well, the owner would be in her sulky…And she was.  Driving that horse around the arena…How glorious it was.  I can just see her in a fancy driving outfit when she joins her driving club.  But you know what?  Even though everything went so well, I still got the feeling that if, for whatever reason things hadn’t gone well, she wouldn’t have pushed it.  She would have just kept patiently working.

Mark was saying how refreshing it was and what a big difference it makes, not just for the horse and rider, but for the clinician as well.  How people often have these big expectations and goals for their horse and expect to get it done in three or four days of a clinic, without a lick of preparation on the owner’s part. Consequently, riders and horse get frustrated.  I’m starting to truly understand what ownership means. Not just the physical possession of the horse, but the big picture. This owner took possession of all of it. She helped her horse what was to be expected of him when the clinic came to be. Not just with hours or days of preparation, but months. And the payoff was there.  That horse was never troubled. It was a good time for all…Everyone succeeded.

On our day off, we wanted to go to San Diego to meet with Peggy Cummings. I was so excited to meet and talk with her about what she does. She has written so much about all of this and I have just been coming at it from my “horse sense”, if you will.  Mark told her about what was happening.  He said he had seen me off working with a rider on my little mat, and the rider would come back into the arena and be better. He told Peggy that he kept wondering what I was doing and saying over there. (I worked with the riders on the horse as well.)  He was telling her how the riders were keeping balanced in the faster gaits.  He was saying all of this to Peggy.  Oh my, this was all just so exciting, and Peggy was so interested, and interesting!  We watched her work with a horse she was helping through some tough spots…On releasing energy from some spots in the horse’s body where she was all braced up.  She was working on changing the muscle memory.

Yes! That’s it!  That’s the same thing we’re trying to do with our bodies…Changing muscle memory!  Peggy would take my hand and run it down the horse’s jaw, and I could feel it too, those braced up spots.  Then I wondered what happens if our hands, fingers, shoulders, necks and backs are braced while in the saddle.  Sending all of that through the reins to the horse, through the saddle to the horse…Brace upon brace. Our poor horses, our poor selves.

We all took a lunch break.  By the way, now I’m just beside myself with excitement. I can hardly sit still, and am not thinking clearly. NEVER order a pastrami sandwich in a Mexican restaurant, even if they do have rye bread! What was I thinking??

We get back to the barn and Peggy asked Mark if he would work with this horse in the round pen. How cool, now we’re getting different perspectives on the same kind of work. All working toward release and softness with this little mare. Peggy and I watched Mark…I watched Peggy watched Mark…We watched the horse.  She was just as braced in the round pen as she was on the lead with Peggy when she first started.  

Mark starts his work, he’s soft and quiet, different from how I have seen other clinicians start round pen work. I have watched others chase the horse around which makes the horse, in my opinion, even more bracy. Adding to the brace instead of giving the horse a chance to soften or gain some understanding right from the start. Here there was no “making the wrong thing difficult” by pushing the horse with flags or ropes. Even when the horse was bolting around the pen, kicking at Mark, there was no retaliation. Just soft support and awareness from her human companion.

As Mark was explaining while this temper tantrum was taking place, he was not allowing himself to be pulled into her drama. With no active participation from the human, there was nothing for her to fight against. Within a short time, the horse started to wonder what the heck she was doing. Why am I causing all of this fuss?

Mark continued to move with her, blending, timing, feel and softness. And that’s what happened…That little horse started to soften right before our eyes. Of course it’s just the beginning of her journey, the journey to softness. There she stood by Mark’s side, wondering what the big deal had been. She found a friend, we all did. Good thing, too, it was almost dark and we had to get on our way.  We had to get back to Arroyo Grande (still seven hours away) and get ready to start the second clinic. We wanted to stop and see my folks, pick up some Pilates equipment, sleep and ended up getting back fifteen minutes before starting week two.  It was worth every minute!

During the second clinic, the one thing that stuck out with several riders were fear issues. Now don’t get me wrong, I think fear is a good thing. Healthy for sure. However, when we keep it so present…The “what ifs”, it makes it hard to be in the now. (I know this from personal experience.) The idea is if we stay with our breath, and move with and redirect movement/energy and ultimately help the fear level…We have a plan.  Also, when addressed in a positive way, the fear can dissipate and soon we’re wondering what we were afraid of! 

We had one rider that came into the arena with no pretenses. She said boldly “I’m afraid”. To me, this seemed a very healthy approach to her situation.  She had already acknowledged that there was an issue between her and her horse. As a result of her fear, she always lunged her horse before she rode.  But the wind scared her, goats, scared her, leaves falling from the trees scared her, birds, dogs, deer, and you name it…And of course, all of these things also scared her horse.  She rode in a fearful position as well, so just in case her horse didn’t know what she was thinking, he could sure feel it.  

I worked with her on the ground, trying to help her get to her breath, and a solid neutral pelvic position just to feel connected and good on earth. Then we can make the move to the horse. Mark worked with her and her horse, a nice Arab gelding to direct that “fear energy” into something positive. Neither one, horse or rider wanted to be afraid, and craved the new direction.  They were moving with softness, blending the fear into the “now” and it was going pretty well.  What stood out for me was that she wasn’t afraid to address the fear, and each day was better for her and her horse.

The second to the last day her and I went on a little trail ride, so she could have reinforcement right there, with things that might come up…Helping her redirect that fear energy in a practical situation. So we did. And we came across goats, a hose that for some reason happened to cross the bridle path, chickens and dogs, all of which were terrifying to her. We worked on breath while we rode, and cadence. I told her, yes her horse saw the goat already, and the horse was still moving forward.  If she could get past it, breathe past it, I was sure she would be okay. And by gosh, she was. Within no time at all we rode right past that goat. He continued to do goat things, and we continued to do horse and rider things. She never got off to lead her horse past the impending danger, though of course she could have at any time. We just kept going ‘with’, and breathing.

The last day of the clinic she rode her horse a half mile – by herself – to the arena, and she and Mark got started right off…No groundwork first. Mark gave her and her horse things to do in the arena, there was no time or need to think of the “what ifs”. It was a joy to see horse and rider soften and support each other.

We have all felt that fear for some reason or another. Like I said, I sure have. And I guess it’s up to us to decide how long we’re going to let it control us.

Looking back on these two clinics, there’s just so much that I want to share. But if I get started, I won’t be able to stop!  There’s just so much and everything means so much. Things as dramatic as the Thoroughbred who on the first day couldn’t be led and would race around at warp speed whether on a lung line or under saddle, then on the last day to see him and his owner riding in a relaxed position, the horse round and supple, trotting around the arena aglow!! 

Also things as subtle as passing along ideas via the power of suggestion.  During an exercise on the ground with two participants, one person was to teach the other the simple task of tapping a specific container with her toe.  There were two black container sitting on the ground side by side. On one container was written in white, the word ‘garbage’, on the other container was the word ‘recycle’.  This task was to be accomplished by the “teacher” using only two words for direction of the “student”.  The words are “good” and “no”.  It’s similar to the child’s game “hot and cold” in which when you are close you say “hot” and when you are far you say “cold”.  The difference in this exercise when heading toward the goal its “good”, when heading away it’s “no”.

Mark chose the goal to be the recycle container. The “teacher” asked him twice which container she wanted her to use. Recycle. Twice he said recycle.  After the exercise was over, the “teacher’ asked him why he was so emphatic on targeting the recycle container. After all, what difference did it make?  Both containers were exactly the same with the exception of the words painted on them. Mark’s reply was “One of the goals of this exercise is that this information is to be over and over, not to be thrown away.”  Even with that one simple thing the message is positive…Nothing is thrown away when it comes to information pertaining to our horses…NOTHING is throw away.

It was a week and a half of good work, good horsemanship, folks looking for the best in one another and in their horses, and finding it! A lot of this comes from our horses, Anita and Carl. Fun and supportive towards each other, and the people and critters they surround themselves with. 13 cats, dogs, chickens, goats, and of course their, and our beloved horses. Thank you so much for making us feel at home, from the laughter around the table at meal times, to allowing Mark and I to play our guitars and sing  in the evenings.

We say good by leaving sunny California, 80 degrees, 5:30 pm heading for home, Estes Park Colorado, where it’s snowing and 15 degrees. This week it looks like I might learn how to run the snow plow!  We make it to Las Vegas at about 1:30 am, grab a little shut eye for us and the horses, and are back on the road by 9:00am.  I write this on the way home in the truck.  Northern Arizona, lunch in Utah, through Colorado and it’s now 7:44 pm, we just made our last fuel stop, horses look good and we’re still standing.

Home at 1:08 am, 7 degrees, six inches of snow…Goodnight to our ponies and sweet dreams.

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