The Joy of Embodying Leadership: How Horses Lead Us Back to Ourselves

Taylor Peterson, Communications Manager for The Circle Up Experience, shares her first-hand awakening with the horses. Levi the pony invited her to keep it simple: lay down in the dirt, enjoy the sun, take a walk….and find a togetherness that is peaceful and authentic for everyone. 


As the communications manager for Circle Up, I am involved with creating meaningful content about the work we do. I knew I needed to immerse myself in the same experience as our participants to feel more authentic in my role. So, I ventured to Beth’s Take a Chance Ranch in Morgan Hill for my own session with the horses. As the roads wound around, so did the story in my mind about what would take place. My human brain had constructed an imaginative play-by-play. Being in school to be a therapist, I have written and analyzed a lot of my triggers. Naturally, I envisioned them playing out in many ways.

I have observed the fascinating work Beth and Susan do with the horses. I thought it was magic how the things Circle Up participants discussed amongst group emerged with the horses. Yet, it isn’t magic. It can feel magical because we are so used to censoring and checking ourselves in everyday life. We (read: me too) try to control the emotions of others with what we do and say. To interact with the horses is to relate in a completely different way and it can feel foreign to us. It’s a type of foreign that feels like coming home. This is the magical feeling. In reality, though, it is simply just two mammals, being their true selves together when given the space.

When I got to the ranch, Beth had me observe the herd. Their roles were clearly defined; however, they didn’t create some emotionally charged story about each other’s actions. Sally was clear and direct with her leadership; she would nose Levi to ask him to move, or walk along Rosie to guide her. Rosie seemed alert and active, wanting to investigating all that was going on. Levi, on the other hand, continued to hang out in the shade. His eyelids hung heavy and he seemed calm and at peace. After a while, Beth asked me if I was drawn to one of the horses. Sally reminded me a lot of myself, so I felt I “should” choose her. But I was completely drawn to Levi. The quickly-fluttering-like-a-butterfly part of me craved his undisturbed presence and tranquility.

I was handed a halter and Beth told to me to catch him and put it on him. I didn’t miss a beat and confidently took the rope and halter and walked straight for Levi. As soon as I took one step in his direction, he started walking away. Immediately, I felt nervous: Did I done something wrong? I walked a few more steps toward him and he continued to move away. Beth labels this pressure– Horses feel pressure, and they simply respond to it, move away from it until they feel it release. They don’t label it or create a dialogue about it. They just take care of themselves. In that moment, I was the pressure. I am sure when I approach other things in life that way humans feel pressure, too! I didn’t introduce myself or move slowly into this new relationship. I leapt toward the goal immediately as it presented itself. I often do this, as many people do, because it’s safer. It’s safer to get into a group and immediately go toward the tangible work. The relationship part is harder and can get pushed aside. But that feels like pressure. How many people don’t take care of themselves the way that Levi did? Maybe they don’t even notice.

Eventually, I stopped. Then more calmly and slowly, I approached him without expectations of an outcome. This is the meaning of relationship-based practices. This is what Circle Up is built on: the idea that focusing on the relationship instead of the outcome is what transforms the lives in our herds of people. When I approached him more softly, he allowed me to stand in front of him and wrestle with the halter. I was so confused by all of its loops and possibilities. I struggled for a few minutes, but he never moved. We were almost nose to nose as I moved the ropes around in different ways on his head. He didn’t even twitch. When I relieved him of that earlier pressure, we had a relationship that felt safe. He let me experiment because he trusted me. Imagine if we all treated each other this way? Imagine if parents interacted with their children in this way? It brings me to tears, now, to think about his sweetness and gentleness, and how his leadership slowed me down to my own gentleness.

“Thank you for being so patient with me”, I said to Levi. Then I turned to Beth and said, “Levi seems like he would be a wonderful horse for a child”, to which Beth replied, “And for the child within all of us.”

The round pen was a good distance away, and as I walked with Levi, I found myself looking back at him constantly to make sure he was okay. I was excessively taking the temperature of this relationship. “Are you okay?” I thought, but more importantly, “Are WE okay? How is this going?” Chatter, chatter, chatter. Sometimes he swung his head across my body and attempted to walk into my path. “Is this your walk, Levi’s walk, or BOTH of yours?” Beth asked me. “Well it should be both of ours.” I responded. “Yep. It needs to be mutually beneficial. Like all relationships.” I realize now I had somehow confused love with the degradation of boundaries. I had blurred my boundaries in hopes of what brings joy to others. But what about my joy?

As soon as we stepped foot into the round pen, Levi started walking in small circles and laid down on the ground. Sally had done this earlier. I had two 1,000 pound mammals lay down in front of me when I attempted my usual thing. I stepped in ready to work with Levi. His message was loud and clear: be down here with me, rest with me first. He let me sit close to him, eyes heavy still, just enjoying each other. We did this for a few minutes before he decided it was time to get up, almost to say, “Okay we’ve rested, we’ve connected, now let’s move.”

I started by trying to create some movement in the pen with Levi, but felt my heart start to race. Adrenaline started to pump. I was exerting way more energy than he was. This is my body’s natural pattern, and I thought, “My poor adrenals!” Time to slow it down. Beth noticed this too and suggested I try to use about 50% of the movement I had been using. It is more about energy you put out and less about the actual movement. With this, I could tell Levi was more at ease. He trotted around the outside of the pen and I circled in the middle, following him. Then, I walked about 10 feet in front of him to slow him down. He stopped and turn the other way. I experimented with how huge movements felt versus smaller movements. I felt what it was like to achieve the same result while conserving more energy, just as the horses do. I was no longer seesawing between authoritarian and passive leadership. I was beginning to find my balanced, middle ground. It felt liberating, and tears welled up behind my sunglasses. Levi had done what I wanted him to do, and I had brought the energy that fostered that. I didn’t bring pressure. I brought myself.

The walk back from the round pen was much more pleasurable. At first I started to do the temperature-checking as Levi walked behind me, attached to the rope. Beth asked me to experiment, to drop the rope. I dropped it and just started walking around the pen. I did some circles and hit each direction of the pen as if it were a compass. The entire time, Levi walked behind me. We had created trust. The gentle, yet firm leadership I had found created the space for this mutually beneficial relationship, and thus a walk for both of us.

Without the long details, I saw everything I had discussed in my own therapy play out in real-time within two hours. I learned how I can sense in my body when I am doing that anxious human temperature-checking in my relationships. I learned that when there is trust and space, experimentation and struggle does not ruin the relationship. I learned that it is more important to feel the pressure first, before labeling it. As a therapist this is important. We cannot get a client to label their underlying feelings without first getting them to experience them. I also see how much less stressful is just to label things as pressure and to simply take care of yourself in whatever way is needed.

I also learned about what joining truly feels like in my body. It feels effortless and pure. In therapy and in relationships in general this is essential. We must join with others in order to do any work. We have to rest, connect, and break down barriers before we can focus on goals and outcomes. It makes the work more enjoyable when we feel connected to those around us. When we push endpoints aside for a bit and allow for the relationships first, that synergy creates space for the outcomes to realize more naturally.

Mindfulness is such a buzzword these day, and at times, I believe it is at risk of being diluted. The Circle Up Experience goes beyond teaching you to lead mindfully. Instead, the work with horses involves getting out of your mind-FULL-ness. It’s about getting into your body, reviving the innate instincts in the deepest parts of ourselves. The lessons learned are about leading with full, embodied presence, the kind of presence that feels heavy and light at the same time. Both grounded, yet supple. It is all encompassing and the most invigorating feeling when you can lead from that place. When you are moving through life in this way it is attractive to others, because they realize that resonates with them. If entire groups can lead with this authenticity, imagine what can be accomplished? It is beyond my imagination. But I know it is possible. So much is possible.

By | 2018-02-23T00:59:16+00:00 August 16th, 2016|

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