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Shifting Old Patterns with Horses

In the early morning gloaming, birds greet each other as they shake off slumber and find their breakfast. An owl hoo-hoos nearby. As if in response, a pack of coyotes yodel their high-pitched excitement at their freshly caught meal. The sounds echo around me in the desert landscape of sand, cacti and thorned brush.

I reflect upon the previous four days here in this magical place. I’ve come to Scottsdale, Arizona to complete my third and final onsite for Equus Coach training. I’m walking away with a deeper understanding of myself, more gratitude for the way Spirit supports our evolution, and a heart full of love and appreciation for horses, my peers and teachers.

Horses are highly sensitive creatures. They tune into everything (and everyone) around them and can feel the most subtle shift in energy. They mirror our internal state, which we can’t hide with our external façade. Horses thrive in community and are one of the greatest teachers we could be blessed to connect with. I’m still in awe of the many ways they help us get out of our own way.

When I started this training a year ago, the horses highlighted my “do it all” mentality and I was able to find a flow state that blended presence with allowing. As with all personal development, we evolve and shift old patterns in layers. This weekend, I hit up against my inner critic, who drives a lot of my decisions and actions. It turns out, she’s also quite a bully.

During the first two days, I addressed and identified new ways of engaging with this inner critic and consciously choosing to acknowledge my successes and how far I’ve come. This is a shift from my old pattern of focusing on where I need to improve, where I miss the mark, and need to “fix” myself.

During a herding exercise with a black and white Paint gelding, I was given the opportunity to “send” or “invite” a horse through an obstacle course using our body and energy. There’s a corner of the arena that we identified as “sticky” because there is grass to graze on and it’s near other horses’ stalls, where they get curious about each other. Getting the horse out of that corner requires being more interesting and creating a stronger connection, and then navigating the course is a layer of difficulty above that.

Horses naturally avoid objects that are unfamiliar, such as the blue tarp on the ground that looked and sounded scary to walk across. Orange cones and barrels were strategically placed around the arena as well.

I used my energy and body to move the horse out of the corner and around every one of the obstacles. In my mind, I missed each and every target by going around instead of through. In my mind, it wasn’t enough. In my mind, I should and could have done it perfectly. My frustration was palpable.

To my coaching peer and mentor watching this session, they were silently celebrating that I drove the horse around the arena to each obstacle. In their minds, it was a huge success.

Perspective is everything. We have a choice in how we view the circumstances in front of us. I can choose to see the progress and successes, or I can focus on where things fall short of idealistic “perfection.” One energy feels expansive and elevated, the other feels deflated and exhaustive. The facts remain constant. What we make those facts mean sets the trajectory of how we navigate life.

I was given a second chance to navigate the obstacle course. This time, I chose to focus on where I was succeeding despite the outcome. Even if they were small successes, I set out to identify and acknowledge them as they happened.

I also chose to lean into my strengths by navigating the course with “invitation” energy, which is easier for me. (If I wanted to focus on improving my weakness, I would have stayed with the “sending” energy I used in the first attempt.) This alone was a shift for me.

I invited the horse to walk with me, and along the way I focused my thoughts on the little successes such as making a connection with the horse, maintaining that connection with the horse, that I was aware of my body and energy as well as the horse’s, that I navigated through one obstacle, and then the next, and even when the horse walked around the tarps while I walked over them, I chose to celebrate that we still walked together and that I maintained the connection and invitation energy the entire course.

When my coaching peer asked me if there was anything else I wanted to experiment with, I resisted my old habit of trying one more time to do better and hit those tarps, and allowed myself to leave the course with “good enough.”

In reflecting upon a takeaway, I realized that it would take conscious effort to shift and choose a new and different way, until celebrating successes becomes my new habit.

Once these two days of exchanging coaching with my peers completed, we embarked on two days of coaching volunteers from the local community. Because the Universe is always acting in my favor (as it does for you, too), one volunteer in particular was someone from my past.

Four years ago, I began my first life coach training program with the Martha Beck Institute. I knew nothing about coaching tools going into the course. MBI assigned us small class groups of twelve people and practice groups of four. This volunteer was in both.

During our weekly calls at that time, she interrupted my practice coaching to regularly tell me how I was using the tool wrong, that I was asking the wrong question, and that I wasn’t engaging as a coach is expected to. As a vulnerable new coach, I felt like everything I did and tried was wrong.

On one call when I was pre-assigned as an observer, I had chosen to attend while walking on my treadmill desk because my body told me it needed movement after 7 hours sitting at a desk. This person angrily told me to shut off my camera and mute my microphone because it reminded her of one more thing she didn’t get accomplished that day and that because I was triggering her, I needed to disappear.

All this history replayed in my mind as I watched her join the group of volunteer clients and my Equus Coaching peers. All the anxiety and fear of judgment resurfaced. How was I going to be evaluated on my coaching if I was paired with her as a client? Panic set in.

Then it hit me, she is the embodiment of my inner critic. She is that voice inside my head that says, “Not enough, do better.” All that I’d been working through the previous two days was now standing in front of me as a real-life person.

I had a choice to make. I could focus on all the should-ing thoughts of, “If you were a good enough coach, you should not be triggered”…”You should be the bigger person and let bygones be bygones”…”You should rise to the occasion and challenge yourself to be a better coach by coaching someone with whom you have tension.”

Or I could focus on my strengths and be easier on myself.

I chose to be kind to myself and asked my teachers to pair me with a different volunteer client. Interestingly enough, she had requested the same.

When I leaned into my strengths and coached from a place of celebration rather than lack, I was able to be a great coach. When I focused on what was going right and where what was unfolding was enough, I could be present and connected to my client.

This was the opportunity the Universe was giving me. To choose a different path and to consciously shift my habit. For that, I’m grateful. And I’m grateful for the people who are mirrors for us so that we can see where old habits don’t serve us, and the horses who give us a tangible chance to experiment with new ways of being.


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