People often ask me how coaching with horses works. It is not easy to explain; experiencing it is really the key to understanding it. I always find the process enigmatic and inexplicable. What happens in a coaching session between a client and a horse is intimate, personal, unpredictable, and in some ways mysterious. I am not trying to be coy, but the fact is that being in wordless communion with a sentient being of considerable size, power, and an enormous energetic field is a deep profound experience. Describing how mutual understanding, insight, and communication occur under these circumstances is challenging. Nonetheless, here is my explanation.
Predator meets Prey
Mammals are an amazing class of creatures that have evolved to survive in most habitats around the world. We share adaptations and specialize when required in order to accommodate environmental and evolutionary pressures. Some characteristics that we share as a class are that we are endothermic vertebrates who have hair on part or most of our bodies. Specializations include such adaptations as the placement of the eyes: predators such as cats, dogs, and humans have eyes on the front of the face while prey animals such as horses, deer, and elephants, have eyes on the sides of their heads.
Horses are like us in many ways. Unlike leopards, and skunks, horses and humans share the need to live in social groups – families and tribes or bands and herds. Horses and humans rely on their group mates for survival. We social animals must develop skills that enable interpersonal success that are not required by solitary mammals. While some believe that competition is the greatest driver for successful survival, social animals must be able to collaborate for survival as well as compete.
It is where we differ from horses that things get interesting. Language is obviously a key differentiator, but our predator nature also creates a sharp distinction between humans and horses. For example, we have eyes on the front of our heads. We are task focused in order to hunt and gather resources. We need high quality food and at least a couple of meals a day. The rest of the time we devote to the work of maintaining our existence and shelters, so we can sleep eight hours at night.
Horses have eyes on the sides of their heads, with about 340 degrees of vision to enable their attention to be diffused across as much of their environment as possible – the better to spot the predators. They are designed to eat low quality forage for up to 18 hours a day, and sleep only a couple of hours in a 24 hour period. They do not seek shelters and naturally lived on the plains where they could easily see and flee from danger. Although they can vocalize, they tend to be silent in order not to draw the attention of a predator. The 80% to 95% of human communication that is non-verbal, is the almost 100% norm for horses. Their primary strategy when faced with a threat is to run; fighting is primarily reserved for competing for mates, not for defeating predators.
Our instincts are in many ways very different, and so when horse and human come together we tend to be unsure of each other and don’t naturally know how to bond the way we do with dogs or cats, animals that have been domesticated over the millennia. The frame of reference that we hold when we encounter horses – the feeling, beliefs, assumptions, expectations, and the so-called facts that are embedded in our operating systems have an enormous impact on our presence, and thus our experience with horses.
The Delusion about the Power and the Importance of the Pre-Frontal Cortex
I believe the wordlessness of the human and horse relationship is where the power originates. Research in neuroscience now shows that the vaunted logic attributed to the pre-frontal cortex, also known as the thinking brain or working memory, is highly over-rated (Rock, 2009). We think that we can think our way out of thinking. This is particularly dangerous when we’re unaware of our emotional state, because our emotions are actually running the show (Goleman, 1998; Zeidner, Matthews, and Roberts, 2009).
The working memory of our brains can manage a relatively small amount of data at any given time. We rely so much on our conscious brain that we have almost forgotten that much of our processing power is unconscious. Being with horses compels us to let go of this reliance on the logical. Verbal language is of no use when communicating with them: body language, our emotional and energetic state, and our thoughts are critical.
Survey Says: New Age People are Right about Energy
The HeartMath Institute (www.heartmath.org) has produced profound research on the nature of the human body’s intelligence, showing that our neural communication system incorporates our guts and our hearts, as well as the organ located in our skulls. The scientists at the HeartMath Institute explain this process as
“a holographic perspective to describe how energy waveforms generated by the heart’s electromagnetic field encode and distribute information about all structures and processes throughout the body from the cellular level to the body as a whole. Moreover, the energy fields produced by the heart and other bodily structures are transmitted externally. And because these energy fields are in continuous interaction with the multiplicity of energy fields in the environment, it appears that information about nonlocal events and processes is conveyed back to the body and processed as intuition.” (2009, p. 61, italics are mine.)
Emotions and physical energy play a huge role in our lives that is usually below our level of consciousness awareness, and explains the phenomena of “affect contagion” – the wordless instantaneous sharing of emotion and other information among members of a herd, flock, school, or tribe.
I have a vivid memory of entering an office in a large organization for the first time and being overwhelmed by an ineffable sense of sadness, depression, and resignation. The office was quiet, with well-appointed furnishings, and well lit. The staff was well dressed and polite, and yet there was an inescapable misery in the place. I found out much later that the person in charge was a highly risk-averse, ambitious person who had a strong need to control everything that happened within her jurisdiction. The leader was unconscious of the effect she had on her team but it was readily apparent to her people. For me it was a powerful lesson in leadership as well as the tangibility of shared emotion.
We Are All Linked
Dark Energy and quantum entanglement are examples of pure science demonstrating that the universe is a very strange place, and that we are far from fully understanding how everything works. There is much scientific evidence to suggest that we are connected. We are descended from star dust and genetically linked to an ancestral male and female that existed millions of years ago, before the development of language and symbology separated us from reality itself.
Research is demonstrating that we are capable of communicating wordlessly through these electromagnetic fields and transmitting information, known as affect contagion, about our emotional states over distances without the benefit of physical media or language. This is evidenced by the Quantum Zeno Effect (QZE) and the established observer effect of quantum physics: the behaviour and position of any atom-sized entity, such as an atom, an electron, or an ion, changes when that entity is observed. (The Neuroscience of Leadership, David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz, 2006.)
Science is solving the mysteries of the animal world with similar success. Just as dogs can sense when their owners are coming home (Sheldrake, 2011), horse owners (including me) will swear that their animals can sense their intentions, emotional states, and will act differently based on changes in the emotional state of the people with whom they are interacting, without any verbal or conscious non-verbal communication.
Horse owners know that horses sense our energy and gather information from our physical processes and structures, as well as from our electromagnetic fields. Research on the human brain using fMRI is enabling scientists to study humans and other mammals as we interact with others in real time. Scientists are demonstrating that the human brain is a social organ, and that “its physiological and neurological reactions are profoundly shaped by social interaction” (Rock, 2009).
Get Your Oxytocin and Neuroplasticity Here
When interacting with horses we are forced into a state of heightened awareness that is foreign to our normal functioning state. Aside from the novelty that non-equestrians experience in a coaching encounter, the typical equine facilitated coaching experience sets us up for a peak insight experience by creating the optimal conditions: being quiet, inward looking, slightly happy, and not effortful (Rock, 2009).
The co-mingling of our electromagnetic fields produces hormonal releases and other pleasant chemical reactions in our bodies. Increased release of endorphins occurs when humans are with horses, just as it has been demonstrated between humans and dogs. My attraction to this work is based on these persistent characteristics – I feel better. Just as I experienced during my first riding lesson in 1998, I continue to have the sense of having deeply engaged parts of my being that are not otherwise required in this modern digital age.
Clients bear this out. It is typical for them to feel deeply into their intuition, get clear about emotional states and their path, and feel exhilarated and energized after their sessions with the horses. The learning doesn’t seem to be momentary; it is long-lasting. Neuroscience explains this as attention density: repeated, purposeful, and focused attention leads to long-lasting personal evolution (Rock, 2006).
Learning occurs when we are deeply engaged with our senses, our emotions, and are free of stress. These are the ideal conditions for laying down new neural pathways: we change our brains by what we think about. Engaging emotion and the five senses are ways to engage even more circuits, thus assisting in the creation of new neural pathways. Coaching with horses does just that: engage us in greater mindfulness as well as creating deep long lasting change.