Cultivating Emotional Competence Through Equine Connection

Kasia Roether
September 2021

The inspiration for this article came to me from two seemingly very different places.  One of them was a training situation with a sensitive horse and the other was listening to students from the Koelle Institute; both had to do with vulnerability.

One particular horse started acting severely traumatized after what seemed to be just a regular session with a farrier. The owner asked me to work with this horse immediately in order to avoid using sedation to finish with the shoeing. I learned a powerful lesson about finding a connection in this least expected interaction.

 

I started by assessing the horse’s behavior. Two of us, myself and a person helping me, were quiet, grounded, with clear intentions and open minds. I planned to keep the interactions slow and easy, taking turtle steps andgiving plenty of reward and release to the horse. I was prepared and ready to reshape the negative experience with a farrier into something positive and relaxing. I was wholeheartedly willing to help, wished for the best outcome, and was being paid for the job, so I thought I had a solid plan. In certain ways, it felt very much like getting ready for a coaching session.

In about the first five minutes of that handling session, all my grand plans went out the window, or I should say, out the paddock. Despite my calm approach, the moment I reached out for the hind leg, the horse bolted with such explosive energy that the handler and myself were put in a pretty dangerous situation. It became clear very quickly that none of the “right things” would work this time. I tried a few different “tricks”, but nothing helped and I was out of any other immediate solutions. This was quite a vulnerable place for a trainer: no change in the horse’s behavior, no usable or effective tools, and compromised safety overall. It was a perfect opportunity for my brain to start its rampage about my inadequacies in this situation and my scarcity of abilities. You may be able to draw parallels with your own coaching sessions.

Luckily, I have experienced such moments around horses before and I have found ways of not giving in to the “not enough” story. Instead of focusing on what is not available, I went back to what was present and looked for ways to incorporate it into the current interaction.

Since the horse wanted to run away when I tried to touch his legs, I decided to hold him by myself (for safety and more flexibility) and move with him in small circles while staying at his back end. By not responding to the specific training tools, this horse showed me that the only way to make a connection was to join him in his fear and stay there until the emotion ran its course. So I just kept moving with him, without forcing him to slow down, without any hidden tricks, just acknowledging his fear and not letting it separate us. I didn’t give up on this horse because he didn’t respond to my initial training or because, for a moment, I didn’t know what to do next. 

Every time the horse stopped circling, I retreated from his hind end to reward him and give him a break. Then I went back and circled again till the next stop in movement. With each stop and a little break, the need for running away became less and less. Finally, and only when the horse calmed down and became more present to what was happening around him, I tried some training with his back feet again.
After a few sessions with a helping person, the horse was eventually willing to stand quietly for hoof trimming with a farrier.

I was thrilled with the process we all went through during those training sessions. Although my equine-training experience deepened with the horse’s challenging behavior, the most significant impact came from transferring the knowledge I gained into strategies for coaching people. Despite the initial lack of immediate learning or effective communication with the horse, I have realized that it is not always the knowing, doing, and “fixing” that helps others in their difficult times.

For example, when children are scared and don’t understand the surrounding circumstances, they first need someone to acknowledge how they feel and be with them at that moment. Until most sensory systems calm down from acting and feeling, solutions processed by the conscious part of the brain will not change one’s behavior or the emotional state.

Whether during training or later in their career, every coach goes through the “I am not enough” phase in coaching. As coaches, we care so deeply for our clients’ well-being that we put tremendous pressure on ourselves to know how to coach and create a shift in every session successfully. This may happen when working with a client who may be like the horse from my story. As a result, the love for helping that has made us coaches in the first place crumbles under the fear of being vulnerable and not having all the solutions right away. We all know what happens next, where our focus goes, and which brain is in charge of processing the whole situation. We may react by shutting down our vulnerability and sometimes even imposing harsh self-judgment. Then we may try even harder to “fix” the client. But the harder we try, the further away we move from feeling good about our coaching work.

To use delicate and sensitive pathways to create a connection through our client’s vulnerability, we need to restore the relationship with our tender and fragile emotions around ourselves as individuals and coaches. Every time the feeling of openness is pushed away or feared, there is an excellent opportunity to take a closer look at what triggers such a reaction and to discover what underlying meaning shows up in such a moment.

Personal processing may become arduous when some of the reasons for difficulty are closely related to other people, expectations, perceptions, and judgments. This is where understanding interactions with horses, even the challenging ones, comes in very handy. The horses’ genuine behavior, non-judgmental feedback, kindness to human emotions, and willingness to connect, create a very safe and motivating environment for self-exploration around one’s vulnerability. Whether during a specifically-dedicated time for reflection or a horsemanship session, the focus is about allowing yourself to become your own client, having an internal conversation, and practicing how to show up being congruent and unveiled. It is about experiencing being your true self, and from that place, resuming your relationships with the world around you while interacting with horses. The ripple effect will continue in different areas of your life and will help you to become a more sensitive and emphatic coach who welcomes vulnerability as a connection opportunity.