The Horse Sense That Builds Trust
By TARA BENNETT-GOLEMAN
Published: October 26, 2013
As I was growing up, I often found myself in the role of family peacemaker and wondered what it would take for people to focus more on the ways that connected them rather than divided them — not just in families, but in communities and the workplace, too. The more I thought about it, the more the world seemed like one big dysfunctional family. When I was a young adult, these concerns led me to attend peace demonstrations, to visit India to seek inner peace and, finally, to become a psychotherapist.
In India, I learned the mindfulness method for monitoring our thoughts. It allows us to view our dysfunctional habits as a kind of cloud that covers our true, healthy nature. Mindful awareness can apply to mental and emotional patterns, like the dance of subjugation and entitlement, where one person imposes his or her agenda at the expense of the other, who passively surrenders to the other’s control.
For instance, a physician at one of my workshops had a colleague who was a bit of a bully — opinionated and critical. This colleague would tell her emphatically how he saw things and what she ought to do. She would just listen — but fume afterward, thinking over and over about what she wished she had said. It was a classic case.
Then, one day, she applied what she had learned about mindfulness and changing patterns. Her colleague was his usual blustery, domineering self. But after he was done, she paused, collected her thoughts and told him calmly: “I don’t agree with you. People can have their own opinions. I respect the way you do things but prefer to do things differently.” Taken aback, he walked off without a word. She told me he was never the same bully with her again.
For five years, I’ve studied with R.J. Sadowski, known as Bob, who trains horses by integrating horse-whispering principles with what he calls “horsemindship.” He analyzes the subtle predator/prey dynamics between humans and horses. I’ve seen these dynamics apply to humans interacting with one another.
As herd animals, horses are always ready to cooperate, if they trust you and you show that you understand how they see the world — if, as Bob puts it, “You speak horse.” Collaboration in a herd operates naturally, with horses looking out for one another — unlike the us-versus-them approach that humans can too often take.
Horse whispering has helped me see how horses are natural peacemakers and how the herd dynamic can be a model for human group behavior. When people “join up,” as it is called in horse whispering, a genuine connection results that makes everything run more smoothly.
At a workshop I gave at the Omega Institute in the Hudson Valley in New York, I invited Bob and his horses to demonstrate predator/prey principles and the concept of joining up. He brusquely grabbed a rear hoof of one horse and lifted it, as if to change its horseshoe, destabilizing the horse as it wobbled on three legs — the way of force and control. Then he showed a more connected, joined-up approach: he gently rubbed the horse above its leg, slowly rubbing down toward the foot. By the time his hand was halfway down the leg, the horse had lifted its hoof, freely offering it.
A diverse range of people attended the workshop. One, a business executive, spoke up when Bob finished: “I’m pretty high-powered in my business role, and I guess I use predatory tactics all the time — which makes me successful in sales. If I set out to make a sale, I pitch very aggressively, and I’m good at closing.” Then her tone changed to a vulnerable sadness, as she added, “And when I do, afterward I end up feeling awful.” We explored how she could be successful while taking a gentler, more empathic approach in sales.
Making a sale at any cost too often means that the customer ends up with the wrong product or service — and may not return. The best salespeople and account managers typically realize the value of nurturing the relationship and earning loyalty, joining up with a customer to understand his or her needs — then trying to meet them. If they don’t have what’s needed, they are honest about that.
If we are predatory, we might get what we want, but it can harm the connection. Just as horses read intentions, so do people — and kindness is good for any relationship. As Bob advises, “Don’t put your purpose before your connection.”