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The Beauty of Equus Work

Do you need a coach?

Have you ever wondered why we have so much information about horses intertwined in our work?

Well this week on the podcast Susan is sharing the power of using horses in coaching and why we incorporate it into our own practices.

If you’ve ever wondered what equus work really is, how Susan began her work with horses, why it’s so important, and how horses are used in coaching, check out her new interview!

We hope this helps you see how masterful horses are at nonverbal and emotional communication and how that can benefit you in your own coaching. Who knows, it may even inspire you to participate in your own first Equus experience!

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The Beauty of Conflict for Couples

Full Transcript:

CrisMarie: Welcome to The Beauty of Conflict, a podcast about how to deal with conflict at work, at home, and everywhere else in your life, I'm CrisMarie.

Susan: And I'm Susan. We run a company called Thrive and we specialize in conflict resolution, communication and building strong thriving teams and relationships. Conflict shows up in our lives in so many ways, most people unfortunately are not very good at handling conflict, most people have never been taught the right tools for dealing with conflict. And then it leads to unnecessary friction, arguments, passive aggressive emails, tears, hurtful comments, stuck-ness, all kinds of things we don't want. We're on a mission to change all of that.

CrisMarie: We spent the last 20 years teaching our clients how to handle conflict in a whole new way. We're here to show you that conflict doesn't have to be scary and overwhelming, with the right tools you can turn a moment of conflict into a moment of reinvention. Conflict can pave the way into a beautiful new system at work, a new way of leading your team, a new way of parenting, a new chapter of your marriage where you feel more connected than ever before. Conflict can lead to beautiful things. Today I have a very special guest on the show. She is a leadership coach, a team consultant, she actually works with couples. She works with horses and she's just an amazing person and today I'm going to have a conversation with Susan Clarke. Welcome to the show season.

Susan: Oh, it's so great to be here, CrisMarie.

CrisMarie: Actually, I thought this would be a great episode to interview you on the work you do in coaching both leaders... you do this in a lot of forums, but today we're going to focus on where you do this work, coaching leaders, and also women with cancer using horses.

Susan: I can see how somebody who thinks you should only have one niche would say, "Wow, those are very different". Well, the horse is the solid component-

CrisMarie: And so are you.

Susan: ... so am I, the horse and I.

CrisMarie: Well, it'll be interesting then for you to tie these two things together and, well first, why don't you share how you even got interested in using horses as a tool in your coaching of humans.

Susan: Well, you actually were responsible for me getting engaged in doing this equus work because CrisMarie, a few years back, a number of years back, I think we were with Koelle just recently, and we were talking about it because we were at the same ranch and she said, "That was probably 10 years ago". And I was, "Yeah, I think it was". And you dragged me to a workshop leading from the inside out with Koelle Simpson, and it was in Arizona, and I went. I really have no experience with horses. I had ridden a horse, but not really I mean, I've been on a horse, that's about it. So, this was very different. And what happened in that experience was so profound for me, and part of it was that I was terrified of these animals.

CrisMarie: Didn't you just volunteer to go first?

Susan: Oh, yeah. Because I go into programs, and she wanted someone to come down to be the first one to go in and work with the horses knowing Koelle now, I know she had probably gone through a safety thing and what we were going to be doing, because she does it all the time, I have no memory of that. All I remember was that the time came and she asked for volunteer and no one volunteered, and I hate that as a

workshop leader. So I was, "Okay I'll go", and I started to come down the...

CrisMarie: Before you go because most people don't even know what this, equus means horse.

Susan: Yes.

CrisMarie: And working with equus work is working with a horse in a round pen. The horse is at liberty, no reigns or anything. You go in there and your job is to create a relationship with horse, right?

Susan: Yes. And you know when I said, I'm sure that Koelle had already set all this up because she does regularly go in herself, demonstrate all of what you just were talking about, because it's about establishing a relationship with a horse. And she also talks about why all of this is so important because horses are prey animals, so they are naturally, they rely on the herd and they rely on their relationships for their own safety and survival. And so, they are keenly and acutely... they are big monster biofeedback machines, because they are constantly reading their environment about who's safe and who's not. And so, when you go into that round pen with a horse, the idea is that you're going to be invited to come in and establish a relationship with the horse, because the horse is going to start establishing one with you because you're now in their herd. So anyway, that description, I'm coming down and they've just brought in a horse and this horse is just romping around that round pen, banging up against the wall. In my opinion this is what I'm hearing, lots of noise-

CrisMarie: It was actually... I was there.

Susan: ... whipping in around outside of the arena.

CrisMarie: Which is scary.

Susan: And I remember thinking, "There's no way. There's no way in hell I'm going in there". And so, as I was getting ready to walk in, Koelle was there and she said, "If you want me to come in with you"... and I just grabbed her arm and dragged her into the arena. We did get out to the center of the arena and she asked me how I was doing and I said, "I'm okay now". And she goes, "So, it okay if I leave"? And I said, "Yes", and she left and there I was, the horse still whipping around the thing. I was not really okay... there's a lot... but I was determined to, "I can do this, I can do this, I can do this". And so I'm standing there, "I can do this, I could do this", and I'm not having a clue what to do, not really having a clue how to... all I could think was, "This horse is really upset and it is way bigger and much more powerful than I am", and totally focused on the horse.

And I kept... not much was happening I don't think, but I remember Koelle finally asking me, she goes, "How's it going out there"? I said, "Well, going okay, I'm still here. Internally I'm still here, I'm alive", and so she said, "Okay, well are you clear about, what are you trying to create"? And I... all this basically went on for a little bit of time until finally I just, and I mean I was just close to tears and she asked me again, which you need to know I don't cry often, so she asked me again, "How are you doing"? And I really was... I just turned and I said, "Really if I'm honest, I am terrified. I have no clue what I'm doing". I could feel my jaw doing its little rattle. I could feel tears welling up in my eyes. I was looking at her just like, and I could feel my whole body sort of trembling.

And all of a sudden I wasn't aware of it, but that there was just a silence and she said, "Do you notice where the horses now"? And it still brings tears to my eyes because the horse was just right there on my shoulder breathing. And she said, "It's because you're finally congruent. This is...", and I got it. It was, "Oh", I stopped trying and sunk in and had developed a relationship with the horse because I was willing to be vulnerable and say what was true and be congruent. And that was so profound and I watched it happen over and over again with other people, so I became very, "Wow, this is feedback unlike anything else". I mean it took me a long time to ever learn how to get in my body, and there are paths you can take. It's kind of like going up to the mountain and becoming a monk. It's a long ass time, so horses can do it much faster.

CrisMarie: So when you use the word congruent, because I don't know if people... I think you give a great description. It sounds like when you actually acknowledged, "I am terrified", and had the willing, you got congruent from your inside to your outside, and the horse somehow made a decision then that you were safe to be around.

Susan: Yeah. I mean the horse is... because it's a biofeedback machine, it is reading my heart rate, it's reading whether I'm sweating or whether I'm not, whether I'm drib- I mean, and they are reading it to the finest degree, which we don't even... if you talk about reading nonverbal language, they're masters. So that's what was happening.

CrisMarie: So horses, and I think... so that safety, they're so attuned to all these signals because they have to read that out in the wild. And so, they'll look for congruence as safety in the herd.

Susan: Yeah, in a natural herd the matriarch, it's usually not the stallion, because stallion's got a lot of testosterone, he's good for some things. But-

CrisMarie: Whether or not the matriarch is-

Susan: ... more the leader, if there is one. They see leadership differently than we do. But the reason why the matriarch is more of the leader is because they're embodied, and they're not particularly interested in whole bunch of... they are relational, but it's not about... but they're very clear with their boundaries and they're very-

CrisMarie: They're not trying to please everybody.

Susan: Yeah.

CrisMarie: "Do you think we should go over here? I'm not sure".

Susan: Yeah, or, and they'll let someone know if they're in their space because they're just right in their body, and they're paying attention to everything that's going on around them.

CrisMarie: So they lead the herd when there is a sign of danger, they lead the direction that they need to go.

Susan: Well they usually pick it up the fastest because they're the most embodied.

CrisMarie: The stallion might fight off the threat, but the matriarch is leading to safety.

Susan: Well, the stallion's biggest job is really just impregnating any of the mares. Let's just be clear, they got a lot of test- I don't even... they fight. We don't have to go down that road, any horseman out there might be having a fit, but we're talking herds and me.

CrisMarie: So let's bring this, so you have a little bit of the context for the work, but how do you apply it to leaders? Let's start there.

Susan: Well in terms of leadership, like I said, I know for me I was a very guarded, protected person, that was how I made my way safe in the world. And I actually think a lot of times in leadership and business and things like that, you're kind of supposed to be strong, look good, know what you're supposed to do, not let anyone answer. Yeah, and there's a lot of press out there today about becoming an authentic leader. But sadly it's a word that most people don't even have a clue what it means, because authenticity isn't charismatic, I mean or inspiring even. Authenticity means that you actually know how to be real, it's more like the Velveteen rabbit. That's not the book of leadership usually, but maybe it should be. It means you're going to show up with your bumps and your scratches and your scars and your... but you know those things.

CrisMarie: I think too often in organizations, and we work in a lot of organizations, they're mired in politics. Everybody's trying to look good, don't let them see you sweat so you can climb the ladder. And yeah, people espoused authentic leadership, but when it gets real, people get quite uncomfortable.

Susan: Yeah. Because it is difficult. But one, as leaders progress and we do make it a hierarchy and we do have power dynamics and we have all sorts of stuff, we are a predatory beast, not a prey. And we may have both, but it tends to come about that, dominate, figure out my career, make myself look good, make sure my brand... and as a result it becomes even harder and harder to get real feedback. And even in large organizations they want people to be real but no one wants to be real because it's your leader and you may lose your job. And so, the opportunity to get any really solid feedback becomes harder and harder. And in frankly, I think most leaders probably don't even want to get it anymore because it's-

CrisMarie: I don't even know if they know what they're doing that blocks it. They don't know the inherent dynamics as they climb up, they get less and less real feedback.

Susan: Yeah. Because I know, and I again I'll go back to my own experience with that horse, I didn't know how much I was blocking showing up real. And the horse was able to give me that feedback very differently the moment I dropped in. And over and over again, I have repeatedly experienced that with the horses.

CrisMarie: Now tell us about a situation where you have taken a group of leaders out in the round pen, and how that works, and what they might experience, and the results of that.

Susan: The results.

CrisMarie: Of course.

Susan: Yes. Well I think it's all individual, unless we take a team that's a whole different dynamic, but I'm going to talk about, let's say if we're doing one of our leadership opportunities. So each person has first, their own opportunity to go into the round pen like what I did, and work on establishing a relationship. And it's also going in with an intention. Like I want to...a lot of times what I hear most frequently is, "I am wanting to understand. I get blocked in my communication. I think I'm asking for what I want or I think I'm clear, people just don't seem to be getting it and they're not doing what I want them to do frankly.

And a lot of times then I get angry or get upset or I get frustrated and I just, I want to give up on them". These are things I hear and often when we're doing this, okay so here's an invitation to go out into the round pen and imagine it could even be, it's a new employee. Could be, how are you going to establish this relationship and find a way to ask for what you want and need with this horse? And nine times out of... I mean it's interesting what happens, a lot of times you see the dynamics that probably these people are using back at work. I had one gentleman go out and he considered himself a horseman because he'd been around horses, lived on a farm and he would push the horse. Literally and I'd be, "Nope, this isn't about actually physically... first off, you're going to lose that battle, but"-,

CrisMarie: 1,500 pounds.

Susan: ... but that was... he'd just sort of think, "I'm going to push him over here and push him over there". And I was, "Okay, I don't know if that's effective". So he realized that's often even what he would do. He could identify that's sometimes what I do with my people too. I start to try to use my power or my role, and it really doesn't work with 1,500 pounds, but it might work in the workplace. And someone else may realize that they keep asking for a boundary with the horse, I need some space, and every time they ask they step back instead of standing in there.

CrisMarie: You mean every time they ask the person winds up stepping back and the horse comes into their space?

Susan: Yeah, and they are, "I don't understand why the horse is not getting it. I had my hand up". And it's, "Well, because you keep stepping back".

CrisMarie: And how does that happen.

Susan: And how does that? And so they can begin to translate. So there are all these micro things like the thing about communication is it's 10% words, 20% tone and what is the rest of that, 70% body language. And so much of the time where leaders are paying attention, they get a script or they make up their own words, they're trying their best to monitor their tone, but they may have totally lost this other 70% of the communication, and horses are reading that all the time. So this is a huge opportunity to begin to understand the micro-movements and the things you might be doing that block that.

CrisMarie: And after they get out of the round pen, I usually then come in and coach them to help them connect the dots to, how is this showing up? You do it in the round pen and then we make more of it after the session.

Susan: Yeah, but-

CrisMarie: And it's amazing because in watching you can have two leaders work with the same horse and the horse will respond completely different just based on the human that they're in relationship with.

Susan: Yeah. And some of that's because people need different amounts of space or they communicate what they want differently, and so it's so fascinating to watch that transpire and be able to help someone see. Even the same person could have a horse at a different time. Like for me, I used to go out to get the horses in my training, and nine times out of 10 none of them were coming over to me. That was not happening. And I would do my thing to go and get them, and usually there'd be a little bit of a runaway thing and back, I haven't had that happen to me. And now the horses come up, certain horses-

CrisMarie: What do you tribute that to?

Susan: I think I'm actually much more centered and grounded.

And I'm in my body, I'm not... and when I am afraid, it's not that I don't... sometimes I am sometimes there's a little ruckus going out and I do have my fear and I just

acknowledge that. Yep, I'm a little, take a breath and I settled in my body much more.

CrisMarie: I've seen the leaders that you and I have worked with over the years who have come and done leadership development programs with us, and the amount of calm that they experience and the increased level of influence that they have in their relationships and where they are in even how much money they're making has all accelerated.

Susan: I would agree. And it's amazing, well this is going to slightly diverge a little bit, but we are also doing this work with alpha waves, alpha training, which is-

CrisMarie: Brainwaves.

Susan: ... brainwaves, so way of relaxing and it's a whole process. But I really do believe in, I was talking to you about it, that the horses put me in touch with that alpha wave energy faster than meditation breathing, almost anything for me. Now I'm sure the combination of breathing, it facilitates that, but I love... because I do, it's like things slow down and all you business people out there might be getting worried, but it slows down in a way that actually allows me. Like in flow, when time kind of, you have enough time and suddenly things start to come together. You see all, you see the strands and the pieces pulling together in a whole picture, so you actually can make better, faster, not necessarily faster but more effective, decisions without it having to be this race against time and kind of figure it out.

CrisMarie: For those of you that don't know brainwaves, because I didn't and I read a book on it, the two that I'm going to talk about, beta is what we tend to be in our day-to-day. And it's not very creative, it's more when we're stressed out, we're trying to figure things out, multitasking, beta, beta, beta. Alpha is that place that you go to that feels more expansive, peaceful. And that's where our brain connects a lot of dots. And that's where you get a lot more creativity in your brain and actually a lot more fulfillment, and I think time does slow down. There's a different relationship. There's all sorts of a different level of consciousness.

Susan: And the higher it... the thing about it for me that I'm becoming more and more passionate about is so many times when we're working in organizations on teams and things, there's so much politics, and we as humans can't help ourselves. We at, first off we're story making machines and we actually believe our stories, and so they accelerate out in the world at monumental portion. We're either looking ahead to how that story is going to change and cause good or bad things, or we're looking behind us to see how it already did cause big or bad things. And in the meantime we're not present. And so as a result, there's just so much politics in human dynamics. Let's just say that. Not even just within organizations, and horses don't, they're not politicians. They don't have politics. They do... something may have happened to them and it had an impact.

I was just realizing, I don't think I said... they don't have memory. They have memory, but their memory comes into the present and they figure out, "Is this a real one or not, right now". We don't do that because we can futurize a patt- and politics is probably the most damaging thing to an organization.WE talk about it, it's a cancer, that once it starts spreading it just, toxic.

CrisMarie: Wildfire, yeah.

Susan: ... wildfire, and yet it's cancer, which is a communication issue. So frankly we can talk more about that in a minute.

CrisMarie: Yeah, because people don't understand what you're saying.

Susan: But that it has to be addressed.

CrisMarie: And I think what you mean by... when people are all politics or when I'm usually talking about somebody rather than to them, good or bad, but usually it's dangerous when I'm talking about bad things and people are unwilling to say that to the person's face. You know your gossip is toxic if you wouldn't actually say it and don't actually say it directly to the person, you talk about them.

Susan: Yes.

CrisMarie: And that can be very prevalent in some organizations. And we do call it a cancer because it's a breakdown in those communications.

Susan: Yeah. Because, so to give the benefit of the doubt that not all politics is bad, I happen to believe in democracy, I happen to believe in politics, but you can also see even based upon our current situation, our political world has become very polarized.

And that is actually not the best of politics. And actually does become very insidious. People aren't actually talking to each other with any sort of openness and realness and a desire to be influenced. It's more curiosity.

CrisMarie: Let's shift gears because there's another audience that you work with and this is kind of more of a... it actually hasn't come to the limelight until more recently, and it's women who are struggling with cancer, and that seems like a very different audience than leaders in organizations. So talk about why that's even a heart project for you and how you work with those particular women.

Susan: Well one, some of you already know this but I'm going to talk about it again in case we have some new listeners, I myself had, in my early twenties, had cancer, and four different cancers, and it was a real critical turning point in my life. I was on one trajectory and then I was on a very, very different one. And over this, between when I originally got the diagnosis and seven years later after the four different cancers, my world had completely changed. And I think I realized in some respects that cancer diagnosis, I'd always been an athlete, a runner, this, that, and the other, and I always joke, "Did you ever smoke"? And I'm, "I did for two weeks after I got diagnosed with cancer". I was so pissed that, "Why in the hell did... how could I get cancer? This is"-