The Eyes of a Hungry Lion

In my work as a coach who enjoys the richness that working alongside my horses as equine facilitators brings to my clients’ experiences, I am also openly hungry for knowledge and wisdom that will continue to fire my passion for this work, and drive the sometimes difficult bridge for clients who come to me for a coaching experience and decide to move that to the paddock or arena for a deep and transformative felt bodily experience with one of my horses.

I work with a coach too. Actually, I work with several coaches. This story is about a session I had this week with my groundwork guru coach, Jenku. Its actually a story about a failure, my failure, and what I learned from my horse about “the way I am being” in my life and in the world.

Jenku has many years of experience with horses, along with a deep, intuitive presence, coupled with a clear, well thought out and well tested system of reward and pressure. I have worked with him for several years, and his sessions always inspire me greatly. I have been able to bring to our sessions my questions, and my hesitations, and we have had long and deep discussion about “who we are being; him as coach who works with horses and their behaviour, and me as coach who works with humans and theirbehaviours. Both of us love the horse, and believe the connection between horse and human to be fundamental to the process of growth.

I brought my gelding to this session. Instinctively, I wanted to work on my relationship with him, as I have felt less connected to him in the last few months. He is supposed to be my husband’s horse, although Trevor hasn’t been able to ride him much lately, due to both his pressure at work and also to Punch’s sore foot. Although he has been in our family for almost 2 years now, my relationship with Punch continues to ebb and flow. He is easy to love, an absolute gentleman in the stable as well as under saddle, and one of those horses with an almost magical presence, that makes everyone fall just a little in love with him – from stable friends, to show judges, to clients who are terrified of horses. He also sometimes gives me the distinct impression that I am not particularly special to him. His world would not collapse if I weren’t in it.

So, as Jenku and I exchanged greetings and goals, I talked about how happy I was feeling about the extra time I have now freed up to concentrate more on my equine coaching business, and how I have felt so busy and rather overwhelmed for the first quarter of this year. I said, “It feels like I have been running around for everyone else for the last 3 months, and finally, I can focus on myself and my own business.”

We chatted a bit, and started working with Punch with the flag. Jenku has the admirable quality of being able to totally focus on the horse, while still listening attentively to me, and to some of my exploratory thoughts. I think I am one of Jenku’s more unusual clients, in that I want to look inside myself while working with the horses, rather than only focusing on the behaviour that my horse is showing. So, I don’t generally go to Jenku so that he can “teach me to get my horse to put its head down or pick its feet up”, but rather so that I can notice in myself exactly what I am doing and how I am feeling as the session unfolds and the work is underway.

About halfway through this session, we decided to do some work with the umbrella. Ah yes, this should be fine, I thought – Punch has worked with the umbrella and loves it. Famous last words! After an initial skeptical sniff at the umbrella, and me attempting to use my skills of pressure and release, Punch took off around the arena (we were working at liberty, at my request) in consternation. Still I remained calm and centered. He will settle soon, and look at me, and then I will be able to draw him towards me with my body language and the release of pressure of the umbrella behind me, and we will bond again and all will be right in our relationship.

Except that this didn’t happen. Looking back, what tipped this exercise into what it became for me remains a little hazy. Was I too slow to release the pressure of the umbrella? Was my body too sharp? Was he a little too fresh? Lots of possibilities exist. And they are also of much less importance to the experience than what followed for me. I became aware at some point of a feeling of impatience, a sense of, “come on now Punch, you know what is supposed to happen here, we have done this and other similar exercises hundreds of times.” At this stage Punch was cantering around the arena, showing excellent flying changes across the diagonal. He didn’t seem particularly tense, but nor did he even so much as glance in my direction, in order for me to use my “body language” skills on him.

I began to try harder. Which in my case, almost without me realizing it, involved me moving more. Jenku gently suggested that I become aware of the movement of my body. I ignored him. So focused was I on the fact that my horse, who I had spent so much time working with on this very exercise, was totally ignoring me. In fact, it was worse than that, in my mind. As he came around each corner, he would fix both eyes on me for a brief second, and then almost toss his head and continue on the track. Almost like he was saying, “up yours!”

I somehow managed to de-escalate his energy to a trot and then even a walk, by breathing very deeply and slowly, but he remained steadfastly out on the track, only glancing at me as he came around a corner. I found myself getting really annoyed – with myself as well as with him. Why was he purposely ignoring me? What was it about my body language that was so wrong that he was not able to interpret my message? I upped my energy and my intention several notches – carefully, so as not to startle him into a gallop again. I began to “push” him with my energy, and the umbrella. He continued to walk around the outside of the track, aware of me, but not even trying to connect.

I remember Jenku saying, “Don’t make it personal. Try to take the emotion out of it.” Now I know that this is great advice when dealing with a horse. I suddenly realized that I was dealing with so much more than my horse and the umbrella. I almost disengaged from the exercise several times, as it became so painfully clear that I was repeating the pattern of my life over the last few months. It was completely impossible at that stage for me to not take it personally – this was a constellation of me in my relationship with my husband. I was totally in it.

And I was furious. I was stomping up and down the arena, practically daring Punch to stop. Deep inside my body I felt the swell of anger rising up and swirling through me. I narrowed my eyes and fixed them on him. Dimly, in the background, Jenku was talking about my soft side and my sharp side. “That’s crap,” I snap, in my infinite and wise state of Inner Peace. Not. “He knows exactly what I want him to do, and I am so irritated that he is running himself ragged around me when all I want is for him to relax and want to be with me.” I think Jenku still thinks I’m talking about Punch, but I am absolutely, one hundred percent, no doubt about it, talking about my husband. I realize this from a deep cellular level, and I simultaneously notice the effect on my body. I am driven, focused, passionate and intense. My eyes are narrowed slits, practically spitting fire. I am in full attack mode. These are characteristics that have helped me to survive and thrive and succeed in the world.

And these are the attributes and signals that horses most fear from their deadly enemy: the predatory lion. Jenku is laughing softly in empathy with what I’m saying, and he offers this: “there is a world of difference in the look from the soft and loving eyes of a herd member, and the look from the eyes of a hungry lion.”

Suddenly, I feel rooted to the spot, and am finally able to stop stalking my horse. As I come down and out of my semi-trance in pursuit of the “hunt” I’ve been on, I become aware of my body relaxing and softening under me, almost as though it is a separate entity, over which I have no control. As I begin to tell Jenku what’s really going on for me in this session, I become profoundly aware of the impact of my “hungry eyes” – not only on my horse, but on my husband, myself, and the way that I am able to bring myself into the world and do the work that I am tasked with. The constant thrust and parry of the world and its demands on the individual and the collective seem to force me (and others) into “hungry lion” mode. This becomes the state from which we negotiate everything, and consequently, and paradoxically, it prevents others from connecting with us, even though it is what we desperately crave.  And this is what I have been doing, relentlessly, and with great passion, to my husband, over the last few months.

As I crystalize and verbalize my thoughts on this, almost imperceptibly, and with slow and measured steps, Punch approaches me and puts his head down and into my hands. We stand quietly, for long moments, just processing and breathing. He is licking and chewing. As I move quietly away, he mirrors and follows me.

Reflecting on the session and how I might use its lessons to help my clients, I am awed once again by the immensely powerful way in which horses communicate with humans. Its been said that horses offer an instant, real time, non judgmental feedback loop from which to evaluate one’s current performance. Lets see how we use that in a coaching context.

Firstly, the language of equus is not generally understood or spoken by many humans. Even humans who are very knowledgeable about horses often insist that the horses should speak English, rather than taking time to understand the nuanced layering of communication coming directly from the horse. As an equine specific coach, one of my most important functions is to help clients develop a basic awareness of the language they are both listening from and speaking to.

Freeing up some previously constructed beliefs about how things should or shouldn’t be, offers coaching clients a more open and authentic space, where the work can proceed without any of us making assumptions or drawing conclusions. It may be that I thought Punch should know what to do in the exercise, but the important part is that we stay present with what is actually happening, and work with that.

Secondly, the lesson may have been non judgmental, but it didn’t feel accepting or gentle. It was actually quite a difficult piece of feedback to receive, while standing alone in the middle of the arena. Entering a coaching process can feel like being overexposed in many vulnerable places. Developing the relationship between us to both trust and allow challenges is imperative to my clients being able to hold and work with the image in the mirror.

It is not for your coach to interpret your horse’s actions and tell you what you need to do – my role as equine coach is to keep you safe and help you to find the space you need to work with what is being offered by the horse. The non-judgment part has to come from the coach too!

Musing that evening about how I would use this session to step out of the pattern that I have been repeating, I notice that my husband seems more attentive than usual. I hadn’t yet shared anything about my work with Punch. He admitted that he was hoping I would notice that he had managed to “get out of his own way” and was planning to be much more present at home and with me. I smiled to myself and mentally promised Punch a whole extra bunch of carrots!

Working with Punch the next day, I am awed by how close he is to me, how “joined up” and attuned to my every move. I am also aware of how soft and gentle my body feels, and of how peaceful and happy this makes me. I resolve to keep the “muscle memory” of this state alive in my consciousness.

Helping my clients to experience the growth of the moment, while still holding and supporting their soft and fragile yearnings for perfection and allowing them to talk about their fear of failing and their hope for the future is what makes equine coaching inspiring and humbling. Creating a space where the horses have permission to be their full selves, and bring all of their mystical majesty to our experiences, leads to a different kind of awakening, the emergence of a new type of human.

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