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Horses, healing and power

What replaces fear? A capacity to trust the abundance of life. All wisdom traditions posit the profound truth that there are two fundamental ways to live life: from fear and scarcity or from trust and abundance.

- Frederic Laloux

In the last couple of weeks I've spent a lot of time thinking about power, and about fear. About how fear leads us into a way of viewing and wielding power - as a way of controlling others so that they do what we want, and we get what we think we want - that isolates us from each other, disconnects us from the living world that sustains us, and leaves us painfully dependent on external validation and acceptance. This model of power - as "power over" others - creates a world of pain, struggle, numbing, self-protection, competition, and more fear, cascading through the generations and rippling through our families, workplaces, communities and countries. It's so pervasive that it's hard, a lot of the time, to see it clearly; how, for example, even when we strive for self-empowerment, we often resort to using our new-found power in the old familiar ways.

Sadly, the"power over" paradigm is pervasive in the world of horsemanship, too. It's very common for people to talk about the need for "control" (of the horse by the human) and "respect" (of the human by the horse) - often in the same breath as we talk about our goal of "partnership" with our horse - without stopping to consider whether partnership can be a meaningful concept if it is based in establishing dominance over the horse. ("Being a strong leader" for our horse, although it sounds better, often seems to amount to the same thing.)

Perhaps this focus on control, respect, dominance, and "strong leadership" tells us three important things. First, that we are actually afraid of our horses' power (this is something that non-horsepeople admit much more easily than riders do). Secondly, that we cannot really believe that this power could be shared willingly and joyfully with us, in genuine partnership - "power with", rather than "power over". And thirdly, that we don't have a model for, or the skills to move to, an alternative, "power-with", way of relating. As I re-read what I've just written, I notice that I could replace the word "horses" with "employees" and it would be just as true: despite the staff engagement surveys, 360-degree feedback, and team-building days, most of our workplaces remain firmly stuck in the "power over" paradigm.

It was beautiful, then, to spend last week, in Module 3 of the Healing Herd programme, exploring what "power-with" between humans horses might look like, and what kinds of skills we need to develop in order to be able to meet horses, and each other, in that space of genuine partnership. One of the fundamental principles of the programme is that - as Angela Dunning puts it in her wonderful book on equine-facilitated practice, The Horse Leads the Way - we must not heal one species at the expense of another. In other words, the horses must never become objects or tools for our learning - eg, developing self-confidence by "making" the horse move from walk to trot to canter in the round pen. Honouring this principle and staying in partnership/power-with asks more of us, I think, when we move beyond observation and reflection (being) into inviting movement with the horse - at which point most of us automatically flip into doing mode, and from there very easily into "making" and control. Fortunately, last week we had a group of empowered horses to work with who were quite clear about their preferences! (Thank you, in particular, to Anam Cara, for expressing your leadership preferences very clearly since you first came into my life in 2010. I am sorry that it took me such a long time to understand what you were saying.)

One of the models we were exploring - to see how it might help us to translate into human contexts what horses teach us about leading in a power-with way - was Karen and Henry Kimsey-House's Co-Active Leadership: Five Ways to Lead. (Karen and Henry are two of the founders of the Coach Training Institute, and authors, with Laura Whitworth and Phillip Sandhal of the coaching bible, Co-Active Coaching.) I love this little book for its simplicity, and for its clarity on a number of points that I believe the horses would agree with. These include:

  • that all leadership must be grounded in the development of what the authors call the Leader Within - our capacity to "live from the inside out", and choose responsibility for our world;

  • that leadership is not about fixed roles or hierarchies, but about choosing the dimension or mode of leadership that is most needed in the moment for the group to thrive; and (most importantly of all)

  • that leadership needs to be grounded in love: "Love for oneself. Love for another. Love for the people in front or behind. Love for the mystery of life. Love for the adventure of it all."

What we saw over and over again last week is that, when given the opportunity, horses are not just able but joyously willing to show us how to grow our power-with skills. As an equine-facilitated learning practitioner, getting better at meeting them in this space of mutual trust and power-with will be my life's work. Some days, I'm a bit daunted by the gap between where I am with that and where I'd like to be. But mostly, I'm in love with the adventure of it all.

And if I ever need a reminder, I can look at this (slightly blurry) photo of Anam Cara, from the beginning of our time together, the first time he saw the sea. "The truest expression of Co-Active Leadership is to practice moving beyond our fears and giving in to love over and over in multiple ways, not because it's the right and noble thing to do, but because it is wildly exciting and deliciously alive."

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