Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Evoking Coaching Presence with Horses

Posted on Tuesday, March 01, 2011 by International Coach Federation

  • How do you bring yourself into presence in a coaching conversation?
  • Where do you subtly disconnect, making your client an object upon which you act?
  • What might open in your coaching conversations through sensing?
This year's advanced course in Presence-Based Coaching incorporates presence work with horses. Two intense days of indoor work on presence, coaching methods, and contracting skills preceded a day with Karen Head, of Equinection, who has developed a wonderfully nuanced and powerful way of facilitating the interaction between horses and humans.

Horses are being used widely to help leaders develop authenticity. Disparate methods all rest on the fact that as prey animals, horses are exquisitely sensitive to the state of the nervous system of a potential predator. Zebras (horses with stripes!) can tell instantly if a lion is hungry or just thirsty, scattering at the first hint of a hungry lion in the grass, and grazing placidly as the same lion, now simply thirsty, walks right through the herd to get to a watering hole.

Our bodies have the same exquisite sensitivity (after all, our ancestors were prey!) However, our fast pace and the requirement for cognition-intensive living have, for most of us, cost us access to the rich realms of sensation that are essential to our aliveness. Recovering this aliveness, and the presence and authenticity that comes with it, is part of the promise of coaching. Horses are simply another way in, instantly reflecting our inner state and inviting us to be authentic and present with them.

The centerpiece of the day is what Karen calls "the approach." Each coach has time in the ring with a horse. The horses respond to incredibly subtle changes in our nervous systems, often before we ourselves are aware of them.

When the human is present, available, in relationship, the horse responds. When the human is disconnected from herself, anxious without acknowledging it, or seeing the horse as an object or something to be manipulated, then the horse loses interest or moves away.

I experienced this with Karen and a huge powerful horse named Ceili. Being in the ring was complex for me; I have anxiety about horses from a scary experience when I was young. I wanted to be good at this horse thing. I wanted Ceili to come to me, and was afraid he wouldn't.

Ceili stood, ignoring me, seventy feet away on the far side of the ring. (Being ignored is my worst fear in life!) As I became aware of the emotion of vulnerability, and acknowledged that feeling to myself, Ceili turned, walked directly to me, and put his enormous head in my hands, resting his soft lips and nostrils (a horse's most vulnerable place) directly in the cradle of my hands. I wept.

Then, my physicist genes kicked in and I began to think of experiments. "What happens if I put my right hand on his cheek?" In that moment, I made the horse an object, and broke the spell. Ceili sensed the difference before I moved a muscle, and pulled his head back and away. When he showed me I'd left, I softened again, and his warm nose dropped back in my hands. That switch happened three times. (OK. Got it, Ceili! Thanks!)

Presence-Based Coaching rests on being fully present in the relationship. Our client is not someone we "put through our methodology." We do not experiment on the client to see how she will respond to this technique or that.

Rather, we enter each conversation mindfully. We are present with ourselves, aware of our emotions, our sensations, our thoughts as they arise and pass. We are connected to our client, sensing what is the right pace of approach, sensing when the biological organism that is our client is pulling back, when she is opening. We sense our connection, remembering it is the quality of the relational field that exists between us that allows coaching to happen.

Thank you, Ceili.

Posted by Doug Silsbee, PCC, author of The Mindful Coach, and leader of the ICF-approved Presence-Based Coaching training program. For other posts, or to comment on this one, visit http://dougsilsbee.com/blog/horses.


  1. Thanks Doug! My daughter and I are coaches and have a team of eight horses who participate as our co-facilitators in the arena and in the stable yard. There is no riding, only groundwork. Presence based coaching is the only way to successfully work with our clients, otherwise our team horses distance themselves from us. In the moment there is synchronicity in heart rate and vibration. This is the magical moment of self realisation which produces effective change for our clients. We are blessed to be able to work with the skills we possess and in an environment we love, with the best facilitators! Our accreditation is through EAGALA. Keep posting!!!

  2. Talullah.. glad to hear about the work that you're doing. I've experienced that the horses really require the level of presence that enables our best coaching to take place. It's a great practice area.

    I actually don't think it's magical (though it can feel magical....) With practice, we learn how to generate this presence as a birthright, as a core competency, and as the basis for living. Coaching is just the excuse!




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