Speaking Horse

My horse instructor, Jackson, patiently teaching me to speak his language.
My horse instructor, Jackson, patiently teaching me to speak his language.

Over the years, I’ve learned a cursory amount of foreign languages.  For instance, I can get by in French and in Spanish… I can read Hebrew, though I have little idea of what the words mean when I do… I’m currently taking an online course in basic Portuguese… and, frankly, I’m still working on my native English!  All that said, imagine my surprise when I attended a recent workshop and was told from the start, “none of your instructors know or plan to learn any English today.  Therefore, if you want to communicate with them, you will need to learn their language.  How many of you came to class this morning fluent in Horse?”

Whoa!  Horse?  Not me.  I’ve ridden horses.  Even fed sugar cubes to and brushed the manes of horses, but speak Horse as a language?  Nay.

And so my day began at my friend Andi Burgis’ ranch during one of her Challenge U Equine Experiential Learning Workshops.

Five of us arrived at the ranch around 10am not really knowing what we were in for, but eager to learn and engage in the day’s activities.  Andi and her colleague, Cathy Huddleston, provided an orientation session before our first horse instructor, Rev, arrived.  Once he did, Cathy demonstrated the day’s assignment.  Individually, we were each to complete the following tasks while our cohort looked on and observed our work:

  1. Acquaint yourself with your horse. (My horse instructor was Jackson.)
  2. Ask your horse to walk in a circle around the ring.
  3. Ask your horse to trot in a circle around the ring.
  4. Ask your horse to stop, turn around and walk in a circle around the ring in the opposite direction.
  5. Ask your horse to stop.
  6. Thank him/her for working with you.
  7. Exit the ring.

Simple, right?  Wrong.  Well, wrong unless you could speak horse.  Before entering the arena, I could not.

Never have I learned a language so quickly!  Out of sheer necessity, I, and the other participants, scrambled learn the language of our trainers.  Suffice it to say, it was life and mind altering.  I believe the basic lessons learned from my day at the ranch are useful to us all in our interactions with others – and not just with horses:

  • Find a Better Way. If you are in a conversation with someone and they do not understand what you are saying, it’s up to YOU – not them – to come up with a better way to communicate.  Oh, and getting louder in your own language is unlikely to work in your favor!
  • Speak Their Language. The best way to convey a message to another party is to speak in their language.  (Recall this piece from last year about “speaking customer” based on the great wisdom of my friend and colleague, Paul Russell.)
  • Remain calm. If emotions become heightened, communication breaks down rather quickly.  Frustration begets more frustration.
  • Make no assumptions about the other party except to assume they seek to communicate and collaborate effectively with you.
  • Step Up. It turns out, horses are “consensual” leaders which means that in a team of horses, whichever horse is best suited for a particular assignment steps up to serve as the leader at that moment.  Once the task is complete, the current leader horse steps back into the team.  Then, for the next task, whichever other horse is best suited to lead at that moment steps up to do so and so on.  Can you imagine how much more productive we’d all be at work if we allowed one another opportunities to lead at that appropriate moments and took responsibility for doing so?
  • Be in the Moment. Horses care not about the past… it’s gone.  Neither do they think about the future… it’s not here, yet.  Instead, they focus only on the here and now.  They are fully present.  Ready to serve.

jacksonIf you have a chance to visit Andi, Cathy and their team of horse instructors at Challenge U, I encourage you to do so.  While the course took place several months ago for me, I’m still processing, applying the lessons and hope to continue to learn from my horse instructors for years to come.  Giddy up!

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