Teachers come to us in all shapes and sizes, but would you be surprised to hear that one of my best life coaches and teachers has four legs, a mane and tail? My horse, Sunny, is an expert at giving very clear and immediate feedback, and over the past ten years she has taught me lessons that I use almost daily in my business and personal life. Here are three of my favorites.
1. Using Energy to Attract What You Want
Oftentimes when I arrive at the barn Sunny is in the pasture, which leaves me with two choices. I can grab a lead rope, march in and try to catch or corner her, or I can stand by the gate and attract her to me. I assure you that a day spent riding a horse who actually wants to be with you is a much better experience, but it’s not always easy to make this happen. Not only does getting her to come to me mean I have to be more interesting than a field of grass and a herd of horsey friends, but I also have to be very aware of my own energy.
Because horses are so sensitive to energy, if I walk into the pasture angry or frustrated there’s very little chance that she will want to come and play with me. So I have to check in with myself before I even approach the gate. If I take a moment to visualize her coming to me and if I purposely exude positive energy, most of the time she will walk right over. Sometimes she even gallops to the gate from across the pasture, which I consider a great compliment. It’s also a lot of fun to experience.
You can use this same tactic elsewhere in your life, and I do it all the time. Just envision the outcome you want, and put forth positive energy. You can do this before walking into any meeting, negotiation or situation. The more you exercise your visualization muscles the more quickly and consistently you’ll be able to attract your desired results.
2. There’s No I in Teamwork
As humans we have many tools at our disposal that can be used to force a horse to do pretty much anything, but that doesn’t mean that we have to choose to interact with an animal in this way. What if instead of force we chose to invite collaboration and partnership into our lives? What if we welcomed feedback as a way to grow and improve?
With Sunny I’ve learned to both act as the leader, and also invite her to be part of the conversation. One of the most fun things I do with her is to play at liberty, removing all the ropes and halters, and asking her to circle me at a walk, trot and canter. I also ask her to jump things, back up, go sideways and spin.
Sometimes I will even hop on her back and ride around with nothing but the guidance of my intention and subtle cues.
Sometimes when we’re playing our games at liberty Sunny will give me an inquisitive look and then go and do something unexpected, like stand up on the pedestal like a circus horse, or knock over a barrel and roll it around the arena until it’s in a spot that she likes. It’s fun seeing what suggestions she has and what ideas are bouncing around in her imagination.
Oftentimes as a leader – a parent or business owner – we forget that we can employ this same technique when there is a problem or challenge to solve. It’s easy to think we have to have all the answers, but what would happen if we invite our kids or employees to bring creative solutions to the table? Not only does that create a shared sense of responsibility, but how much more interesting, and potentially better, would the outcome be with creative collaboration?
3. Sometimes, Bad Stuff Happens
“Bad” is a loaded word, and I believe that when you look back on a challenge that you faced in the past, there are always valuable lessons learned and a sense of pride for having weathered the storm. But that doesn’t mean that we wish so-called “bad stuff” upon ourselves, or others. But the truth is that sometimes, despite your best efforts, things do not go as planned. And when this happens you can end up in dark and uncharted territory.
Sunny has taught me that the way out of these situations is to not let fear get the best of you, and that the best way of doing this is staying present and focused, and taking one moment at a time.
About a year ago I was riding Sunny on a beautiful day in a place we had ridden hundreds of times before. I still have no idea what caused her to spook, but without any warning she did. It was out of character for her – completely unexpected, and therefore unavoidable. I fell off and shattered and dislocated my right elbow. It was the first time in my life I had been seriously injured, and it happened to be within a day of a major restructuring within my company where I laid off my entire staff. As you might imagine, this accident left me in a great deal of pain, and I was facing a lot of fears about the survival of my company and the financial future of my family.
As a result of this accident I also found that, for the first time in my life, I was afraid to ride. But going to the barn in a state of fear is simply not an option. Horses pick up on energy and if they know you’re afraid things can start to deteriorate quickly.
So, what I learned from Sunny is that the only way to get through the “bad stuff” is to go ahead and feel the fear, acknowledge it, but then not to hang onto it. No one wants to live in fear, so you have to train yourself to consciously let go of this emotion. How do you do this? By staying very focused on being present. By taking the days one at a time, moment by moment. For a single moment anyone can choose to be happy and grateful, no matter what you’re going through, and it is simply not possible for happiness and gratitude to coexist with fear.
When you make it through a fear-free moment, choose to have another one. Soon you’ll be able to go longer without having to go through the routine: Feel the fear, acknowledge it, replace it with joy and gratitude, and repeat as necessary.
A year after my accident I’m still working back up to being a fully confident rider. I’m also building my business back up, and am launching into a whole new area of growth and opportunity. One thing I know for sure is that doing either of these things from a place of fear would have been impossible, and again I thank Sunny for this important lesson.
So, you see, horses are great teachers, but they’re not the only ones. If you get still and listen, the lessons are everywhere, and the teacher can be in any form, from a small child to a dog, to revelations you have when you’re out working in your garden or walking on the beach. The most important thing is to be aware and to be open to receiving the information, because, as they say, when the student is ready the teacher will appear.