Skip to main content

Shaman: A Tribute to Mark Russell


Shaman. That’s what I thought about Mark Russell. He may be laying his hands on the horses like any well trained body worker, adjusting horses where they are broken, but he’s also wiggling the energy around us, with a quiet that is astounding and deeply powerful, a power like Jeremy Camp’s song that reminds a person that the power inside us is the power that raised Jesus from the dead. This is exquisite, gentle power that converts, brings us into quiet. I saw it with the horses. And I saw his tact with the horses’ people. He told marvelous horse stories as he worked with our horses, quietly as paint drying, but more powerful than hurling ropes or a horse circling. He worked with each animal’s need, adjusting his skill to meet that horse.

Our horses changed. I saw a nervous Paso Fino held up to a wall until he quieted and relaxed. Russell adjusted his noseband and told the story that these little horses are trained by big men when they are babies, that they are set up to be nervous both with that early training and their genetics. Even their gait is quick, nervous looking.

I saw similar changes with other horses. He showed them how to feel their legs as they meet the ground. And it all started with the occiput, the joint right behind the ears. But Mark said they needed to be connected from the bottom of the inside hind leg (the leg working on the inside of the circle) up through the spine to the back of the head. He touched them with power and gentleness. I saw unsound horses become sound.

Screen Shot 2016-06-13 at 8.40.38 PM-2

Photo by Karen Boso. Used by permission.

I know I’m not supposed to call a person a shaman. Their energy is not supposed to be joyous or full of light or at least that’s the impression I was given from my fundamentalist background, much of which I’ve begun to question. I was taught to fear anyone who danced with the Powers That Be because those can turn overwhelming fast.

Throughout my life I’ve known people like this and have stepped behind faith and quiet when we talked. I have listened. I have been open to their stories, but I haven’t been sure, because I think there are powers that are like molten rock, that are part of a good creation, but way too hot for my spiritual sneakers to walk on.

I am afraid I will close off my devout friends by saying this, by being in awe of Mark’s power, which came from goodness. (I had the same experience when I stepped onto the ground where Stonehenge was. My goodness that place was full of light.) And I think of the disciples tattling on someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name. “Should we shut his operation down?” they asked. Jesus said, “No, no. Anyone who is not against me is for me.”


I’m not even sure Russell would want me to name him this way. People with this kind of power don’t seem to want it known. Jesus used to tell people he healed to keep quiet about it, but they never did. He spoke of healing a colleague who had injured himself horribly from a martial arts move that went terribly wrong. I saw those hands, often quietly on the bridle, waiting for horse time, inviting a horse to flex. I saw horses become educated to what our hands on the reins mean and how they can direct the whole body. I saw how we can balance a horse from the ground and let the horse make whatever move she needs to make, while staying calm because the horse was being a horse.

“I’ll help you dance with your horse,” he said. I was taken aback because this is a private dream, so private, it was barely peeking out of my imagination.

Later I asked if he was psychic.

“You mean psycho?”

“But you said you’d help me dance with Tessie. How’d you see this?” It’s a quiet desire.

“I saw it in me clear as a Budweiser sign in a bar.”

We talked then about how a teacher sees students. I saw things on my students’ faces in class, knew when they had something to say but weren’t quite saying it, and I would ask them to speak. He talked about working with an Andalusian that could go either way, jump on top of him or settle down. He was so tuned to the horse, to the danger, he asked people to be still, to not interrupt.


Mark struck me as one of those people who offers space like a bowl, allowing horses and people settle in that space, so he can help them. There isn’t a Christian term to describe what I’m trying to tell you that fits as well as shaman. Healer sounds lame. He laid his hands on horses, worked with their muscles and spine. It was obvious he’d been trained to do body work in order to help horses find themselves in space. He called that proprioception—how an animal feels its body in space. He talked about the occiput joint where the spine attaches to the head, how the horse feels the world starts there and reaches all the way down to the hind foot. If she is jammed there, she is likely jammed through her whole body, can’t feel herself. His goal is to ask the horse to work from the bottom of her hind hoof all the way to the bridle.

I remember a therapist saying that people can be so abused, that in order to survive, they cut themselves off from their feelings, so they can’t even feel warmth or cold. The same is true with horses. They can be so compressed that they can’t feel their legs. They can’t even breathe properly.


He joked with me about Tessie being fluffy, but inertia and being too busy have stopped me from riding. A thin film of fear has stopped me. I wanted to say it’s me you need to change. He asked if he could touch her and then ran his hands along her neck and body. Instead of looking at her powerful, thick neck and thinking, “run away”, he said her neck was healthy. He ran his hand along her back and stopped over her flank. He said she has kidney problems that he could reach in and adjust it. “She’s been on clover because it’s all we had,” I said.

(This winter our vet found that Tessie had high kidney values, we think from something she ate in her pasture, and I felt the world slip when I reread this.)

He showed me how to spiral Tessie in and spiral out to ask for her attention and how to drop my weight in one stirrup or the other to ask her to turn. The light faded and he became just a trainer telling me how to sit right on her, scolding me when I used the whip too forcefully, because I don’t know how to use a whip and didn’t leave it at a tap. But the fear was busted up. I tell you it was busted. I found the fun again, working with circles even at home.




I was going to post about Mark’s upcoming clinic, but instead he left this earth today, June 13 at 4pm Eastern time along with many broken hearts. A light has left us. My condolences and prayers for his wife, Hela, and family and those of us who were touched by him. We will wait meet again until the trees clap their hands and sing and creation itself be liberated.

A Go Fund Me account has been set up to help Hela Russell with medical and farm expenses. I hope you will consider donating. Click here.





  • pat says:

    A beautiful testament to an absolutely beautiful person. He is light now as he was light here but he will be missed. I did not have the great good fortune to meet Mark but I have met a few like him and I am grateful when they move through my space and bring me light, too.

    • katiewilda says:

      Thank you so much. I hear you on being grateful for people who bring us light. I wish you could have met Mark too but I’m glad you’ve met people who have brought you light as well…

  • Kathy says:

    Very well said.

  • Kristen says:

    Oh, Katie! This is a beautiful and necessary piece.

    We often hold in the truth because we are fearful of what others will think, and that we will be from that time on be thought of as a wacko, excluded. Sharing what this man could do, actually risked very little. He risked much more and by doing so, he was able to help horses and their people. Sometimes we just have to pick the best word we can think of and go with it, understanding that people will accept or reject the piece entirely because of that one word. I feared using “naughty” on Sunday, but because I did and was just honest, I received feedback, affirmation of what was happening with my own horse and myself. It was worth the risk but I questioned that ONE word.

    My son’s poor horse, Jones, is a rescue from a slaughter pen; a well bred, high dollar guy who had a career and was used hard and then sold, unknown times, as he became lame and unable to do what was being asked. His large, proud brand enabled us to find the owner. We sent him pictures of Jones and a note asking if he would release the horse to us, as Jones had traveled from Oregon, where brand inspections are not required, to Washington where they are required without any papers: no registration, no brand inspection. I compounded it by bringing him home across state lines. The phone call I got one night from an elderly man, in tears, asking who did this to his horse was as heartbreaking as Jones was himself. “He has papers, he has an inspection, where are they, why did the people not love him enough, how could he be in such sad shape?”. I told him what I knew and he told me what he knew but that since Jones was a plain sorrel with a white star and that he’d had several colts that way, he could not be sure which one he was. I told him that was okay, he was just Jones to us, he was loved and would live his life here and be made as comfortable as possible until Jones let us know it was time to go.

    I promised him pictures when we got Jones healthy. We poured pounds of feed, supplements, free choice hay, all day turn out into him. I tried an expensive treatment ($500 month) in addition to every thing else. The $550 dollar horse was costing me over $1000 a month, just to make him comfortable. Our trimmer came every week at first, then every two weeks, now she comes every four weeks and his ouchy hooves are vastly improved. Teeth were floated, sheath cleaned, and worming routine established. Repeated visits to the vet for more teeth work because he dribbled his food resulted in just a visit to clean his sheath again and again. His teeth were fine but he dropped feed; his sheath was always dirty because he never dropped to urinate. I couldn’t take the pictures yet because I didn’t want to make the breeder cry again.

    While trying to induce some relaxation in my own mare, I massaged her neck and watched her go to sleep. Turning around, I placed my hands upon Jones neck, expecting his wide eyed fearful face to just be raised too far for me to continue. What demon was in his past? No ear touching, no poll scratching, no bridle trimming for him! I persevered, though, when I felt the difference in his neck and Karrina’s. His was like trying to massage a piece of steel. My hands were screaming at me before I felt the slightest difference and saw his head lowering. He began doing strange, scary things with his lower jaw, his face contorted. Knowing exactly why his food was a fight for him to eat, why he couldn’t drop to urinate, I put both horses away and ran into the house to find the phone number of the chiropractor given to me on our trimmer’s very first visit. I left a message.

    It was almost a month before she could come. She laid her hands upon Jones and performed miracles for him based on what she felt. That night he ate and it stayed in his mouth and he stretched his back and dropped to pee. He let us touch his poll. He gained weight. The joints went back out but our miracle worker came again. One of the problems living where we do is people that do such things, usually only come once a month. When she comes to us, she sees Jones’s stance, his eyes, she feels where he hurts because she is trained but more so because she allows herself to not shut out, not deny, the gift God gave her.

    Michael rode him on Sunday. At all three gaits. Easily, effortlessly, it seemed they became one and Jones looked as happy as my son. The same son, who as a five year old told us that one of our cats had a tummy ache, while he gently stroked him from top of head to the end of tail. Then he careened off (he could not run at that point) and did whatever five year old boys do “next”. We looked at each other with amusement.

    Three days later, literally overnight, our Mikeycat, looked as though he had swallowed a bowling ball. The vet gave us the bad news and we brought us home to await Mikeycats’s notification of “it’s time”. We wondered how our Michael could have possibly have known. My brother summed it up best when he said, “he listened to the little voice that we actively shut out and he’s not ashamed or afraid to share it”. We both knew it to be true. When Michael was 9, we had been searching for a year for just the right horse to replace one we had to put down. A phone call from a trainer friend told me there was someone with a horse, a horse I knew, that wasn’t for sale but was for sale, in that they needed to sell her but to just the right person. I could only have dreamed of owning this great mare, that Michael would be asked to try her was beyond that.

    The day came. I rode the mare first, then got off, untied the lead rope and handed it to Michael. He buried his face in her beautiful neck and she wrapped her head around him. We all just let them be. Finally, I hoisted him up and led him around. We tacked her up and he rode a little. We left, the long drive home consumed by the knowledge I found the horse but it was $8500. We had found possibles before, but Michael never indicated to me that it was the one, and that was imperative. I asked him what he thought of Sunny Irene and he said, “She told me she would take care of me”. “Do you want her?” “Yes”.

    The discussion with my husband was short. He said buy the horse. That night the owner called me, wanting to know what we thought. I actually went into my closet to confess to her what Michael had said. My closet! Then she told me how her own daughter, who had hypotonia, had asked for an animal communicator to come to talk to the border collie that she was trying to train for 4H, and that she arranged for one to come, more as a joke on her part, for the birthday party of the daughter. The AC gave them the report of what was going on and why and then added, “the buckskin mare is worried you are going to sell her. It has to be to the right person, another kid like yours”. The owner then told me that they had let a few people try Sunny, and that everyone wanted to buy her, but they watched the mare and couldn’t see her click with the buyer and ended up awkwardly making up excuses to not sell her (thus the note from the trainer about her not actually being for sale). She saw it when Sunny and Michael were together, walking slowly around the arena, her taking care to not step on the boy that was looking down and not ahead, who buried his face into her neck and her response. Her slow show trot keeping him balanced despite his poor body tone. I shared the cat story and we both cried at our unwillingness to believe what we saw with our eyes, that we both as Christians, were afraid of what we saw, that we didn’t see it as the gift it was.

    I hope this isn’t a high jack of your great piece. I want it to be an affirmation, a “hurrah” for what was done for you and your horse, a “hurrah” for what it enabled you to do as a result.

    God blessed Mark Russell and he blessed you. Now you bless us by your sharing.

    • katiewilda says:

      Dear Kristen,

      Thank you so much for this long and wonderful post. I wrote this back in August but hesitated to share it for the reasons you talk about. I guess this was as good a time as any. I hear you on being hesitant to use the word naughty too, though I do think that can be quite accurate. I know Tessie wants what she wants at times…

      Mark talked about dancing with our horses which is a great thing to keep in mind, that we don’t force them, but rather dance with them and sometimes they throw in their own “style.”

      What a wonderful story about Jones. I am so glad you found a chiropractor to help him feel better. Have you sent his picture to his breeder? I bet he was relieved that Jones found his way to you. There’s a documentary coming out called, His Name is Midnight, that you might want to watch for that is about a well bred horse that went through some stuff and wound up in New Jersey. You might want to watch for it.

      What an amazing story about Sunny and Michael. I am so glad you were able to let them be together. Thank you for sharing and thank you for the hurrah and these stories. It means more than you know. I hope we get to meet someday.

      May blessings and all good things find you.

  • What a beautiful tribute to a special man! Thank you for writing and helping people appreciate the powerful gift of healing God gives each of us to use for good. If these pictures are of your horse, she’s beautiful!

    • katiewilda says:

      Thank you so very much. That means a lot coming from you. Yes that’s Tessie! Thank you for the compliment. She’s a wonderful horse.

  • As always, Katie, thank you for your generosity of spirit in sharing these deep places with those of us who read your blog. My shaman is a man named John Mallon who spent decades working with cutting horses and many years ago discovered his real joy and magic in traveling all over the world training–as he says–“not llamas but llama owners.” I had the great good fortune to attend two of his workshops and to watch him breathe right into those beautiful animals and bring them to their own true selves. I learned some of his techniques but I never quite had that shaman’s touch. It doesn’t much matter to me whether it’s John Mallon leading my old llama Bismarck up an incline he had refused a dozen times or your Mark offering space like a bowl or Jesus rubbing spit on the eyes of the blind man. The laying on of hands is power in every tradition and the shaman wanders the earth in all times and places effecting the simple touch that connects us to one another and to all living creatures. I say, with you and for this healer I didn’t know, fare well, Mark Russell, into this great adventure.

    • katiewilda says:

      Thank you so much for stopping by and reading. John Mallon sounds like a wonderful person.Are you still in touch with him? Are you going to write a memoir about those llamas? Or write about the techniques you learned from him? It’s a rare gift to be in the presence of such a person. Bless you…

  • Kate Bostrom says:

    Mark kept it simple: quiet ego, open heart. He did practice Tai Chi as well. He was quite special and I’m so happy for you to have gained so much from him.

    • katiewilda says:

      Kate, those are wise words: Mark kept it simple. That may well be the way for all of us who want to offer the same kind of gift back to the world, to keep it simple. He certainly did have a huge influence on my life. And I’m glad to have met you through him as well. You are doing a similar work, that is uniquely yours, but as important. Blessings…

  • Katie–
    This is so beautiful. I’m in tears, partly because it is so beautiful, partly because I never met Mark and so regretting that, partly because this explains more to me about Mark’s work than anything else I’ve read, and it strikes a deep chord in me that knows that Mark’s way is the one true way. I haven’t read his book yet, but your piece here tells me exactly what I wanted to know and that was alluded to in many of the condolence posts left on his FB page. I’ve been so affected by his abrupt departure, but without that, would I have even known to look into him more? I’d only heard of him through a couple of people in Connecticut, one of whom co-authored his book with him–but at the time none of that was registering to me at all about who Mark was or what he was about. What a missed opportunity! The focus of these two CT people was more on his dressage training techniques–I heard nothing about his ability to quiet a nervous horse or to diagnose what was going on inside–had I known just those things, I would have looked into him then,

    Mark, obviously to me now, had a rare and most valuable gift. The calm and quiet he imparted to all who met him is huge–I know that energy from the few others I’ve met who have it–you just want to be in their presence, and this is not lost on the horses, and probably not on other animals either.

    Thank you so much for writing and posting this piece–as I said at the start, it’s just beautiful. I only wish I had come across it as you were getting ready for your next clinic with Mark. Had it happened that way, I would have rearranged my life to audit his next clinic in SC (where I live now) this coming July. Like everyone else, and especially those of you who knew him personally, I am stunned that he had to leave so suddenly and so prematurely–or so it seems. I gathered from your FB exchange with Hela that you know her as well. She also seems like the perfect person for Mark and full of that same quiet assurance and grace–this is evident from her FB posts this week. When you see or talk to her next, and when it seems right, please express to her my deepest condolences.

    Again, thank you.

    • katiewilda says:

      Thank you so much for this exquisite comment. Mark was pretty amazing. I had heard of him from a friend out east who sent me some videos because I was having trouble with my horse and she invited me to the clinic, but New Jersey was too far to go. It was a grace from the universe, the Lord, whatever you call it, that he came to Illinois and I just happened to see the advertisement, and signed up before I could have second thoughts. (I signed up late too.) I was very worried about it because my horse was fat and you know how horse people can be about that, but I went. I told Mark this and he replied, “But it turned out pretty good for you, didn’t it?” Yup. He was ordinary but he was also a light bearer. And he could tell a great story.
      I will offer those condolences but you should yourself because they mean so much. Thank you again for commenting.

  • Christine Guzman says:

    There is something very spiritual about people who have real communion either with animals or with people in need of understanding. I like the word Shaman as well – and I don’t think we ever have to restrict our spiritual language to the religion we grew up in or currently observe. There is so much we have in common with native spirituality and other forms of seeing and worshipping God. The stories in the Bible are numerous – I just saw the play Joseph and the Amazing Dream color coat. Joseph had ESP, many parents can have real sense when their children are in trouble, twins can know when the other is in labor or pain. Communion can be when a teacher really connects with a student, a boss and a worker, a sales clerk and a customer. It is such a blessing when we come across people who have a deep sense of caring and seem to know our struggles and issues before we even share with them.
    I also like the point you passed on from the therapist – “that people can be so abused, that in order to survive, they cut themselves off from their feelings, and can not even feel hot or cold.” This is important to remember when we come across stories of extreme evil and acts of inhumanity as this past week with the shootings in Orlando and for my parents community – where a kidnapping and murder trial is coming to an end. We never know all a person’s past experiences and the combination of all their history and how it effected the choices in life they made later.
    Thanks for your wonderful photos – I am currently spending half my weeks at home with my family in Toronto and a few days on my parents property in the country. (caring for my Mother in her home, Father is in a nursing home). I always benefit from your reflections.

    • katiewilda says:

      Thank you for your kind comments. It is truly a gift to be in the presence of someone who have that deep sense of caring but also seem very ordinary.

      I’m sorry to hear about the trouble in your parents’ community. It’s hard when something like that happens. Orlando is truly horrible. My gay friends are feeling particularly vulnerable right now. It’s heartbreaking.

      It sounds like you are going through a difficult patch with spending time between your parents and your family. I hope you’re able to grab enough rest.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment and encouragement.

  • Kim Walnes says:

    What a beautiful and moving piece, Katie. Thank you so much for writing from your heart, and for your honesty. Long may he live within us and inspiring us to be our best selves.

    • katiewilda says:

      Oh gosh yes. I have been thinking about how I’d like to do for others what he did for me only maybe with what I know as a writer. Thank you so much for stopping by. I’m honored. I just subscribed to your newsletter.

  • Anne Marie says:

    I have cried for my daughter this week. I wept that she was present on Sunday morning and because a mother feels the pain her child feels. I teared up at each update on his condition, knowing but not knowing I was preparing for the end. I have felt such deep sorrow and compassion for Hela and his family since, for the the journey ahead that will look different from the one they’d envisioned.

    But this- oh this makes me want to just sob. I know I shouldn’t, because these would be selfish tears, I will never know this. I will never experience this with my horse, with this teacher. What you’ve written is a fantasy- that thing you know is out there somewhere for someone, and you are almost afraid to wish it for yourself, lest you jinx it. Yes, I’m jealous.

    Thank you.

    • katiewilda says:

      Oh Anne Marie, I’m so sorry your daughter was there. What a difficult and painful thing to experience for her. What a big grief. I will remember her in my prayers.

      While you may not experience what I did with Mark because he’s no longer here, I believe you will experience something like it, perhaps with a teacher more suited to you and your horse. The universe is a generous, loving place. Wishing it for yourself won’t jinx it. Peace be with you.

  • Anne Tremblay says:

    What a beautiful piece about Mark! It’s been many years since we “talked horses” together in CT and I was devastated to learn of his tragic death. Your words captured his gentle, teaching spirit so well, I could hear his voice once again in your story. Yes, reading it brought tears but also wonderful memories of magical times that made me smile. I’m so grateful for those., thank you for helping to bring them all back for me.

    • katiewilda says:

      Oh Anne, you’re very welcome. His tragic death has been heartbreaking. Seems like good people are leaving us. Remember how he said, “Good. Good” to our horses?

  • Ginny Montgomery says:

    Lovely piece Katie, thank you so much for sharing. I was able to attend a clinic of Mark’s and the greatest gift I took from it was to ask my horse, “how can I help you?” It sadden me greatly to hear of his accident and that he is gone and I can’t even imagine the pain his family is in. If we all keep sharing our stories like you have his light will shine on. God Bless.

    • katiewilda says:

      Thank you for sharing that question from Mark: How can I help you? I will remember this when I get on Tessie and she offers her somewhat gentle, but insistent opinions. You’re right about sharing our stories, so very right. Do you remember how he used to quietly say, “Good, good” to our horses? Thank you for stopping by and commenting.

  • Ann Vinkler says:

    Katie, you are a poetic writer. Thank you so much for this wonderful tribute. You brought a smile. And tears.
    And I love Fjords!
    I only ever audited Marks many clinics in RI. But he was so generous with his knowledge, patiently answering questions from the audience. Lunching with us, and answering more questions.
    My mare was young when I attended Marks clinics. I was so worried about finding someone to start her for me. I asked Mark his advice, and if he knew anyone in the area he could recommend, since he was from the area. He assured me I should do it myself. Even though I explained, I was not experienced enough to start her myself, he stuck with his advice. His words stayed with me all these years. He really did light the way for every horse and owner that I watched him work with. I am crushed by his loss, and will miss his presence on this earth. I wish Hela and his family love and peace.
    Thank you, again, for your beautiful words.

    • katiewilda says:

      I’m glad I brought a smile along with tears…Thank you for sharing what he said about starting your horse by yourself. I have a mare I drive that seems to be inviting me to ride her. I got on her the other day but felt my lack, how I don’t know what I’m doing…how my confidence isn’t always a sure thing. Did you follow his advice and start your mare?

      I too am crushed by his loss. It is very heartbreaking that his presence isn’t here on this earth in bodily form. Thank you so very much for stopping by.

  • Ginny Montgomery says:

    Yes! Yes! His good, good. It will be like a movie that forever lives him my head. Mark riding a horse and giving the horse all this positive affirmations. “good, good”, “let me help you”, “you can do it” “Just try, good” all in this conversational tone that was just between him and the horse, you felt like you were eavesdropping on a very intimate conversation. So different from the horse must obey training I had been taught early in my life. It opened my heart to my horse and I will be forever grateful.

    • katiewilda says:

      I will remember “let me help you” “you can do it” “Just try, good”….when I work with my ponies. I like talking this way to my horses. I like working with them as conversation. It’s more fun that way. Thank you.