For someone who grew up mainly cruising concrete sidewalks, I am often surprised how much I love the country. Especially horses. I don’t love horses in the My Little Pony style of 4th grade girls everywhere but I do have a very healthy respect for horses. Frankly, I see and feel their sensitivity to the world and I can relate to that.
I hadn’t thought much about what horses could teach me, however, until I went to Miraval with my friend Beth a couple winters ago. Miraval is a destination spa in Arizona that offers what they call the Equine Experience. The “Experience” is basically a 2 hour class where you interact with horses and through your interaction you learn something about yourself.
Horses do not have an agenda. They are pretty pure creatures. They only reflect what you tell them not just with your words, but your tone of voice, behavior, and energy (not to mention your pulse, breathing and sweating). All these things communicate something to the horse and based on what you’re communicating the horse decides whether to respect you and follow you or not.
During the “Experience” the facilitators ask you to perform a couple of tasks with horses, the main one being getting the horse to lift one of its legs so you can clean its shoe. I’m not giving anything away by telling you this, because it’s a lot more difficult than it seems. How you approach the horse makes all the difference in whether you will be able to get the horse to lift its leg. On my first attempt, I could not get the horse to lift its leg. Or on the second or third. While I thought I was following the letter of the instruction, my body was communicating lots of other things to the horse. Things like I’m scared, please do this, man I hope I can do this. You get the idea. It was a short interaction but one that left an impression.
This past fall, I saw that Martha Beck was leading a workshop called, “How to Make Things Happen.” The class description included time with horses, so even if all she wanted to make happen was have folks clean her stables, I was in.
The workshop consisted of two full days with horses. The first day, without much prelude, every participant was put into an arena with a horse by herself. The exercise was to get into the arena with the horse and stay there for four minutes. There were no instructions beyond that. Of course, I volunteered to go first.
I walked into the stable, grabbed the reins and then I just stood there staring into my horse’s big brown eyes. I was mesmerized. So much so that I didn’t move for four minutes. The horse didn’t move either. Martha Beck from her perch above the arena called time and then questioned from above, “Alicia, do you have abandonment issues?”
“Why do you ask?” I retorted, thoroughly embarrassed.
After everyone had a turn, we all returned to a circle of seats outside the arena to decompress. That’s where Martha broke it down for me. She said she saw, “please love me” in my face when I was with the horse. Um yeah, I didn’t want to be trampled to death. Truth be told, I was surprised and relieved that I wasn’t. And at the same time, in those moments that I didn’t feel fearful, I couldn’t send the horse away from me. Okay, so Martha was right. She’s annoying that way.
Martha continued and told me that by not sending the horse away I never created my own space. You see, horses, like people, need room to be themselves and to get that they need clear and deliberate boundaries. When I send the horse away I am creating space so that the horse and I can get to know each other and learn from each other; to see what it takes to earn my leadership position. If I’m on top of the horse's space the horse thinks I have a hidden agenda - like a car salesman that is all over you. It's an icky feeling - that trying to force a connection – even for horses. The trick is to remember that the horse needs to earn being a part of my team and I need to earn being a part of the horse's team.
I’m sure you can see how this translates to the people world. Giving space and creating boundaries actually helps you determine the trustworthiness of people. For someone who has “trust issues” this is key. People often don’t trust because they don’t have the tools for testing trustworthiness. If you don’t have tools to deal with untrustworthy people it’s an all or nothing proposition. Without tools to deal with untrustworthiness, your only reaction is either aggressiveness or meekness - two extremes. Trust me; aggressiveness doesn’t work with a horse. And as for meekness, if you can't set personal boundaries, then the horse will come in and invade them.
While I stood enchanted by my horse, my fellow students did all manner of things – they got too close and almost got kicked. They stood too far away and the horse wandered off. Every time and with each student, the horse responded to what was being communicated, even if the people watching couldn’t always tell. After a while though it starts to be clear – especially when you watch the same horse have two totally different reactions to two people.
The takeaway is this: the horse will always reflect where you're at in that moment. The objective is not to get the horse to follow you. You decide where you're going and the horse follows because your energy is irresistible.
Later in the afternoon we got another shot in the arena with the horses to perform what is called a “meet up” or “join up.” In this exercise, you get the horse to run around the arena and once you have that horse’s respect you bring the horse in close to you.
This time, I was ready. Before I walked into the arena, I closed my eyes and tried to see the space between my eyes. (Sounds strange I know but try it. It’s very calming.)
Sure enough, I went in with a very calm but commanding energy and the horse responded. As I worked the horse, Koelle (Martha’s co-teacher), said, “You can have the closeness any time you want. There’s a difference when you know how to lead that versus lacking the trust because you don’t know how to teach someone how to treat you. When you realize that you get to lead your experience and everything is giving you feedback, you stop swinging the pendulum from one extreme to the other.” That really struck me. I get to lead the experience.
The second day we worked with horses in an outside coral. There we had to get the horse to run through various obstacles with a partner. The catch was we could not speak to our partner. This exercise is meant to show how you communicate in a team environment. It’s one thing to communicate one-on-one but quite another when you have to do it with a partner.
This time we learned that when you’re relaxed and clear about what you want both your human partner and the horse will do what you want them to do. If you try to force it, well, you get chaos.
Getting in the moment, relaxing in the face of fear and being clear about what you want are three things that are incredibly difficult to do but essential to communicating and leading our lives. We didn’t get into why we were fearful or why we weren’t being present, etc. The stories weren’t important. We did spend a little time going over how to wrestle the thoughts that get in the way of clean communication via The Work by Byron Katie but the workshop was mainly about time with the horses.
Working with the horses was real-time practice in how to just do it: be present, relax and be you. This is how we got the horses to do what we wanted. This is how you make things happen.