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Horses As a Path to Navigating Trauma

Years ago, I wrote a piece about my first experience with Koelle Simpson and the horses. Now eight years later, I’m starting my Master Facilitator Training program with Koelle, and I’m back at Big Sky Foxtrotter Ranch for my next level of training in Equus work.

Koelle kicked off the first four days sharing why this work is so important to her and her message resonated with me.

There’s lots of work out focused on trauma, which is powerful. However, we may have a narrow view of trauma.

Cultural Trauma

Koelle shared that yes, we can identify events in our past that create trauma for us today, but often don’t realize the cultural trauma we are living in daily, through losing our connection to our own wholeness.

We get so caught up in our own story-making and separating that we lose our connection to each other, but it starts first with losing our connection to ourselves.

Why the work with horses is so powerful is…

Horses can teach us to live and navigate trauma by creating a culture of belonging.

Over my first four days of training, I was reminded of why I love this work. Horses give me a sense of belonging and so much missed connection.

I thought it would be fun to pull out this first piece about my initial round pen experience at this very same ranch and share where I started with a touch of where I am now.

The piece that follows is focused on how this work applies to leaders, but really, it’s the work of developing wholeness and a stronger relationship with myself.

Sure, wholeness is important to leadership but maybe even more critical in life.

Where are you not aware of your separation?

As you read what follows, I would invite you to think about where in your life you may be incongruent and not aware of the separation you may have created from vital parts of yourself.

Where have you given yourself away unconsciously because you (and I ) have been trained to not be whole.

It is time for you and me to return to wholeness.

That may be the only real path to making real change. If you can relate and want to reconnect to yourself and learn to navigate the cultural trauma of separation come work with me and CrisMarie and the horses in Find Your Mojo in Montana.

Horses As Mentors for Congruent Leadership

I think all leaders need to spend some time with a horse. Forget 360 feedback, go spend sometime with a herd of horses and get some real feedback, real quick!

I know that might sound crazy! But really horses can teach a leader more in a day than most training programs in months.


Let’s Talk About Horses

Horses are prey animals. To survive they need to be masters at picking up clues and reading the environment. They also live best in herds. They are regularly relating and communicating with each other, setting boundaries, dealing with various types of interactions while paying remarkable attention to everything going on around them.

In fact, they are masters of emotional intelligence. They have to be, because they need to know and respond when danger is coming. This makes them excellent teachers and mirrors for us humans.

So put a leader in a Round Pen with a horse and quite quickly that horse is going to become a big mirror for how congruent that leader is at building a relationship and giving instructions.

Leading From The Inside Out

I learned this lesson first hand a few years back when I arrived at a workshop run by Koelle Simpson at a ranch in Phoenix. The workshop was called, Leading From the Inside Out and was focused on learning about leadership from horses.

Only problem: I was not a horse person. I loved watching them from afar but not one to get too close.

However, on day one I found myself first to volunteer to walk into the Round Pen with a horse and see what happened. The general instruction was simply to establish a relationship with the horse. Sounds easy enough, right?

Coming down from my seat above the Round Pen, I began having some second thoughts about my decision to jump in. Those doubts grew even stronger as I got closer to the Round Pen door and heard the horse making quite the racket inside the pen.

I panicked inside, but I wasn’t about to look scared or chicken out. It was time to muster up some courage and walk in that Round Pen.

So I did what any good leader would do under pressure, I put on a happy, confident face and walked right in.

Let me just say, that horse stayed as far away from me as possible. I tried looking calm and cool. I tired moving towards the horse, following all of the recommended tips – eyes down, curved movements, non-aggressive posture, visualizing the horse letting me get closer.

I got nothing. The horse just stayed quite restless and very distant.

What’s Happening Inside?

Koelle started to coach me. She asked me, “What’s going on inside? What are you thinking and feeling? What is your intention in connecting with the horse?”

After some lame attempts to answer intelligently, I broke down, “Honestly, I am scared silly of this horse.” I was looking at Koelle, almost in tears, hating myself for jumping in to the Round Pen first.

“I have no idea what I am doing, and frankly, I am not even sure I’d be comfortable if that horse got any closer.”

I did notice at this point, some muttering from others watching, but I was wrestling with my tears. Finally, I lost the battle and let a few tears run down my cheek. Suddenly, I felt the breath of the horse on my neck. Wow, I did not see that coming.

Unbeknownst to me, the horse had been moving closer the moment I started being honest and congruent about what was happening.

Over the next couple days, I learned just how amazing horses are as mirrors. The experience was so profound that I found myself signing up for Koelle’s Year Long Equus Coaching Program.

While I am just starting utilizing the horses in my coaching practice, I am sold on the importance of congruence as it relates to leadership. Just like horses, people know when we are being real and congruent. Great leadership comes when we are willing and able to lead from the inside out.

What Does This Mean For Leaders?

A leader needs to know what they are thinking, feeling and wanting. This can be challenging at times.

In the Round Pen knew I wanted to jump in and get the most out of the workshop. However, what I was not willing to acknowledge, or even let myself own, was that I was actually afraid of the horses. I wanted learn from the horse, but I didn’t want to look scared. Both were true. The horse figured that out in seconds, it took me a while longer!

Often as a leader it is important to step up and take charge of a situation. That’s great. However, if at that same moment we are denying our own inner fear or doubts, we will not likely be as effective.

It doesn’t mean we have to breakdown and cry. (Although there’s nothing wrong with showing a few tears). It does mean we need to acknowledge and deal with our underlying emotions or feelings.

The Power of Acknowledging

I have discovered the power of acknowledging what I am feeling. If I acknowledge, even to myself, that I’m a bit nervous around these powerful animals, take a breath, and allow that nervousness to simply be present, along with all of my excitement, I settle a bit, and clarity comes about what direction to go next. Plus, the horse doesn’t seem to mind at all.

It’s the same way with people. When I acknowledge my feelings, be it fear, excitement, joy, sorrow, hurt, even too myself, leadership becomes easier.

When a leader is acknowledging, and owning their thoughts, feelings and wants the fidelity of message becomes clearer because there is congruence between the external words being spoken and the internal emotional landscape. People feel that just like horses do, and people feel safer around are loyal to congruent leaders.

So want to know about your own leadership go spend some time with a horse!!


CrisMarie Campbell and Susan Clarke

Coaches, Business Consultants, Speakers and Authors of The Beauty of Conflict

CrisMarie and Susan work leaders and teams, couples in business, and professional women.

They help turnaround dysfunctional teams into high performing, cohesive teams who trust each other, deal with differences directly, and have clarity and alignment on their business strategy so they create great results.

Check out their website: Connect with CrisMarie and Susan on LinkedIn. Watch their TEDx Talk: Conflict – Use It, Don’t Defuse It! Find your copy of The Beauty of Conflict: Harnessing Your Team's Competitive Advantage here.

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