Horses Wake Up Our Compassion

# 2 of the Ten-Part Series 'Why horses enable leading edge development'

So here is day 2 of my Blog Series ‘10 Reasons Why Horses Provide Leading Edge Leadership & Team Development’. Well technically it is past midnight, so pardon the small delay :-)

Reason # 2: Horses Wake Up Our Compassion

HorseDream is a powerful corporate approach for equine assisted education that I have chosen to adopt for my work. A few weeks ago I was on a training program to become a HorseDream Licensed Partner. One of the exercises, called ‘Distance and Nearness’, required me to ‘send the horse away from me’ so as to get it to respect the space I needed to be safe. Once I was ready, I was required to go ‘near the horse’ so it would know that I was ready to be closer, and have it be close to me until such time it wanted to. The purpose of this exercise is to build our confidence in making our boundaries clear when required, whilst as the same time being comfortable with closeness and intimacy when we want to inspire somebody to come along with us.

I stepped into the arena together with Phoebe – the lead mare of the herd we were working with. I wanted a ‘challenge’ – as I usually do, even when I don’t need one – so I picked Phoebe to work with.  

I took a deep breath of courage and I began, albeit with a flinch of hesitation. Only I knew I had hesitated at the fleeting thought of it all going wrong. As I began the exercise, Phoebe walked away from me in a direction of her own choosing and started rolling in the mud. As I desperately tried to establish communication with her so she would get up and play with me, she completely ignored me and got even more engrossed in rolling and scratching her back! In moments, I began getting frustrated, and felt rather intimated by failing at the task even before I had even begun it! The thought of others watching me created even more angst, and in my attempt to mask my fear I began flailing my hands about to create energy so as to get the horse to get up on her fours so we could start the exercise. But she got even more disconnected from me and more connected with the ground she was by now fully immersed into with her rolling and stretching and scratching.

Coaching Opportunity!!!!

At this point, my coach helped me stop and notice what was going on. (Thank you David!) I stopped, and started noticing. As my attention shifted from Phoebe and my failure to ‘command her’, I became aware of what was going on inside me. I noticed feelings of self-doubt. I noticed a lack of respect for my own strength. I noticed a lack of belief in my energy, which stemmed from a lack of compassion for myself in the moment.

Suddenly it dawned on me - how tough I was being on myself! I was putting all that pressure on myself, just to ‘look good’ by overcoming a ‘challenge’. What was I trying to prove, and to whom? As those simple truths dawned on me, I became aware of my breath. My heart rate. The tension in my shoulders. Clearly, Phoebe had noticed all of that, and was not at all interested in being near the ‘stress bomb’ I had become in that instant!! As I took deeper breaths, the pressure seemed to slowly drop - physically. I felt a warm kindness toward myself. I smiled at my inner struggle, decided to be kind and compassionate towards 'me', and gave myself permission to experiment, even if I would not manage to do the exercise. That very instant, Phoebe got up on all her fours, shook the mud off her body with an energy of intention, and stood square – facing me, as if to say ‘I am ready now, let’s play.’

What followed was the most astute experience of ‘Distance and Nearness’ I have ever had with anybody – out of my own choice. It was like a dance. A dance where the only feelings present between the horse and I were Respect, Trust and most importantly, Compassion. 

Horses show us when we are not operating from a place of compassion – with ourselves to begin with. And self-compassion is the key to being compassionate with others. If we cannot be compassionate towards ourselves, we cannot be compassionate towards others.

Horses tell when we operate from low self-compassion. It shows up in our energy and minute body language. Our inner state always reflects on our bodies and our energies. If we carry a confident face on the outside, but are inside doubting ourselves to perform all that undue pressure we have created for ourselves, the horse will simply not play ball. When we are operating from this place of creating ‘pressure to perform’- which unfortunately has become second nature to us in our adrenaline loaded lives – this shows up in our energy and body. It is only when we take a moment to notice what is going on inside us, and are comfortable to drop whatever mask we wear,  that the horse starts to look towards us, about to say ‘I am ready now, let’s play’. Or perhaps ‘you are ready now, let’s play’ 😊

Think of a team that you really enjoyed being a part of. You really enjoyed collaborating with. And you created waves as a team – you were known as a high performing team and people wished they could be part of your team. What was the quality of the relationships you shared in that team? Was compassion, respect and trust not at the core?

Think of a leader that you have considered a role model for leadership. Hold the image of this person in your mind. Which qualities of this individual stand out for you? Anyone who thought of a leader who did/does not embody compassion? Probably unlikely.

When it comes to inspiring an organisation or a team to follow your vision happily, you need compassion in your leadership style. You might get people to do what you tell them to out of fear. But you will not have them happy or inspired. And those are two essentials for a highly engaged team that sustains high performance. Therefore, good leadership needs compassion.

As an end note, I am reminded of a fantastic HBR blog I read a couple of years ago titled ‘Why Compassion is a Better Managerial Tactic Than Toughness’. Here’s the link. Have a read if I’ve piqued your interest: