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Can a Horse be Your Best Coach?

March 24, 2015

“Horses are experts at helping people develop power, focus, balance-in-motion, social intelligence and the physical, mental and emotional collection demanded of great leaders”
-Linda Kahonov, The Tao of Equus

Recent research indicates that interaction with nature reduces stress levels, improves memory and gives us a sense of belonging to the larger ecosystem. This research is related to the emerging field of ‘Ecotherapy’, where we are invited to engage in nature-based activities to restore our sense of well-being. In Western Europe, Ecotherapy is already integrated into the health care system. Doctors may require patients to spend time at a farm, taking walks, swimming in a mountain lake or working with animals or flowers. Imagine receiving a written prescription like that from your physician! Bringing together the wisdom of nature’s restorative capacities, the strong results found from animal assisted work and the unique skills of coaching, fortunate practitioners are engaging in ‘Equine Assisted Coaching’. While it stands alone with its own distinction, equine assisted work is often recognized as a component of the broader field of Ecotherapy, a certificate program offered uniquely at The Graduate Institute in Bethany, CT. Equine Assisted Coaching provides a perfect backdrop to more deeply embody the learning provided from more traditional coaching approaches.

“This horse looks uncomfortable. I refuse to be in a place where I have to prove myself. I know I am not wanted here. This horse does not want me to lead it. She’s thirsty, hot and wants to get out of this barn. I don’t want to make her do what she doesn’t want to. Just free her please – Now! I can’t do this.”

This was the running litany of objections I heard while in the indoor ring with my client, Jennifer, and our accompanying horse, ‘Coach Beatrice’, a formidable white and brown draft paint cross. Beatrice was rescued as a baby from a ranch that routinely extracted her mother’s urine to make pharmaceuticals and kept her still for months at a time. Knowing of her own good fortune, Coach Beatrice is an eager servant of this kind of work. This session was not as easy as Jennifer had hoped. But she did leave with a breakthrough she could not have anticipated, one that coaching alone may not have created.

I learned that if my commitment was haphazard, I got no results or mediocre ones at best. Through the session, I recognized the life-long patterns that have been invisible to me until now.
– Jennifer, Human Resource Executive

It is said that horses are ‘emotional prodigies’ who have the ability to sense what is foremost on our agenda, emotionally, intellectually and even spiritually, usually way before we can. This can be either intimidating or profoundly comforting, depending on what each of us uniquely brings into the ring. Some say it is a place of metaphor that has direct translation to the workplace, our primary relationships and to our own hopes and dreams. I have seen it myself and am humbled time and again by the feedback that these early domesticated animals offer us as we interact with them to bring about some result.

If we step outside of our own sense of purpose, direction, clarity, the horse senses a kind of ‘danger’ in our incongruence and responds with an obvious restlessness. However, if we are authentic to our fear or trepidation and can learn to ‘befriend’ it, the horse immediately perks up and seems willing to partner with us.

In equine-based coaching, the horse might spook, for instance, in response to someone’s own fear level or they might act bored and proceed to distract themselves, often revealing a lack of focus on the part of the coachee as was the case for Jennifer. As a coach, we are taught to care as much for the human participant as we do the horse coach’s well-being. We are therefore attentive to setting up safety guidelines, thereby creating body awareness, raising emotional intelligence and increasing the sensory perception about the boundaries and needs of the coachee as well as the horse. Hence, as one approaches the horse, the metaphor becomes glaring. Just as with approaching a boss, a fellow employee or a loved one, all parties are served if at least one of them is aware of the factors at play and where their personal ‘edges’ of comfort and emotional as well as physical safety lie.

More often than not, we crash through one another’s comfort zones and do so without permission, perhaps assuming more familiarity than we actually have. Or just the opposite, we keep too much of a distance and we lose connection quickly.

If we are too aggressive or if we are wishy washy in work or at home, people often have to ‘get away from’ us in order to fully relax and feel that they can be themselves. Sound familiar? This was evidenced in a recent 2.5 day Professional and Personal Development Intensive offered by Brinkerhoff Associates in CT. The intent of the experience was to offer ringside coaching (in our offices in New Haven) as a kickoff to a longer term coaching relationship. While shocking insights can occur in just one session with our horse coaches and can span many life issues, this engagement was focused on preparing Jennifer for a mid-life career transition. Using William Bridges’ three phases model of transition, the process included:

(Phase 1) creating a safe place to have a clear and honorable ending to what the client was needing to let go of, and;
(Phase 2) provide compassionate support and honest perspective as she navigated the chaos or neutral zone, and;
(Phase 3) help her launch a new beginning.

The actual client request sounded something like this: Help me figure out who am I and how others perceive me in ways that have either held me back or will serve me in the next part of my life?

Ironically, in the written pre-work and the interview, she protested the idea of showing up somewhere where she was not entirely welcomed. This had been a theme throughout her career where she had become persona non grata more than once. Coach Beatrice would soon elucidate this and gave her an expanded view of how she actually created herself as unwelcome, even before she entered a situation. Jennifer worked hard to appear to be a decisive person which is helpful in leadership positions. Yet it became obvious that the reason for her decisiveness was not her personal clarity but that ambiguity itself created immediate anxiety in her. This often forced her to make decisions prematurely, thereby alienating others and closing down her other options.

By 2 pm on day one, she looked at me and exclaimed “I got it. I am done!” and she began creating her action plan and considered packing up.

In her usual charming way, she said that she had already gotten her money’s worth and would it be ok to go out now for martinis! As her coach, I literally had to use an old adage, “Hold your horses!” I invited her to remain open to new options and insights. Perhaps the easiest, most gracious client I have ever worked with, Jennifer appeared to be hiding behind her quick wit, social adeptness and ability to befriend her coach, which was a perfect trap for me. As soon as Coach Beatrice took over in the ring, however, there would be little room for anything short of Jennifer’s total clarity, purpose-driven action, and inner authority. The horse itself seemed to struggle with intense disinterest, at times chomping at the gate and sniffing the corners of the barn. When Jennifer failed to feel the welcome or the connection she so required in all her other affairs, she completely lost her ability to extend herself, express her leadership or offer a clear direction and became almost visibly angry. The dilemma of having been downsized many months before and losing her sense of direction and purpose was immediately present…it was excruciating for her and in a flash, almost more than she could bear.

Horses respond to proximity, pressure and permission, just like us.

The evidence was in! If it is true that all things are accomplished through relationship, then it was going to be important for Jennifer to find a new relationship to this situation in her life, currently showing up as Coach Beatrice’s disinterest. In Neurolinguistic Programming, there is a concept that refers to the importance of ‘pace, pace, pace, lead, pace, pace, lead’. This is akin to David Rock’s neuro-leadership work in which he refers to the approach-avoid phenomenon. At any given moment, we are all sensing a genuinely welcoming atmosphere or an anxiety producing one which indicates whether or not we should move toward something or move away from it. In order to create a sustainable relationship and earn the privilege of leading another over time, be it animal or human, we must engage in creating and keeping rapport, watching always for what we do that can be perceived as a threat. Jennifer found herself a self-proclaimed relationship expert without having established a real relationship to the horse. Why?

What got you to the successes in your life thus far may serve as blinders for you to get where you want and need to go next. The horses, emotional prodigies that they are, do not buy our ‘false self’ but rather call forth our authentic power which is a mix of natural strengths as well as the discounted parts of our selves.

In order to get Coach Beatrice to keep interest, to move, to complete a task, Jennifer had to dig into the least exercised muscles of her personality. Coach Beatrice gave flawless feedback moving between uncharacteristic agitation and staring longingly at the sky and her friends in the fields far off. How this began to translate for Jennifer is that she became increasingly apologetic for her existence, growing smaller personally and minimizing the importance of her mission in favor of the comfort of another.

I could see how this moment was her ‘personal prison’ and held the potential for her healing as well as her continued suffering.

Most horses are infinitely forgiving. They seem to understand our humanity and our own ‘self-forgetting’. They will often wait patiently until we can recover and refocus on the task at hand. With horses, as with life, we always have a fresh moment to begin again. What they seek is our clear direction which requires us to trust ourselves as we move into action, even if the next step is not clear to us. They simply will not follow our lead if we are not ready to stand in our own knowing. When we are authentic to our purpose and intent, we inevitably look up to find a willing partner ready to serve.

When we are approached, we set the boundary. When we are approaching, they set the boundary.

By this time, there was still little movement so I said, “Please end the activity in your own way and when you are ready.” At this moment, I noticed Jennifer dropped her fixation about how it was supposed to be done, took a nice deep breath, dropped into her real self and a sense of natural resolve, summoning herself and Coach Beatrice with clarity and ease. To Coach Beatrice’s delight, she finally received true guidance and a clear task to accomplish! Together, they were flawless in their execution. Jennifer beamed. This was a well-earned culmination to our work in the office and in the ring.

With the help of Coach Beatrice, Jennifer more clearly understood the subtle energies that had been controlling her life choices. Her patterns had lasted a lifetime. The insight came in a moment. In that emotional confrontation, Jennifer became more aware and was freer to act according to what the moment called for and not just employ a tired old strategy. In the process, she took with her an inner set of tools she can use to pursue her dreams.

Lynnea Brinkerhoff MSOD is an executive coach, educator, senior staff member at the Graduate Institute, and is trained in a variety of integrative health and healing methodologies. Her work focuses on building personal and organizational resilience in the midst of turbulent times. Michael Pergola MA, MBA JD is President of the Graduate Institute, an accredited graduate school and center for holistic education in health, education, ecology, consciousness and other emerging fields of study. The primary focus of the institute’s work is to offer heartfelt, high quality and practical education related to individual purpose, healthy relationships, and the human nature connection. For more information, visit www.learn.edu, 203-874-4252, Email: Admissions@learn.edu

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