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.
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.