Category Archives: trust, connection and leadership

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.

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.