Pet owners are keenly aware, amazed and sometimes mystified at how astutely their animals sense human feelings, be they sadness, sickness or even discord among those in the home. The science behind it is fascinating and still evolving.
Unlike animals, humans give a lot of attention to language, which can distract us from what can be learned through touch, sound and smell — senses that are highly developed in animals. This heightened awareness helps animals discern threats from safe situations. Their survival can depend upon their senses.
That’s true with horses. A recent horse-guided coaching session I had with Yeller as the learning partner — and my husband as an unexpected facilitator — yielded impactful discoveries about two things:
the power and energy of unregulated emotions, and
our ability to shift our mindset to impact both our thought process and relationships.
Yeller: The Mirror-holder
Yeller and I have a colorful history. He is a savvy relationship instructor and his willingness to partner with me typically supersedes his interest in remaining with the herd.
His trust shows up in a variety of ways and to varying degrees. When it’s been awhile since Yeller and I have been together, my calling out, “Hi, handsome!” as I enter the pasture doesn’t yield a timely pause from grazing and a look my way. By contrast, with regular interactions it seems that my even thinking about Yeller brings him to the gate awaiting my arrival.
That’s where he was recently when he willingly followed me to the pen for groundwork (exercises done keeping both human feet and horse hooves on the ground). Yeller waited in the pen during my brief exodus to grab my hat. It was then that I discovered an unfavorable, upsetting circumstance, and my strong emotions to it took me by surprise. I was hurt and tears of frustration flowed. Yet I quickly collected myself to wipe away my tears. In other words, I tried to fool myself into thinking that not showing exterior emotion was all that mattered. Especially to Yeller.
While walking to the pen I began processing how I would handle what upset me. My ruminating only re-energized my emotions. Rather than labeling them, accepting them without judgment, or simply acknowledging “they just are” to move forward, I grew so distracted that I became stuck. I carried that stuckness into the pan where Yeller awaited.
Convinced the emotions were stuffed far enough down that Yeller and I could begin working together was comical at best. From the pen’s center, I pointed in the direction I wanted him to go. Yeller acknowledged my ask by taking a few labored steps in the right direction before he stopped. “Lazy guy,” my thoughts blurted.
Again, I pointed in the direction I wanted us to go and stated, “Walk.” He repeated the same behavior. With Yeller appearing disinterested, disconnected and bored, my seemingly “stuffed emotions” began surfacing and I poked his side. Unkind thoughts about how he was showing up rose in me as he would walk less than two steps then stop. My emotions escalated, as did the way I asked Yeller to move forward. The more frustrated I got, the more agitated he became. His defiance became all I could see. I almost didn’t notice my husband standing quietly outside the pen, peering curiously through the gate.
Suddenly the impact of placing too much pressure on Yeller combined with my unregulated emotions was mirrored by Yeller’s body language. All 1,100 pounds of him. In one smooth and deliberate movement, he swung his backside toward me and kicked both back feet behind him, barely missing my head.
His hoofs hit the ground and I turned away, angry, exasperated yet unsettled by both Yeller and my husband’s gaze. Again, tears saturated my cheeks. Taking slow, deep breaths and in silent prayer, I began to transition from where I was to where I wanted to be. Calmness and composure gradually replaced the tears. I gradually turned and walked toward my husband, passing Yeller on the way. As any valued partner does, Yeller quietly and patiently awaited my next move.
Walking in My Clients’ Shoes (Boots)
“What feedback can you provide?” I sheepishly asked my husband.
Clearing his throat before sharing observations and encouragement, he matter-of-factly inquired, “How can you lead Yeller rather than force him?”
Still recovering from the layers of emotion, I hesitantly approached Yeller. His soft, gentle eyes communicated forgiveness. His willingness to remain in my space — instead of moving to the other side of the pen — was a relief. Grateful I struggled to answer my husband’s question — either verbally or through purposeful actions — to get things back on track. Asking for help was the vulnerable and right next move.
With confident, soothing and concise encouragement, my husband facilitated learning one step at a time. I moved forward with the groundwork. Each action was calm, centered and deliberate, building on prior ones. My husband thoughtfully positioned, open-ended questions and I made memorable and powerful discoveries, most notably:
Emotionally charged actions led me to try to force Yeller rather than lead him.
Force results in resentment.
A resentful horse is an unwilling partner.
These three concepts led me to think and communicate differently with more thoughtful actions to restore Yeller’s trust in me.
Seeing What’s Real
Here’s what took place. Once Yeller and I worked as partners in the pen, my husband suggested I stop and be still.
Savoring the moment, I closed my eyes, prayed with gratitude and breathed deeply. The more grounded and present I became, the closer Yeller moved toward me. While completely immersed I heard my husband softly chuckling. Opening my eyes, I noticed Yeller’s head turning toward me, nearly enveloping me with his neck. Our connection returned.
A few joyful tears filled my eyes. Calmness washed over me and a wide smile filled my face. Yeller’s kind gesture was heart stopping. “Thank you,” I whispered to him. He responded by walking beside me, without a lead rope or other physical connection. My husband’s chuckle at Yeller’s unwavering partnership still echoes in my mind, as does the way he captured Yeller’s desire to follow me from the pen into the barn as my husband added, “Effectively leading him rather than forcing him makes him not want to take his eyes off of you, Kim!”
Questions to Consider
1. How many of us can say that about humans within our organization we’re trying to lead?
2. How does our ability (or inability) to regulate our emotions impact those around us?
3. What energy do our thoughts create?
4. How aware are humans that thoughts create energy and energy impacts outcomes?
If you’re a courageous leader who wants to get clear and more assertive in your ability to lead effectively, reach out for a 30 minute phone consultation to learn more about why horses are effective in teaching humans relationship + leadership skills.