From the horse’s mouth

It was the last day of life coach training with Martha Beck. Surprise, surprise: we were asked to show up at an equestrian centre. Fiona Hoekstra of Equisight co-facilitated the programme.

I knew so little about horses. I’d managed to sit and stay on a horse on holiday rides, but nothing more. I arrived not fearful, but wary and respectful; I know a farm manager whose horse-loving daughter died as a result of a horse’s kick.

The lecture began. Horses apparently have special eyesight. From afar they can read human beings impeccably. They read the very essence of our being and decide how to respond.

What’s this got to do with training to be a coach? “Coaches,” Martha says, “have to display leadership.” A coaching conversation is not a friendly buddy chat. It’s purposeful. It needs to go somewhere. And the coach needs to lead.

That doesn’t mean the coach is necessarily advisory. The coach’s role is to create an environment in which the client can do his or her own best thinking and, in creating that environment and by asking the right questions, the coach must show leadership.

Horses judge your leadership ability. Fiona teaches the Monty Roberts method of “joining up” with the horse you are working with. You stand in a ring with the leather rein in your hands; the way you hold this amplifies your presence. With your head, your eyes and your arms, you must direct the horse in the confines of the ring.

You must make the horse walk to the right and then indicate to the horse that you want it to go left. Next you must request the horse to begin to trot, then change direction while trotting. It becomes obvious that the horse is responding to your requests and is ready to accept your leadership.

You will notice the horse bowing his or her head and a subtle licking of lips. That’s the sign of readiness. You indicate to the horse to slow down to a standstill. The invitation process requires that you approach the horse, always in its sight, and when you’re abreast shoulder to shoulder, you turn direction definitively, with your head and body saying “follow me”. If the “joining up” has been truly successful, the horse steps in line behind you.

There were 12 of us on the training. Some did the joining up quickly; others had a harder time. One horse refused to follow the lead of a coach who had a buddy-buddy approach.

In the previous week a trainee coach with a history of being in an abusive relationship entered the ring. The horse, chosen for its gentleness, took a look at the trainee, drew back its lips and bared its teeth and started to move towards her: “You expect abuse, that’s what I’ll give you.” Uncanny.

I went back a few weeks later to learn some more. Fiona chose a horse called Hardware for me to work with because he was fearful, the parallel being: “How would you work with a coaching client who has a fear?”

Hardware’s fear was of black plastic. Fiona had laid a single mattress-size piece of heavy black plastic in the arena. Hardware vehemently shied away from it.

I decided to walk round and round the plastic, leading Hardware. Then I walked on the plastic, but made sure that Hardware still skirted its perimeter. Then I jumped and danced on the black plastic saying: “Look at me, nothing bad’s happening to me!” I was stumped about what to do next.

I asked Fiona for a clue. She said: “Try making it smaller.” Ah hah! I rolled up the black plastic until it looked like a log and began my walking again. Then I got Hardware to step over it. Yay! Then I slowly unfurled it, bit by bit, with a walk-over after each unfurling.

Sometimes Hardware would have a mini loss of confidence and I’d coax and talk, take a step back and repeat the process. It worked. On our final circling, the walk became a trot and Hardware and I triumphantly trotted over the fully unfurled plastic. I was grinning from ear to ear with absolute delight at our achievement.

The debriefing was all about the need to create small progress steps, the need for patience and encouragement.

Fiona does this training with many business leaders. “You can’t believe how many executives have tried to physically drag the massive bulk of Hardware over the black plastic by force,” she said.

It seems if you are a business leader in charge of humans, then bullying can appear to be effective. How else do you explain why there are bullies in leadership positions? Horses, however, violently resist being bullied. They respond to bullying only as a last resort — that old way of “breaking in” a horse leaves much to be desired.

Horses respond to leadership. More especially, they respond to leaders who provide clarity of direction, provide progress steps towards a goal and act with decisive encouragement. Horses read you inside out. Take a drive to Equisight; the horses might teach you a lesson or two about your personal leadership style.

Contact Helena Dolny at [email protected]

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