Michael visited the Retreat Center during my first year. At one point, he mentioned his love for horses and his anticipation for the horseback riding portion of the training curriculum. One of the original plans was to include riding with archery near the end of the 10 year program. I was also looking forward to it but in my mind, I was skeptical about it actually happening. As the years went by, it was cut from the program due to limited time and funding.
Fast forward three years to September 2016. Michael reached out to Dr. Yang with a proposal for us to work with horses in the Chico, CA area. He said, “I believe all your disciples are gifted horsemen and women. That doesn’t mean they know it all, but I believe it is within each of them because of their training.” Dr. Yang agreed to allow us to start the lessons, although I don’t believe he knew exactly what we were getting into. Our first assignment was to watch “Buck,” a documentary about a soft-spoken man with unorthodox methods of training horses with compassion and respect. He eventually became an inspiration for the title character in the film, “The Horse Whisperer.”
In the weeks leading up to our trip, we exchanged emails and Michael emphasized the crossover between our training and horsemanship. In particular: softness, centeredness, and energy. I didn’t know the first thing about horsemanship but due to my rudimentary “study” of horse books for children, I knew it was a deep discipline and art form.
A week prior to our trip, Michael gave us a 12 hour crash course through lectures, reading materials, videos of horsemanship, and physical training. We learned footfall patterns for each of the gaits, body awareness for the handler and the horse, how a horse thinks and therefore how it understands you, what not to do around a horse, and watched examples of prime horsepeople at work. We practiced getting onto a saddle and posting on exercise balls. Posting is when a rider rises up and down to every other beat of a trot to make the ride more comfortable for both the human and the horse. We did basic tumbling and splits. (I wasn’t sure why at the time, but we later found out.)
We held one end of a rope while he held the other and pretended to behave as a semi-trained horse would. We practiced having a “soft feel” with the lead rope and giving just enough of a tug on our bond to the horse. Michael also warned us that some horses will test our limits and may try to invade our space and it’s up to us to block them with our arm or leg. He prepared us the best he could given our limited time and resources.
The weekend rolled around and then we were off!