I’m standing on an observation deck, overlooking the round pen. The day is damp and overcast, and a light breeze moves across the field. It smells like wood fences, fresh cut grass, cowboy country. I hear the occasional hum of a fly. And I watch Leo flicking his tail, no doubt to shoo those buzzing flies away from his ticklish belly. I see Leo shift his weight from one powerful side, to the other. He flicks his tail a few more times.
I’m getting ready to walk into the round pen for my first equine coaching session, and I am suddenly overcome by emotion. I don’t really understand what’s going on inside of me. My eyes well up.
“Trish, wait. I need a minute.” I say through tears.
“Of course,” she says. “Take as long as you need.”
Is this really my life right now? The beauty of this place is breathtaking. I am overcome with gratitude that, today, this is my work.
So why am I crying? Will Leo sense this?
What if my emotions are too big, too weird for him?
What if he won’t come near me?
I’m acutely aware of every bird chirping in nearby trees. I feel the hairs on my arm move with the breeze. There goes Leo flicking his tail again.
More tears. What the hell is happening in me right now? Where did all of this emotion come from? Is this normal?
I take a few deep breaths. Shift my own weight a bit. Wipe my eyes. The vulnerability I’m feeling starts to dissipate.
I feel myself start to rally – I give myself a little pep talk Ok, Jac, whatever happens in there is exactly what needs to happen.
I look at Trish and nod. I’m ready.
What happens next is no less than an evolution in the way I see myself in relationships.
Trish hands me the lead rope to hold in my hands. Even though it won’t be attached to Leo, I can tap it against my leg to make noise, or gently swing it toward him to signal for him to move away from me if I feel I need distance from him at anytime. She reminds me how to use my body language and my position to slow Leo down, stop him, and send him away. A horse has natural pressure points which means that just by standing 10-15 feet off either their shoulder area or off their hindquarter, you can get them to move forward, stop or turn. Safety first, always.
I walk into the ring, Leo raises his head looking directly at me. He sees me. He feels me. This is so cool.
I take another deep breath, and relax my shoulders. I walk toward the centre of the ring. I’m standing about 15 feet from his hindquarters. Leo starts to move around the outside of the pen, slowly at first, but acutely aware of my every move. I use my body language and positioning to show him what I want him to do. I tap the lead against my thighs, make a few clicking sounds with my tongue, swing my arms slightly. As my confidence picks up so does his speed, he starts to canter. His beauty is mesmerizing.
After a few minutes, I focus on slowing my body movements and my breathing as a way of consciously bringing my energy down, and he responds by slowing his pace from a trot to a slow walk. When I stand 45 degrees off his shoulder he stops and turns. I continue to stay in the middle of the round pen as he walks around the outer edge. We rarely take our eyes off of each other.
I understand that all of this is happening because horses have relatively large limbic systems (the emotional brain centre) and as prey animals, their nervous systems are highly attuned to their surroundings in order to stay safe and responsive. In the round pen, Leo is focused on me. He’s constantly assessing if he can trust me.
My body is naturally communicating with his body. My energy affects his energy.
As Leo moves around the round pen I continue to move my body so I can see him at all times. After a few minutes, I stop tapping the lead against my legs and stand still but I keep him in my peripheral vision. As I stop moving, Leo stops too.
He walks toward me, slowly, mindfully, paying close attention to even the slightest movements and sounds I make. His ears flick forward listening to me.
He’s standing close to me now. I reach out slowly, letting him smell my hand. I love the feeling of his soft, warm muzzle, long tickly chin hairs poking my hand. I speak softly. Reassuringly. I place my hands on him. Caressing his neck, patting his back, scratching his chest. I’m supporting him. Comforting him. Leo, you’re so handsome, I love you buddy.
I feel deeply connected to him – and this feels familiar to me. This is who I am in my important relationships. I support, champion, nurture, give, hold, love. My tenderness is mighty. Leo leans into me. I lean back. We’re having this special moment together. Soul to soul. It’s beautiful. Familiar. Safe.
After a few minutes Trish, who is witnessing everything from the observation deck, asks “What would it be like to stop patting?”
My tummy flips. I feel immediate resistance to her question.
I think to myself: Stop patting? But this is my role. I’m good at this. Creating intimacy is my super power.
But I let my hands drop anyway. I step away from Leo, just slightly.
I’m in this liminal space. What now? Why is that question a trigger for me?
And then I realize: Leo is still standing beside me. He didn’t leave. He’s connected to me even when I’m not giving. We are standing beside each other. Both of us holding this beautiful, powerful space together–equally powerful in the relationship. Both giving and receiving.
The question isn’t about Leo at all. Where else in my life, business, relationships do I assume I have to keep patting? Where am I over-giving because I don’t trust the relationship?
BOOM. I am flooded with answers. Tears start flowing again. I see instantly how important this question is for me.
Equine coaching is powerful because whatever happens in the round pen is a ‘mirror’ for what is happening elsewhere in your life.
Leo is an 11 year old Irish Sport Horse/Paint cross gelding and stands 16 hands. He was my coach that day. And what he taught me is still having ripple effects in how I see myself in relationships. I’m still processing all of the magical moments I had in the round pen and continue to be in awe of how powerful it is to work with the intelligence and sensitivity of horses in this way.
That was a week ago, when I had the privilege of co-leading the Find Your Fire Retreat at the world-class BlueStar Ranch, with the most amazing group of women coaches. Facilitating retreats is one of my favourite experiences. The power of being face to face with real, live human beings, witnessing vulnerability and courage, the alchemy of releasing and claiming. It’s pretty damn mind-blowing. And this time we had the added magic of horse power.
If you ever have the opportunity to experience equine coaching I highly recommend it. Hint: Find Your Fire 2017 is definitely happening.