Do Horses Really Enjoy Working With Us?

I practice a martial art called Ki Aikido, also known as the Art of Harmony or Peace. Being less about hurting people and more about energy flow and reconciliation, it takes a long time to be any good at, and a long time to “get” – which lends the art some of its obscurity, as most people like fast results.

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It is also the single-most metaphorical aspect of my private world: I can make sense of things through the philosophy and teaching I have been enveloped in since I was young. Those of you seeking and developing body- and heart-based ways of relating to horses might have an understanding of the endless equine applications for the flow, harmony, self-defense, dance, and Ki or energy awareness I have learned on the mat. And no matter what layer of relationship I have been on with my horses, I have found wisdom and guidance in my embodied practice of Aikido.

Recently, I’ve found it shedding light on a topic that Jini and I explore a lot with our own horses and, lately, here on this blog: do horses like working with us? Like the lovely Mike and his sweet horse Bob show us, could it be that some really delight in being ridden, chasing cows, doing dressage, and so on? Certainly many horse owners would claim that they do. But how can we really know, when we can’t be in the horse’s skin, when so much of the mess we are in as a species originates in misinterpreting things for our own gain?

These are some of the things I wonder about constantly as I thread my way through theory, philosophy and experience with horses. In my movement away from the traditional, then the “natural” horsemanship methods, the endless layers of dominance and justification that seem at the core of our human confusion, I have at times rejected the idea that any horse could actually choose and enjoy some of the activities we press upon them. But in Ki Aikido class I find the contradictions and insights weaving together into a razor sharp edge on which I try to balance: so too with the dance of discovery I am on with my horses.

I have the great pleasure of having been taught by my father, who started his love affair with Ki Aikido when I was very young. He is now the head of the Canadian Federation of Ki Aikido, and a wonderful, precise, and gentle teacher, or Sensei. Since passing my third Dan grading, I am often chosen to help demonstrate the moves: to attack at various speeds while he describes his movements to the other students.

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Me in kidogi at a seminar in Paris

When I’m the Sensei’s assistant, I watch him like a hawk. I am focused on and ready to respond to every verbal request or physical suggestion, his conversational cues as he explains to the class, and each micro movement within the form he chooses. I find deep satisfaction in reading his intention and being there before he even has to ask. When he’s busy explaining, my job is to sit there and be ready to quickly and calmly attack when he asks, matching the energy and speed he presents in his defense. It’s subtle and nobody ever taught any of us explicitly how to do this; we simply learn from watching over the years. The movement in Aikido itself is about synchronizing with the intention of the other person and following their Ki, transforming it into something beyond the sum of its parts.

During a recent class, I noticed briefly how much like a working dog I felt, like a border collie totally zeroed in on its human’s cues. In a meditative state both exhilarating and incredibly still, nothing goes through my mind but the neutral directions of my nervous system to my body, allowing me to plug into my Sensei’s energy and move in an intoxicatingly graceful, powerful way that is almost impossible alone.

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Herding 400 sheep with two working dogs – a feat that requires amazing communication and absolute willingness and initiative from the dog

Later, as I felt-remembered this feeling, I realized that it gave me an in-my-body understanding of why an animal would even bother listening to us, or why despite dominant methods they often seem to truly derive meaning and pleasure from their partnerships with humans. More than that, my own experience also gave me a framework for what makes it enjoyable for me – and there is way more there than obedience.

I can be in that state with my father, and he is calling the shots and technically completely in charge, but I am also autonomous, in my power, not at all feeling controlled (compelled is more accurate), and absolutely enjoying every moment of it. I allow him to take the reins, so to speak, because I trust in his experience and our own energetic communication – I know he can feel when I’ve had enough. I also know I can tell him at any time that I’m done and he’ll respect that, which allows me to throw my whole self into the moment’s performance without reservation. How do I know this? Because I have worked with other teachers and fellow students who I do not trust, who make me fear for my safety or who I simply cannot connect to on the same level. The difference is immense, as is the effect this has on my movement and the possibilities of our practice.

Furthermore, my father and I relax into a completely different relationship off the mat, where as his adult daughter he loves and supports me, but we operate in an egalitarian friendship and expect nothing but authenticity from each other. Sounds like a pretty ideal way of riding or working a horse or dog to me!

But there are so many elements that have brought us to this point. Our working Aikido partnership, which lasts only moments at a time, is built on a loving, trusted relationship established far more off the mat than on, through long years and hard times. I’ve been allowed to choose every step of the way whether I participate on the mat, or whether I even go to class, and so our Aikido practice is very much in flow and based on what we both like and want to do, what’s comfortable and safe and fun. If I am injured, I am never expected to perform. If I am tired or not “on”, I am not punished. I love to work hard in my practice because I know it pleases my father, but mostly because it pleases me.

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Fun times riding with Spoo

It’s a long thought that I’m still exploring, and in some ways I don’t have a point exactly, but it was an anvil-on-the-head moment when I noticed that the momentary physical state of engaged surrender may very well be what our horses and dogs enjoy about playing with us and listening to our ideas about where to go and what to do. That it can transcend dominance and obedience at that point, which could be why so many people with vastly different approaches honestly appear to reach this state with their horses. From my experience as the “horse”, I think “what works” is extremely personal for both parties, which is probably why no single method of horsemanship works for every person or horse. Not only does this kind of partnership rely on trust, but it also has to come from joint willingness and a true delight in connection and movement.

Those are things that are difficult to force.

A barefoot hoof trimmer, a singer/songwriter, an amateur farmer – these are some of the hats Kesia Nagata wears when she’s not full to bursting with wondrous equine co-creation.

Do Horses Really Enjoy Working With Us?

7 thoughts on “Do Horses Really Enjoy Working With Us?

  • April 19, 2016 at 1:27 am
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    Lovely article and very interesting. I know nothing about martial arts but do know that meditative state that one gets in when totally focussed with an animal. I hadn’t thought that they could be in that state too. And a good theory about why all kinds of methods can succeed. I think that the most important thing is that every person, animal and time is unique and individual and to be fully in the moment is the only way to communicate. Thank You. X L

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  • April 19, 2016 at 10:17 pm
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    Thanks for the comment, Lynn! I think this meditative state or focus is the same one experienced by athletes, dancers, artists, and so on – most of us have felt it at some point. As for whether or not it’s the same feeling animals get, I can’t be sure, although dogs especially can be seen to track with single-minded attention.

    But yes absolutely I think it all comes down to each individual’s unique approaches, desires and experiences… Which is maybe why, when I’m truly in MY moment, I spend most of my horsey time rubbing bellies and telling everyone how handsome they are…

    Lovely to hear from you!

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  • April 20, 2016 at 5:22 pm
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    Love this! I think you would really like the movie Taming Wild. It explores what you are saying here. Tamingwild.com It is so beautiful how more and more people are asking this question!

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      April 20, 2016 at 7:35 pm
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      Elsa! I am writing about you and your film in the very next post! AND I am coming to Equinisity to do the week-long workshop with you in July. How cool is that??! Unfortunately, Kesia cannot join us as she will be in the middle of moving her horses to her fabulous new digs: 528 acres in the Kispiox Valley. I am green with envy – but at least I’ll get to visit 🙂 By the way, how do/can we watch the full-length movie? I went to all 3 of your sites and couldn’t find anything but the original and short trailers…

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          April 21, 2016 at 10:57 am
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          Awesome! Just purchased it. I will do a movie review on this blog in the next few weeks. But honestly, don’t make it so hard for us to buy the film! 🙂 You gotta move that BUY THE FILM IN DIGITAL OR DVD link up to right underneath the trailers. I’m going to share your trailer in the next post. Big hugs.

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          • April 22, 2016 at 5:39 pm
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            Hey Elsa, thanks for dropping in! I had literally just found you and your story after writing this article, jammed with Jini about the retreat, and then you commented! I can’t wait to see your film and to hear all about the workshop 🙂

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