When people ask me what is different about your approach and teaching style, I respond, "I am interested and very excited about what I call the 'psychological/scientific/spiritual underpinnings' of an equine facilitated learning experience." I have found over my 15 years of teaching this work that the best facilitators really know and understand themselves, and are willing to identify and be consciously aware of their internal emotional, psychologically and physiological processes.
In the mentorship program I have created a concise and thorough way for my students to track this process for themselves, their clients, and the horses. The best way to describe this to you is to give you an example from one of my current students, Vatonia (Toni) Harris, from Alberta, Canada.
Toni is about ½ way through her mentorship program, which means she is practicing with volunteer clients. This essential practice is monitored and recorded by the student and discussed pre and post session with me. To follow are Toni's own words about her third practice session with a client. Note her references to "arousal- window of tolerance" (Mindsight: The NewScience of Personal Transformation, Daniel J. Siegel, M.D); "feeling felt" (Siegel) and "limbic connection" (material and references from A General Theory of Love, Thomas Lewis, MD, Fari Amini, MD, Richard Lannon, MD). These notable researchers have given us valuable information about the importance of relationship in the healing process.
Toni's Session with her Horse Stocky and Client
"During my pre-session body awareness and observation process, I was surprised to notice how relaxed and confident I felt going into my 3rd EFL practice session. I observed mild excitement about what may transpire with my courageous client and equine friends. My bodily functions felt rhythmic, comfortable and relaxed. It was a beautiful day, and I believe the warm weather contributed to the relaxation and peace I was experiencing. I was thrilled to get outside the barn and spend the entire session outdoors amongst the healing presence of nature, and for my client to experience the possibility of more movement with the horses. My energy felt grounded and positive, and I was keen to share this energetic momentum. I was also aware that this positive arousal may inappropriately affect the creation of a sacred space. I was struck by the self-assuredness I was experiencing in relation to the potential usefulness or outcome of the session, as I was confident the horses would offer my client whatever she needed that day. I found it fascinating to monitor my inner experience so closely, and was amazed by the rich information my body was offering me as I went through this pre-session personal evaluation.
The mentorship readings and consultations thus far have significantly expanded my understanding of this integrative process. I now have enhanced awareness of the valuable information my body holds, and its vital importance to the relationship and change process. It is essential we pay attention to our own arousal so we are able to understand the energy/thoughts/ feelings we are bringing to the relational experience about to transpire. It is essential we are able to separate our own history, preconceptions, emotional triggers, projections, counter-transference concerns and present moment bodily responses from those of our clients. A sacred space offering the client the experience of "feeling felt" (a term coined by Daniel Siegel) can be created only if we notice and appropriately nurture these fundamental aspects of ourselves.
My client was notably relaxed when she arrived for her session, presenting as relaxed, open and engaged. When I inquired into my client's arousal level upon commencement of the session, she identified herself as being at a 1 or 2 which closely matched my own body sense and observations of her. This again affirmed the importance of acknowledging my body as a sensing device and as absolutely integral to the process of change facilitation. My client's arousal stayed at a 1 and 2 for most of the session, with the exception of a short period during the Leading Exercise where Stocky refused to move or respond to any of her requests. During this moment of discomfort, I felt my own arousal begin to intensify as I noticed her increasing agitation with his lack of compliance. I found myself struggling with my own need to rescue, and the compulsion to take over and "show her what to do" to engage my horse and offer effective leadership.
As in the past, I used this rescue tendency as a learning opportunity to focus on my own breathing and self-regulation, offering myself as an energetic anchor by opening my core and focusing on the manifestation of limbic connectivity. When I noticed my client's arousal increasing, I attempted to bring it to her attention by asking her what her intensity level was at that particular moment, and whether she noticed any changes in her body. Through this gentle encouragement of an internal assessment process, she was able to come to her own understanding that a shift had occurred as she identified herself at a 4 or 5. In fact, her ability to access this information and share it with me had improved exponentially from the first session. As a result, I do believe she is starting to become more in touch with her own bodily sensations and the rich information easily available to her.
Personal awareness is integral in an EFL session as it is a relational process involving a sentient being that is perceptive and responsive to energetic changes. Connectivity is directly impacted by arousal, so it is of vital importance we stay attuned to moment-by-moment shift. It is also important so that the client's "window of tolerance" (Siegel) can be gauged throughout the experience, and addressed in a gentle, ethical and safe manner. Without understanding arousal, the risk of taking someone too far too fast is increased which can be detrimental to our client's well being.
Throughout this session, there were many moments of intense connection and disconnection between my client and my equine co-facilitator. It amazed me to see how "in the moment" these shifts would take place, fleeting and changing sometimes within a span of seconds. The horse's ability to mirror the client's presence and offer immediate feedback will never cease to amaze me.
As always, I was offered a window into my client's internal workings as she went through the leading exercises, which provided valuable material to work through during the session. My client seamlessly connected her experiential struggles with Stocky to her life "out there", clearly indicating that she lacks integration between her 3 energy centers and that confidence, clear communication, and intention are extremely challenging.
Experiencing the dramatic shift in Stocky when she (my client) managed to align all aspects of herself was quite profound and emotional. She couldn't believe what it "felt like" to experience this type of leadership integration, and it was quite fascinating to watch her physically transform as the session progressed. Her eyes lit up, shoulders went back, and she started walking with a new sense of purpose and belief. Stocky continued to respond to my client's new found leadership, offering her his trust and following whatever request she made. I encouraged her to take this learning and look for opportunities in her "real life" to lead in an integrative manner, and to reflect on how well Stocky responded to her when she was able to do so.
During this session, the limbic resonance was immediate between these two, with my client finally opening herself to Stocky in a way she hadn't in the past. She was drawn to him, and the unspoken language between them was beautiful to observe. As always, I struggled with containing my own arousal during the observation of this connectivity. Instead, however, I went inside myself, breathed deeply into my own energy centers, and did my best to offer myself once again as an energetic anchor to the sacred and healing moment occurring. The importance of this ability to "step back" and transcend ego-driven impulses continues to amaze me.
Once I have allowed these highly charged emotions to pass, I am blown away by what occurs without my outside interference. The saying "it's not about me" takes on a whole new level of significance, and I am once again reminded of the healing nature of relationships.
As always, I was touched by the beauty, grace, intelligence, receptivity, love, courage and honesty offered by my amazing equine co-facilitators. A common and often mundane therapeutic or self-help topic of "what constitutes good leadership" turned into a unique, experientially rich learning opportunity that engaged and captivated us both. I was struck by the natural unfolding of key elements important to this area of personal / professional development, and by the fact that I didn't have to "talk" or explicitly "teach" any of it. The learning was clearly in the doing, impacting my client on a fundamental level that she can translate into all her relationships.
This mentorship experience has been incredibly fulfilling, enlightening and transformative for me on numerous levels. The learning and development offered through the readings, consultations with Kathleen and the experiential sessions transcend words. I continue to be profoundly impacted by the connection and healing offered by these beautiful beings, and the overwhelming 'power of relationships'."
Thank you Toni for this excellent description of the experience between you, your horse and the client! Toni can be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Having Toni focus on her inner process, I believe, is one of the biggest differences in the teaching and training I offer in this field. This difference became evident to one of my students just a few weeks ago while we were working together in person. It was a beautiful day and my student's horse was getting the opportunity to do his first EFL session with her mentor no less! I noticed the horse's confusion when my student and I were both in a very large arena as he kept turning his ears and head toward my student and then back to me.
I suggested that my student put her "heart in her feet". It was one of those moments when you come up with a comment that doesn't sound logical but worked! As soon as my student changed her focus, her horse joined up with me and we walked around the arena together at his pace. A herd of cows distracted him for a short time but I took the pause and waited for him. The look and the pleasure on my student's face when we came back to her were priceless. She learned that even good positive thoughts and feelings could affect the outcome of the client's experience. I tell more of this story in my interview with Jennifer Oikle.
Find out more about the individual Mentorship Programs that I offer on my website or contact me directly for an interview and more information.
In addition to individual mentorship, I continue to teach and collaborate with Sun Tui and her colleagues in the UK: www.IFEAL.me; Wendy and Andre in Toronto, Canada:
www.HorseSpiritConnections.com and Lisa Murrell and Susan Castaneda in New York and New Mexico: www.EquineAlchemy.com.
I highly recommend these excellent programs and I am grateful to them for letting me bring my contributions.