Aikido with an Equine Uke
By Paul Rest
Recently, I spent a remarkable five days at Sky Horse Ranch in Northern California. At the ranch, leadership is taught using horses as training partners. The founder of the school has a background in Aikido as well as being a certified Somatic coach, having trained with Saotome Sensei, Shihan, Frank Doran Sensei, Shihan and other high-ranking teachers such Sensei Richard Strozzi-Hecker. My experiences that week allowed me to examine the core principles I had learned over the years on the mat.
The ranch and training, run by Ariana Strozzi, is situated on a hill over looking the small village of Valley Ford, in Northern California, about a good hour and half drive north of San Francisco. A large covered arena provides a shelter from the wind and rain that blows in from the Pacific Ocean, twenty or so miles to the west and southwest as the crow flies. In the arena, horses are linked with students during the practical application of what is taught. In essence, the horse becomes that student’s uke.
The core principles of Aikido—learning to move from one’s center; clarity with one’s intentions, breathing from one’s core; being relaxed in the body; looking at the bigger picture; staying connected—are all tested and put into play with this work. As I mentioned to a friend about half way through the five day course, “Being with these horses is like having a thousand pound uke!”
During the course Ariana discusses the history of relationship between women, men and horses. Those in my class learned that the word “manage” originally meant the ability to manage horses. She also noted that the relationship between humans and horses goes back tens of thousands of years. Much of what I learned reminded me of the writings of Michael Pollan, where he records how humans and certain plants have changed and adapted to each other over eons of time. That may have been how the relationship between horses and humans occurred too. We both gradually adapted and changed to make the relationship work best for both of us.
Put in the arena with three horses, my first assignment was to see if I could get three horses tied to the rail on the side of the arena notice me as I walked from one end of the arena to another. I interpreted this as being able to move in a centered manner. Ariana explained again and again that horses are all about connection—in the herd with other horses and with their two-legged companions. Well, one of the mares sort of, kind of looked up at me in a sleepy way. “Guess that’s better than not being noticed,” I said to myself, walking somewhat dejectedly back to the group observing my performance.
The next day, the ante was upped. Could I walk with a horse to the other end of the arena and back? Could we move together? I couldn’t pull or push or obviously create a verbal framework for moving with my horse with persuasive logic. Besides, she, the horse, was bigger than me! And stronger… Something else had to happen. I needed to be connected. So, as when on the mat, I breathed in deeply, relaxed, extended by ki to include my training partner, and taking bridle in hand, moved. I felt like I was at the moment in a class where I was being asked to move my training partner by moving with them, rather than trying or making them move. Taking that first step, the horse moved with me. We walked to the far end of the arena and then back. Elated, but not forgetting that in the beginning my training partner had tried to show me who was boss by forcing me to move by attempting to bite my knee, I realized I had a lot more to learn.
As the week progressed, we spent more and more time in the arena. We spoke declarations about what we wanted to accomplish, or what we wanted to change in our lives. We all quickly learned that if we were focused and sincere, grounded in what we were saying, our training partners moved with us. If not, our four legged ukes would not budge—no matter how hard we pushed or pulled. Once again, the similarities to being on the mat were undeniable. The horse became, in essence, the perfect reflection of who and what we were with ourselves and in the world. Or, the uke from hell if we were off center and not grounded.
The last day we were asked to construct a course that we would lead our charges through. My class built ours in seven parts. There were posts, chairs, a wooden pathway, barrels turned upright, a small enclosed area, a low jump, a tarp in the far corner and a “garden area” consisting of pants and pampas grass stalks. Our instructions were that we were to lead our horse through this maze of sorts. “Like a kyu or dan test,” I realized. The seven parts were like techniques. You had to stay connected throughout the whole test. You couldn’t do one part and then stop and then start up again. Our assigned horse was “Ruby,” a large mare. I volunteered to go first.
I walked to Ruby’s side and extended my ki towards her. Putting my arm on her flank to connect, I talked about the goals I had been working on during the five day course. Then it was time. Ruby moved with me through the gate and the barrels. We managed to blend together and make the turn into the narrow wooden pathway. As we were making a 90 degree left turn, I started thinking about how well as I doing. The next instant, Ruby stopped! I was no longer connected with her. I instantly realized I was only connected with my mind. Refocusing took a minute or two, but Ruby and I got on our way again, crossing the jump and moving in and out of the enclosed area. We walked together through the chairs and over to the tarp (which we collectively called “the unknown swamp”) and then to the “garden,” where Ruby instantly saw a meal and started munching on the pampas stalks. We walked back to the bleachers, where Ariana and the other students were seated. The group gave me collective feedback about the strengths and weaknesses of what they had seen.
Other students had more or less success, depending on whether or not they were willing to blend and connect with Ruby. She mirrored them perfectly. If someone was unclear, she’d turn her head away. If unsure or unfocused, or as in my case, where the connection was lost, Ruby would stop dead in her tracks. Once the connection was re-established, Ruby and her human partners would continue.
I had had little experience with horses before taking the course. Others who attended were experienced horse people. Yet, it really didn’t make any difference: a connection was a connection. And if it wasn’t there, experience or not, Ruby or one of her stable mates would simply get bored and not move.
I have heard and read that O Sensei would tell his students that they could do the same incredible feats he did. While not attempting anything so mind bending, during this week I did have an opportunity to experience that the core concepts we learn on the mat do work. In this case, my training partners were intelligent and four-legged with swishy tails, anxious to connect and feel that they were part of what we were doing that week. It was a great learning experience for me. And when we were finished with out course, I went up to Ruby and gave her a big hug and “thank you,” as we do with all our training partners at the end of class or a workshop.
Paul Rest is a Nidan. He trains at Two Rock Aikido with Richard Strozzi-Hecker, 6th dan. He has written extensively about his work and experiences in Aikido, including many articles in this publication about the development of Low Impact Aikido. He can be reached at
Ariana Strozzi and SkyHorse Ranch can be reached at www.skyhorseranch.com