The Horse Guy: A Coaching with Horses Story

By Dan Holden, Guest Contributor

I was unprepared for what I experienced. I had no previous experience with horses. The running joke in my family was that my wife, Lisa, was the horse person while I was the horse power person, i.e., motorcycles, cars, etc. So, we had some things in common. She is a healthcare executive who wanted to find a job for our two horses which were no longer available for riding. She enrolled in an 18 month coaching with horses program. Four times over the course of the program, a cohort would convene for training. In between these times, a strict program of practice sessions with clients, readings and written reports was expected. I’ve been in private practice as an executive coach for 30 years. I signed up for the first week only, for reasons that are still a mystery to me. After three days with horses I was wonderfully shocked by what I was discovering. I signed on for the whole enchilada. 

Our new company, ESPÍRITU (www.Espirituhorse.com) focuses on partnering with horses to assist leaders, group facilitators, and teams to expedite their own development, communication, trust and alignment. A typical individual session is divided into three segments and lasts about three hours. First, we use several ‘body-centered’ activities to help people drop into their body and out of their head. The body has its own wisdom, I discovered, and is the primary way horses ‘speak’ to us. Secondly, we invite people to ‘meet the herd’. In this process the task is to notice any behaviors in the horses that stand out to you and, more importantly, any internal responses you have to the horses. Finally, each person has a one-on-one session with the horse of their choosing in an enclosed round pen. We debrief each segment  with help from the horses!

Back to my shock. First, I was surprised to learn how much was going on in my body that I was largely unaware of. Parts of my spine felt hotter than other parts. There was color in my right shoulder that was distinct from my left. When I initially met the herd in our training there was one horse that stood out to me — Cory — mostly because he was very large and not at all happy to be stuck in an indoor stall. He kicked, paced and snorted, scaring me half to death. After several mind-body reflections, however, it became clear to me that I was to work with Cory. I sensed a strong caring connection between us, a reality that surprised me. What happened next amazed me.

Just before entering the round pen (my first time alone with a horse) I set a simple intention — to establish an emotionally safe and trusting connection with Cory. I felt ready to enter. As I did, Cory approached me and stopped when I held up my hand to maintain a safe space between us. I approached him and began to stroke his neck and shoulders, telling him how new and uncertain this was to me and how beautiful he was to stand next to. When I turned to walk away he followed me. When I stopped, so did he. We were connected. I turned again to walk Cory lay his head on my shoulder. I was overcome with spontaneous joy. He lift his head and placed it on my other shoulder, as if he were christening me as a knight. I began to weep. This was one of the most beautiful moments of my life. We continued to walk with each other with nothing connecting us but our trust in and connection with each other. Imagine leading with this kind of trust.

Our time these days with clients remains very special. The setting itself in the beautiful Mt. Pleasant countryside lends itself to stillness and reflection. Our two horses, Regalo and Mesa, are wonderful coaching horses who seem to enjoy the time with individuals and teams we bring to them. I could spend much more time telling you about coaching with horses but it’s more fun and powerful to experience this yourselves. Contact either Lisa or me and schedule a time together. As one client said recently, ‘It would take me three years to learn what I just learned in three hours!’ Come and find out for yourself!

Dan Holden has worked in executive and team development for over 30 years. He is on faculty in the University of Notre Dame’s business school where he was awarded “Inspiring Educator of the Year”. He leads leadership workshops and team retreats around the country. Together with his wife, Lisa, Dan is certified in Equine Assisted Coaching. They work at the intersection where personal leadership development, team transformation and the spiritual journey meet.

Learn more about ESPÍRITU at www.Espirituhorse.com