11 Jan What Horses Teach Us About Attention

When I first heard about Nancy Franke and horse coaching sessions in 2013, my ears perked up. I had always loved horses from afar but had never interacted with them in any way. Interestingly, what I heard wasn’t necessarily about equine therapy or riding lessons. It was about learning attention, respect and leadership skills by interacting with horses. I was immediately curious to learn more.

Coaching sessions with Nancy are a mixture of talking and interacting with the horses in different ways. For example, choosing a horse to work with, then making contact, saying hello, walking together, leading the horse, moving with them in space. In our first meetings Nancy gave me seemingly simple tasks and then translated what was actually happening. More than anything else, she teaches you to be clear in yourself in each moment – in entering a situation, while interacting with someone, when leaving a situation. It became very clear that when I lost my attention, I also lost the attention (and respect) of the horse.

A useful sentence from Nancy: „Emily, if you don’t know what to do, stop.“

Meaning: don’t just automatically continue and hope for the best.

Take a moment, breathe, pay attention, and then clearly decide what to do next. It became immediately clear that with the horse it was impossible to fake confidence. As soon as I hesitated, she (the horse) either went away to eat grass or started to lead me instead. Without question, I had to know what I wanted to do in each moment. Then the horse could choose to join me or not.

For horses, like for us, insecurity is a threat. They reflect this very clearly in moments when we try to pretend something else. Famina, my horse that first day, had an abusive history and associates human insecurity with maltreatment and abuse. No wonder when I first approached her, hesitant and having no idea what to do, she flattened her ears and took a step back.

Instruction from Nancy: „Emily, do what you want to do.“

(Bear in mind this is all happening in German.)

Emily: „But right now I have no idea what to do.“

Nancy: „What would you do if you wanted to make contact with a person?“

Emily: „I would go over and say hello, and if that goes fine, start a conversation.“

Nancy: “Well, do the same here. And something to consider: would you like it if someone came up to you and immediately touched your face?“

Emily: „No.“

Point taken.

I started to understand. Respect means attention to what is happening. It’s truly not about following rules or knowing „the right thing to do.“ As in everything, it’s about maintaining my clarity and attention  in the moment and staying there.

Deep breath. Second attempt.

Nancy: „See how she’s coming much closer now? Now she put you below her in the hierarchy of the group. She’s not respecting your space.“

Emily: (Shit.) „Really? I thought maybe she likes me.“

Nancy: „Nope. That’s the interpretation of our human minds wanting to be liked all the time. What could you do now?“

Emily: (With 10 years of bodywork training in the background, hesitantly.)

„Well, I could take a deep breath and change my posture.“ (Which I did as I said it.)

Horse heads like a rocket in the other direction.

Emily: „No! I didn’t mean to send her away!“

Nancy: Laughing, „I know, but just notice how direct the effect is.“

And so it went, step by step, with my attempts at making contact with the horse, paying attention to what was happening between us and Nancy guiding me along the way.

Towards the end of the session, after getting to know each other a bit better, and after I had relaxed more and gained more confidence in my choices, I would think the word stop, and Famina and I would stop together. I would make a clear decision to go left, and we simultaneously went left, as one. We were obviously sharing a space of attention, non-verbally, unmistakably together, at the level of our thoughts.

This made me realize again what I know from my own work and learning with people: that thoughts and experiences are not mine alone, they are shared in reality with others. Including horses.

Like it or not, my way of thinking and being in a situation matters. Not only what I do or say, but how I am while doing or saying it.

It was clear that my thoughts are movements of my attention just as real as the movements of my arm or leg. Which means that my moments of insecurity and retreating into my mind are physically real, and they affect others and the space around me. It was also clear that I can change it in an instant, and that this is both a choice and my responsibility.

Basically, I loved it from the first moment, scary as it was. Huge and beautiful animals largely unknown to me, yet the very same rules of respect and attention not only apply, but are required to build healthy relationships. This was both scary and extremely interesting, which is how things are out there beyond my usual comfort zone.

If you’re curious about what a horse can teach you about being human, go see Nancy Franke. I highly recommend the experience.

Learn more about Nancy and Sonnenhof here.

Photo credit: Uwe Paulß