Not too long ago a former high-profile fashion executive told me about the wonders of equine therapy. She brought a skeptical group of French executives to a serene California ranch to meet with renown “horse whisperer” Koelle Simpson and her trusty steed. Tasked with coercing the thousand-pound animals to do their bidding, they found themselves unable to use physical and verbal force and persuasion. Instead, they used their own calm confidence to lead a horse their way.
The point of these workshops, she told me, is to convey that effective leadership doesn’t come from a fired up email or barking orders on a conference call. Instead, there’s a certain quiet magnetism that comes from within. A powerful sense of self that draws horses — and, well, people — in.
The perspective flip seems like an interesting exercise for stubborn executives, but I wondered if there were parallels in our dating habits and the people we draw in to our orbit. Even though communication is a two-way street, we often blame ourselves for misfires: Did I phrase that text right? What did he mean when he said ‘see you later’? Did I give the impression that I wasn’t interested? Or did I seem too interested?
But what if the answer is to turn your internal mirror to something … four-legged?
“Horses have always shown me that we’re working with the relationship we’re having with ourselves, first and foremost,” Simpson told me. “It’s a ripple effect. When someone comes to a session, the horse begins to reflect back areas where we’re not trusting ourselves and not connecting with our own needs. Sometimes we’re conscious of them, but many times we’re not.”
Working with these horses creates nonverbal communication skills that can be then implemented into everyday life. It’s bringing ability to connect through presence and amenability to your next first date or interview that makes equine coaches claim this is pretty powerful stuff.
In 2006, Simpson founded her Koelle Institute for Equus Coaching in San Luis Obispo, Calif., which is where she does experiential work with equine therapy and life coaching. She also travels to introduce her methods to executives, individuals and equus coaches-in-training at workshops that teach her work around the world. While work retreats are common for Simpson, she said singles and couples often come to her seeking a restoration of faith.
“Horses reflect back what we project — whether it’s someone seeking a relationship or someone experiencing a challenging relationship. It’s easy for us to only be able to see what’s unfolding through a lens of our past,” she explained.
Communicating with your horse, Simpson says, can help expose those doubtful inner demons that cause our defenses to be up when encountering the unknown … like, for example, a first date.
“When we have an environment like we do with horses, where it’s not a human being,” she continued. “And you take the idea that ‘this person doesn’t see me or doesn’t like me or they’re judging me’ out of the picture, you’re left with an animal who doesn’t have a story about you. And they want to connect. Horses have that genuine curiosity and are sensitive to the energy we express and how we conduct ourselves. That comes from our emotional state and the self-talk we have about ourselves, the internal dialogue.”
Horses are a herd animal and an animal of prey — making them incredibly reactive and alert to their interactions and surroundings, said Josh Schubert, a licensed professional counselor in Virginia who hosts the Equine Therapy Podcast.
“Horses are so big and powerful you can’t force them to do something — if you want to communicate with them, you need to be empathetic and see things from their point of view. Horses will let you be next to them freely if you have a certain energy level. You need to be calm and focused on the here and now — you need to be present with them,” he explained. “The goal is that if you’re going to have a good relationship with other people, you have to have control and be aware of yourself and your energy levels. It trains you in those ways. It allows you to have those better connections and relationships with people.”
As academia gets more involved and interested in the benefits of equine therapy, we are discovering additional tangible results, Schubert added. One recent study showed that riding horses and learning to read their vibrations increased children’s ability to use self-control in social situations. Another showed upticks in “self-image, self-control, trust and general life satisfaction” in at-risk subjects who partook in weekly sessions over the course of seven months. In turn, that increased self-awareness and control can be transferred within the real world.
“Most people walk around in a state of fear with their nervous systems activated, and horses are so present that they mirror what we’re communicating non-verbally,” said Diane Hunter, an equus and life coach in Los Gatos, Calif. “The way we look at it, in the equine world, the horse is a reflection for what state of being you are. Your first impression should show you more about yourself [than the other person].”
But what makes for a bad first impression?
“With a horse, if I’m showing up to the relationship and not feeling very confident, it’s like thinking I’m unworthy of someone’s attention or insecure,” Hunter said. “If I see that in a client, I ask them: ‘What do you value you in yourself that you love?’ And when they connect with that, they connect with their heart. And we’re in a place of wholeness again.”
Plus, notes Schubert, equine therapy — which extends its powers to clients with PTSD and anxiety, to, say, Anthony Weiner’s rehab for sex addiction — takes clients outside the traditional doctor’s office setting.
“People open up more with horses, I think, because the focus isn’t on them,” Schubert added. “They can focus on the animal and the animal’s emotions. And then the animal picks up on their emotions. This is where the communication comes in.”
Results from the visceral experience of working with horses — the process can range from a few hours to a multiday workshop to, in Hunter’s case, years (she took a workshop with Simpson in 2009 and never looked back) — is said to improve the love we give, both to ourselves and to others.
“Someone can become more conscious of what their internal dialogue is, and how that’s affecting their relationships, especially their romantic ones,” said Simpson. Horses “can show us whether or not we fully see ourselves. We begin to recognize our thought and coping patterns. When someone has an experience like that, you take the excuses and the story lines away. You stop thinking ‘Oh, well, that was just a coincidence,’ or ‘I’m not good enough.’ ”
But, continued Simpson, you have to do more than see it to believe it. “To me, it’s like if you’ve never tasted a lemon before. I can describe it and talk about it for a long time, but if I cut open a lemon and you smell it and put a drop of lemon on your tongue, you will always know. This gives people a visceral experience of themselves and how [they] impact their relationships. Once they’ve done that, they have a choice. They can come to a relationship in a new way.”