Category Archives: horse human connection

Guest post from my colleague Pam Suraci, LMFT in San Luis Obispo

It had been a long day.  One more stop before I go home, to clean stalls and set up tomorrow’s breakfast.  The barn nightlight creates shadows as the horses poke their heads out to see who is visiting so late.  Preoccupied with my day’s work, I grab the rake and wheelbarrow and get to work.  As I scoop sift, dump dirty shavings and manure, the sessions of the day roll through my head – was it a full moon?  What on earth was happening with my clients – so much resistance today, from everyone.  How weird- no wonder I was so tired.

Scoop, sift, dump.  Like a stall –cleaning machine.  My mind wanders….What was up with that teenager?  She was so combative – it reminded me of parenting my own kids in the most challenging times…  That never happens in therapy sessions though…I can usually find a way in, especially with that kid.  The horse, whose stall I had invaded at this uncivilized hour, seemed to need to stand exactly where I needed to clean.  “Come on, buddy, move over” I coaxed – a step here, a step there, he always seemed to be more, not less, in my way.  Gentle nudges, contorting myself to reach around, finally the stall is done.

Next stall, back to the replay of my day.  What was going on with everyone today?  The couple who had been doing so well were suddenly at odds, irritated by each other and by me.  Back to basics and they found some peace, but dang it, they should be beyond that, shouldn’t they? …just as that thought pops in, my next housekeeping job is challenged by another 900 ponder who can’t seem to get in my way enough.  “Really, Max?  Do you need to stand here right now?”  He blinked at me calmly in the dim light.  Once again, contort, scoop, sift, dump.  Max moves closer, nosing the cart and threatening to dump two dirty stalls’ worth all over his newly clean floor.  I yank the cart out of the way, just in time.

One more stall, my horse, to do.  Before I even enter, the movie of my day begins to replay.  My big gentle friend blocks the door completely, before I even get to scoop, sift, dump.  “Dude”, I softly say, “move your big butt”.  Nothing.  He extends a velvet muzzle my way…I know the game.  I touch the very tip of his nose with one finger, and he sticks his tongue out.  I retract, he extends and we start again.  He can play this game for hours.  But I am in a rush, so I shove by him to clean his day’s leavings.  He is certain, though, that his ideas are better.  Sidling between me and the cart, he again extends his soft nose.  Ok, I get it…one finger, a big pink washcloth tongue emerges.  I put down the rake.  I reach to pet his neck, but he pulls away.  Nose out, finger touch, tongue flick.  I scratch his always itchy shoulder, but again, he moves away.  “Nope,” he seems to say, “I only want this interaction”, and extends his nose again.  I am ready to pause my chores, give him a snuggle and get on with my cleaning but he moves just out of reach.  Slowly I get the message – he will only receive what he is interested in receiving.

Deep breath, horse smell, long gaze.  A decision is made.  Today is already done, no more replay.  “Pay attention,” he seems to say, “you’re not the only one here.”  I need to focus on what he is showing, not telling, me.  I can give only what the receiver is ready to take.  I step back, he follows.  Another step, he follows again.  Hands in my pockets, we regard each other for a moment.  He steps forward a bit more, sniffs my jacket and together we take a moment.  I realize, once again, my desire to give or to heal never trumps the needs of a receiver.  That teenager? She was doing exactly what she did with her mom, and showing me what I need to see to help them both.  Today’s couple? Well, they had a bad day.  They weren’t ready to receive from each other, or from me.  When I pushed, they retreated.  When I paused, went back to the smallest connections, they came forward.  It’s a lesson I learn over and over again.  There will always be time to scoop, sift and dump.  Right now, I pay attention.  I extend my finger, and the soft muzzle meets me halfway.

Three Things to Remember as you’re walking out of Hell.

Waking up on a gorgeous June morning, expecting to spend another summer day with my kids, my life was abruptly thrown into upheaval. My friend, Marie, called frantically yelling, “The Teton Dam collapsed. The water is heading your way!” Continue reading Three Things to Remember as you’re walking out of Hell.

Leadership Style is a reflection of your inner life.

It happened every week. Co-workers gathered for the weekly staff meeting, sitting around a large conference table, sipping their coffee and greeting each other. Then, as if on cue, all conversations stopped. The easy flowing conversation abruptly shifted to uncomfortable silence. Suzanne, their district manager, had entered the room.

Suzanne led her team with cold efficiency. Her leadership style was “old school”: fear and manipulation guaranteed results. Continue reading Leadership Style is a reflection of your inner life.

What my horse whispered today: Trust, connection and right brained leadership

“Earn trust, earn trust, earn trust. Then you can worry about the rest.”

Seth Godin

Trust and connection are the bedrock that successful leadership is built upon. Whether you are working with humans or horses, the strength of the relationship depends on the level of trust and connection between the leader and follower. Horses and humans have similar responses to their leaders. When there is a high degree of trust and connection, they are willingly to reach beyond any preconceived limits and accomplish feats beyond their imagination. There is a direct correlation: the higher their trust levels the more willingness to follow.

Without trust, horses and humans respond with either coerced compliance or defiance. Fear and disconnection dominate relationships not built on trust and connection. Force and coercion automatically trigger fight or flight responses in our brains. Humans rebel and/or shut down. Horses resist and bolt.

Over the years, I’ve observed that the most effective leadership approach (for horses or humans) involves the leader relying on both their emotional intelligence (EI) and mind-body-soul connection. This approach is highly effective because the leaders trust in themselves allows their creativity; intuition and ability to accurately read others emotions leads them to solutions. With their emotional brain in the lead, the leader creates an invitation for follower to be open and cooperative. Their relationship thrives on their mutually trusting connection.

Before we learn language and express ourselves with words, humans live in their right brain hemisphere. Once humans acquire language their left-brain hemisphere begins to dominate their interpretation of the world. Horses, as prey animals, exist in a non-verbal, right brain world. Equine facilitated coaching creates a setting where horses teach humans how to shift from their dominant, language dependent left-brain. The strength of the horse-human connection depends on how well humans are able to shift to their right brain and communicate their requests wordlessly.

I asked my client, Tim, to walk a horse through a simple L shaped obstacle. He naturally went to his left-brain and used a direct, forceful approach. He started pushing and shoving on the horse’s neck, trying to get it to move in the direction of the obstacle. Naturally, the horse resisted. Tim began talking to the horse, telling it how good and beautiful it was. The horse didn’t move. Tim kept trying to shove the 1200-pound animal in a direction it didn’t want to go. His efforts were futile and exhausting.

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Tim relaxed and stood by the horse, facing the direction he wanted to go. Together, they slowly walked through the L shaped poles and completed the task. Forcing his demands (left brain) created resistance. By calming down and shifting to his emotional brain (right brain), Tim silently restored his connection to the horse. The horse willingly went in direction Tim wanted to go.

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A positive, willing relationship with their leadership, horses or humans, depends on the human’s ability to lead from their emotional and intuitive (right brain). In this example, the horse resisted force but when both the human and the horse made an emotional connection, they willingly responded to each other.

Working with prey animals, you rely on a right brain hemisphere approach. However, humans, unlike horses, have both predator and prey characteristics.

Human prey- like responses are typified by; passive aggressive behaviors, such as being slow to provide answers or do work, agreeing but never acting on their promises. As we do with horses, the leader uses a right-brained approach and gently, consistently applies pressure. For both horses and humans, their natural response is to move away from or avoid the pressure, toward another direction. It takes less effort to move away from the pressure than to push against it (the leadership). The leader creates an uncomfortable situation that’s difficult to avoid. As the person/group moves toward the desired goal, the pressure is released. Applying consistent pressure (timelines and restricted access to pleasurable experiences) results in a series of very small positive changes. For example: “Before you go out and play, you need to clean up your bedroom. I’ll set a timer. In the next 15 minutes, please pick up all of your socks off the floor and put them in the washer.” The leader sets small goals until all the items are picked up. Small requests, achievable steps and consistent pressure complete the task much faster.

When horses or humans are asked to make a change or face a challenge, resistance often follows. Our reactions reflect our level of trust in our leader. The less we trust the leadership, the greater our resistance. Left-brained leadership depends on compliance using force and coercion to get results. The external changes are maintained as long as force is greater than the resistance. Right-brained leadership uses resistance as an opportunity for deepening trust between the leader and her followers. The connection and trust of the leader encourages an internal shift and willingness usually follows. When our trust in the leadership is greater than our resistance to change, we move forward.

What’s true for horses is true for humans; “You can never rely on a horse that is educated by fear. There will always be something that he fears more than you. But, when he trusts you, he will ask you what to do when he is afraid.” Antoinede Pluvinel.





What my Horse Whispered Today: Trust your internal guidance system.

A three part series about leadership: Leading your life; Leading others; Sustaining leadership

Horses are wonderful leadership teachers. They instinctively know the survival of the herd depends on their trust and connection to the lead mare. Imagine a herd of wild horses grazing in a field. On the perimeter the lead mare patrols and alerts the herd when it’s time to move on. All of the horses within the herd have one ear pointed toward their lead mare at all times. Each horse is aware of the slightest changes; a flick of the ear, muscle twitches or shifts in the wind. Without the lead mare’s ability to lead them away from danger and toward water and new pastures the herd would perish.

Like horses, humans willingly follow leadership when they trust and have an emotional connection to the leader. Leaders and their followers have an Internal Guidance System (IGS) that functions like their inner lead mare. Our survival, individually and as a group, depends on attending to our IGS. The more we nurture our mind-body-intuition connection (our vulnerable sensitivity that immediately responds to truth) and listen its internal signals the stronger our IGS becomes. To do this, we must learn to regulate our emotions and feed our spiritual life. We can rely on our IGS to give us clarity in confusing situations, help us refocus and lead us in the direction of our best life.

Neglecting our IGS by substituting other’s opinions and allowing our immediate, reactive emotions guide our decisions ultimately blur’s and disables our ability to make sustained, positive changes in our lives. Internally, we become a herd without their lead mare. Not listening to your internal IGS is like a herd disregarding the signals from their lead mare.

Racing thoughts, anger, holding onto past regrets prevents your IGS from functioning properly. Relying only on emotions and rehearsing the old painful stories feed the distorted beliefs about the self and sabotage the IGS. Your emotions take the lead and cause you to wander around, questioning everything, unable to focus or recognize real threats.

I was conducting an Equus workshop with a group from an addiction recovery center. I asked each participant to guide a horse through a simple obstacle course. One of the women had been walking side by side with the horse, moving it forward, her eyes focused on the barrel at the end of the course. The horse hesitated. She got confused, stopped, then turned and faced the horse. The horse responded to her confusion by refusing to move.

Me: What’s happening right now?

Woman: “Well the horse stopped and I’m trying to get it to move forward.”

She and the horse stood still facing each other for about four minutes.

Me: “Where do you want to go?girl&nauticmoving forward

Photo by Sheri Wirt Photography

Woman: “I want to get to the end of the obstacle course but this stupid horse won’t move!”

Me: “ Your horse isn’t stupid. You are asking her to move forward but where are your eyes and body and facing?”

She laughed as she realized that she was physically facing in the opposite direction of where she wanted to go; where she began instead of the finish line.

 Me: ” You need to look in the direction you want the horse to go. You are facing where you’ve already been, not where you want to end up. You want to move forward but keep looking back to where you’ve been instead of where you want to end up.”

Woman: Bursting into tears, “That’s why I can’t kick this drug habit, I keep looking in the wrong direction. All I see is my past failure. I’m not moving toward recovery.”

Then she stopped, calmed down, refocused. She turned around, faced the end of the course and walked the horse finish line.

There are similarities between leading horses and leading ourselves toward our best lives. Where we focus determines our next steps. If we, or those in leadership, disconnect from our IGS letting shame and failures dominate, focusing on the past, our sense of direction is lost. We are leaderless.

Individually or we are in the role of parent, teacher, therapist or equestrian, our connection and response to our physical, emotional and intuitive signals determines the effectiveness of our leadership, personally and with others.. Disconnecting from your IGS disables your ability to connect with or lead anyone else

I teach my clients how to connect to their intuitive self by developing their IGS using the three core practices of personal leadership.

They are:

  • Examine your personal truth: Are your passions, values, emotions and actions are aligned? As I asked my client, “Are you focused in the direction you want to go? “Focusing on the past, keeps you in the past. Moving forward takes all of your energy, focused in the direction you want to go.
  • Listen to your heart: Your heart is that part of you that immediately recognizes the truth. Have a clear focus for the day. What do you want to create and how you want to feel at the end of the day? Ask yourself what truths are your emotions and body telling you, right now?
  • Stay Present: Adjust your actions and thoughts according to the needs of the moment: Your body (not your judgmental, critical, worried mind) is your most trustworthy guide. Be like a horse- a prey animal. Without engaging your analytical mind, the vulnerable part of you becomes more responsive to what is happening in the moment. Connect and trust your physical/emotional responses to direct your next steps. The feeling of lightness and freedom says, “Go.” Constriction and heavy, hesitant feelings say, “Stop, wait, look, reconsider.” Trust yourself and adjust your actions accordingly.

As the herd depends on their lead mare, depend on your IGS for daily guidance. Aligning your responses and decisions with this internal system will reconnect you with your inner leader who will protect and move you forward.





What My Horse Whispered: How Old Are You Today?

I turned 64 yesterday. My mother, a vibrant 83 years young, sent me a birthday card that read: “no matter what, don’t act your age.” She reminded me to follow that advice during our phone conversation later that day. What is acting your age? Is it true we get better as we age? If I didn’t know how old I was, how old would I be? Continue reading What My Horse Whispered: How Old Are You Today?

Why Horses

bugsy and Tom

Be very careful about what you ask for in life. Spending a weekend with a horse whisperer and a herd of horses, became an adventure that irreversibly changed the focus and direction of my life.
Up until that weekend, my life was predictable. I did what I thought was expected of me. Being a responsible adult meant putting away childish things and disconnecting from essentially anything that made me feel alive. By silencing my authentic, essential self, I exchanged playfulness for a perpetual emotional state of confusion and apathy. Nothing really made me happy. It felt like there was a piece of my soul missing. I traded what I loved for the approval of my parents and the ominous “everybody”.
Over the next 30 years I had a few enlightened moments. I spent hours reading dozens of self-help books. In one of Martha Beck’s books she wrote about her encounters with a horse whisperer and the freedom she found doing that work. I thought, “That would be so cool if I could do that!” Several weeks later I discovered an opportunity to spend a weekend session at the ranch where Martha and the horse whisperer. My husband thought it would be a great Christmas present. A month later, I left for Arizona, ready for an adventure and not expecting a total transformation.
On the first day of the workshop, I felt some old negative feelings surface; grumpy, resistant, defensive and curious. The second day, while I was standing in the middle of a huge arena, coaxing a small, stubborn buckskin mare into the corral, I felt an enormous emotional shift; like a gigantic genie had jumped out of the bottle. My dormant essential self had come up for air, saying loud and clear, “Hey, I’m out, I’m not going away and I want to play!”
I felt a deep, peaceful calmness, free, released and clear. In that moment, nothing existed except me and the horse. I knew what to do in that moment with the challenge the horse was presenting. I focused on my breath and watched the mare’s nostrils moving in and out. We were breathing in sync. Taking one more gentle breath, I moved into a sacred, wordless mind space, relaxing and trusting myself. My heart and breath and the horse were connected. I gently motioned toward the corral with my hand, made a kissing sound with my lips, and the mare and I willingly moved in the desired direction. The mare went into the corral and I, relaxed deeply into my intuitive self.
The entire process from shifting to alignment took less than 90 seconds. The original assignment, to get three horses into the corral, seemed like an impossible task. Experiencing Oneness with the horse made it an effortless, joyful event. The best part was that I had reconnected to the True Self I thought I had lost decades ago.
I have not been the same since. Almost every day, I stop and let myself drop into the same connected oneness of my mind, body and emotions that I experienced on that hot afternoon in Arizona. When my heart and mind align and connect, I am free.  I know what to do next. Life in that moment makes sense.
Today, I give others the opportunity to connect to their powerful wise selves by working with horses. Over the last three years, I have witnessed horses helping humans ease into their vulnerability. Successfully communicating wordlessly to a 1000 pound horse, requires that you connect, first, to your primal self and then to the horse.  In that connecting moment, nothing else exists. The mind-heart connection to each other leads to a state of oneness that guides and helps you know what to do next. I promise, you never lose the physical and emotional impact of that moment, ever!  That connection in that moment, sets you free to be your powerful, wonderful self.
Horses are healing beings. In his book, Radical Knowing, Christian de Quincey discusses the three brains in humans; the gut, the heart and the brain. As prey animals, horses have a similar system. They respond first from their gut, then their heart and finally their small brains. When we listen to all three of our brains (starting with our gut), we accurately address what needs to be done with each challenging moment. We have Oneness with our essential, true nature. There is no second guessing, over thinking or comparison to others. We are leading with our primal wisdom, our true nature. Participating in equine facilitated learning is one of the best ways to make the mind-body-intuition connection. Horses lead the way to our transformation.

Try this: Equine Facilitated Self-Coaching Exercise #1

For those of you who claim you always feel better after spending time with a horse.

Beginning Oneness:

Go into a pasture, or corral or round pen where it’s quiet: just you and a horse.

Sit down or stand still, focus on the exhale of your breath.

Do not look at, invite or approach the horse in any way.

(Read a book, drink some water, have a picnic. Your lack of any demand on the horse is your invitation to connect.)

If/When the horse approaches you, maintain an arm’s length of space between you and the horse.

Watch the horse’s nostrils and sync your breathing with the horse’s