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Killacky: Learning to Focus

John Killacky
John Killacky and Pacific Raindrop

I just had a tune-up lesson with my driving coach at the barn. His take-away mantra was to keep my pony “calm, forward, straight.” Good principles for me to work on over the next few weeks. Here, at the stable, as throughout my life, I am grateful for teachers.

As a professional dancer in my twenties, I was encouraged to build upon a firm foundation of technique. In daily class, we began with simple exercises to warm-up the body and focus attention before learning choreography. There were no short cuts to mastery.

As a marathoner, I never relished the loneliness of distance running, preferring instead the camaraderie of a team and the guidance of a coach. Intervals, sprints, hills, and long runs were always more fun together, and made sense when detailed as part of a cycle of training.

In my spiritual practice, hours spent in meditation halls had me following my breath, trying to let go of ego. In the stillness, I battled distraction as I sought intention and guidance from gurus.

These life lessons resonate with the “calm, forward, straight” instructions for my pony. I love trotting her around the arena, but often in a rush, I forget the basics. Just as in dance, the pony needs to warm up first by walking. Stopping and standing still are as crucial as moving. Starting a session with a trot does not make for a calm animal.

When driving, the pony needs to propel the cart forward by pushing from her hindquarters, not pulling from her chest. This relaxes her neck and allows for a smoother gait. Runners know how beneficial it is to strengthen muscles and increase flexibility. Cross training is important for equine athletes too – zigzags, diagonals, circles and figure eights improve performance.

Asking the pony to move in a straight line is complicated, as it involves hand, body, and voice commands. However, aligning her head, spine, and hips facilitates ease. Progress here is in fits and starts, but when it happens, a glorious “Ah-ha” moment occurs, akin to meditation insight. The pony’s cadence is consistent and assured, her mouth is soft and relaxed, not pulling against the bit.

When struggling with a correction from my coach, I seek tips from magazines and books, online tutorials, and off-site clinics with other trainers. Reinforcement from another source, oftentimes, allows me to understand in a new way.

My ultimate teacher is the pony herself. She is forgiving and generous in our “calm, forward, straight” journey together.

John Killacky is the executive director of Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington.
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