This life lesson blog is a fictional re-creation of real life experiences with my students designed to maintain anonymity and confidentiality.
The afternoon I took my student Trina out to meet Marvel, a beautiful paint gelding, she shared with me her hesitation in going out to the arena, which she explained with “I’m afraid he won’t look at me.” I hadn’t met anyone who had expressed such a specific concern about meeting a horse and she continued with a story that put it into perspective. Trina had been raised as a child to believe that eye contact is a sign of disrespect. She moved to this country as a teenager, struggling for years to overcome her habit of looking down when spoken to and it took it’s toll on her social life through high school. Now an adult and looking for a job in the world of marketing, she was finding it more difficult to believe in herself when speaking to new people, especially during a stressful experience like a job interview.
Trina had always loved horses and rode frequently as a child, taking lessons at a local riding academy. She believed that the horses could see inside of her and knew she was a good person, worthy of being recognized for her talents, knowledge and skills. There was never a concern about averting her eyes when she was with the horses. Her culture did not consider it a sign of disrespect, aggressive or rude to look at them. “The conversations I had with the horses were always nonverbal”, she said, “They are the most honest creatures I’ve ever met. And they knew when I was not being true to myself. When that happened, they would turn their head and look away.” It had been almost 10 years since Trina had been around horses and finding Life Lessons with Horses was her chance to reconnect AND learn more about herself from her favorite teachers.
I asked Trina why she was afraid the horse, Marvel, would look away from her today. “I have been trying to get a job at a place that I know will challenge me and allow me to use my talents to the best of my abilities,” she began, “but I have been practicing being someone else, someone who is able to speak with authority and look someone in the eye when they ask me a question. It feels like I’m lying.” Trina’s cultural identity had told her she needed to defer to others to gain their respect and that belief apparently had not changed even as she tried to change her own personal and professional behavior.
I decided to have Trina enter the dry paddock with Marvel and simply walk around without interacting with the horse. I further instructed her to use her body language with a stick if necessary, to tell him to move away if he began walking towards her, entering her space. As she wandered around, I noticed her expression change from excited at joining the horse, to one of sadness, with her chin close to her chest and the corners of her mouth dropped in a frown. After asking the horse to step out of her space several times, he finally walked away. I asked her, “What are you feeling right now?” She turned and looked at the horse and spoke in a soft, hesitant voice, ” I feel…like, like I’m driving away… a friend. It makes me sad.” Her body language in the paddock had not betrayed her. As she turned and moved in the direction of Marvel’s exit, always looking at him, he began to walk over to her. This time I encouraged her to welcome him with an outstretched hand of greeting. Immediately, her body transformed, and her expression became one of joy as she smiled and opened her eyes wide.
“What happened to your body when you felt sad,” I asked, although I knew the answer, having seen it for myself. She quickly responded, “I could feel my body getting heavier and moving slower with less excitement.” It was evident that this had been distressing for her. “And now? “I asked. She reached her hand to the horse’s neck and shoulder and began stroking it with an affection reserved for a loved one. “Now, I feel like we are friends.”
BECOMING A LEADER
It was time to address the question that had been on my mind from the initial moments of our meeting. “Trina,” I asked, ” Who do you want to be in your professional life?” As if she were in another job interview, she replied without hesitation, ” I want to be someone who is not afraid of a challenge, willing to work hard and take charge. I want my work to have an impact on people.” I was blown away by how strongly Trina expressed herself when just moments earlier she had been softly rubbing Marvel’s shoulder. “Wow,” I said, “it sounds like you want to be a leader!” Almost immediately she replied, “YES!”
I shared with her how the horses determine who they will follow as a leader in the herd-a process of discovering which of the mature individuals is willing to assert their energy to create change in behavior-usually through movement. This positive influence can be used to keep adults and youngster out of trouble and to motivate resistant individuals, all working toward a common goal-survive and thrive! It can be used to explore and discover new places for valuable resources while understanding the need to cull those who are unable to thrive. And the leader’s influence can be in how they carefully watch over the herd making sure each member is aware of her direction. Trina loved this explanation and asked me, “Is it possible to be a leader in the herd and still want to be their friend?” I explained that for horses, it’s about trusting that the leader will keep them SAFE! Part of the lead mare’s role IS to nurture and to encourage the connection of each member without sacrificing the goal of keeping everyone alive and healthy. The point is, it’s important for a good leader to balance SEVERAL roles.
A TRUE LEADER
I sent Trina out to the paddock and had her walk Marvel through the obstacle course that had been set up earlier. She was given a few moments to decide which direction they would go and to choose the endpoint. Lastly, I asked her to not touch the horse who was now unattached-no halter or rope. She began almost immediately and took a left turn into the track, marked with poles and cones. Head up, her focus on the path in front of her, Trina was joined by Marvel walking alongside her, their steps in sync, one right after the other. At one point they broke into a trot as Trina could barely contain her excitement.
“What did you discover?”, I asked, as they finished the course with Trina’s arms victoriously extended above her head. As she pondered the question, Trina rewarded Marvel with a scratch down the center of his chest and as if on cue, the gelding curled his lip and stretched his neck out as if to say, “that’s the spot.”
“I was so worried about being a strong, confident person in my professional life. As if I was betraying my family or my younger self,” she began. “But I’m not my younger self. The horses listened to me when I was a kid and it felt like we were friends.” Marvel looked at her and appeared to be interested. “As an adult, though, I’ve learned that I can be a leader, like in the herd, only if I’m willing to admit that I’m a different person-stronger, more experienced and able to do things that effect other people at a real job.” I asked her what she had noticed about the horse’s response to her direction on the obstacle course. “Marvel went with me like we’d known each other for years-he trusted me.”
“Why do you think he trusted you?” I asked. “I didn’t hesitate, knew where I was going and felt positive that we were going to do it together,” she said, pointing to the course for emphasis, “I think Marvel felt safe with me, right?” I agreed and Trina patted her partner on the neck. She understood that her identity as a child and the emphasis on deferring to others, while important to her family, no longer worked for her. The horse had shown her that if she was consistent and confident in her abilities to influence another’s behavior, that she could affect positive change. She didn’t need to be the horse’s best friend, but she did need his trust. Marvel trusted her to keep him feeling emotionally and physically safe! Trina really was a TRUE leader!