Psychotherapists have plumbed all sorts of relationships in their quest to understand and improve human communication, so perhaps it was only a matter of time before they studied horse sense. Herd behavior, changing habits, building trust — it seems that people have a lot to learn from Equus ferus caballus.
Psychotherapist Tara Bennett-Goleman long ago joined the ranks of those who appreciate the equine perspective. She makes a strong case for what horses can inspire us to do, as opposed to what we can train them to do, in her latest book, "Mind Whispering: A New Map to Freedom From Self-Defeating Emotional Habits," which just came out in paperback.
After the publication of her first book, "Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind Can Heal the Heart," Bennett-Goleman and her horse, a 12-year-old mare, began studying with renowned "horse whisperer" R.J. Sadowski, who trains horses with what he calls "horsemindship." As she learned how to connect with horses, Bennett-Goleman came to see so many metaphors for human communication that she eventually attained a sort of equine equivalent to a Zen aha moment: "The way we humans act and think of ourselves as separate and in control of things must appear strange to a horse, even predator-like," she writes. "But horses seem to accommodate our foolish ways, accept us anyway, and even find creative ways to remind us that we're really part of the herd."
In "Mind Whispering," Bennett-Goleman synthesizes mindfulness meditation, cognitive therapy, a touch of neuroscience and Indian classical dance — and her long-standing love of horses. "Failing a common verbal language, you speak to a horse with body language, and we in turn begin to understand them through their movements." There are, she believes, crucial take-aways for Homo sapiens sapiens:
• Join up before trying to lead. For a human to gain the trust of a horse (and eventually acceptance as the dominant herd leader), he or she needs to understand the language of a horse. This isn't done by force but by the horse developing trust that the human will be a benevolent leader. Though being "one of the herd" has a pejorative implication, the lessons from horse whispering suggest that if a person wants to be a good leader in his or her group, identifying and empathizing with the group's needs are essential.
• Get comfortable in the saddle. Horses will sense if you're off balance or unstable when you mount them. If they sense you're too insecure to lead them, it will make for a bumpy ride, so it's advisable to take a few minutes to make sure your weight — and your attention — is centered, your stirrups are in place and that you are ready for action. The same holds true in human endeavors, says Bennett-Goleman. People who arrive at work and take some time to settle in at their desk and take a mindful pause before they check incoming emails, who look over a report before a meeting and who take a few breaths to review their intentions before the day kicks in will more likely be ready for whatever they undertake.
• Understand, appreciate and respect the difference between "prey" and "predator." Humans can be either, while horses are prey animals that protect one another in a herd. "If we are predatory, we might get what we want, but it can harm the connection," Bennett-Goleman says. "Herd dynamics can be a model for humans. With herd animals, the relationships are based on trust, respect, cooperation and connection. We can be more aware of our predator-like habits — like a controlling, forceful stance — and adjust to a more empathic way of communicating that considers how the other person may be seeing the situation. Then we can work together in a spirit of collaboration and cooperation."
• Creatures of habit can be flexible in changing their habits. Horses are habitual; introduce a pattern with which they can become familiar, and they keep repeating that pattern, good or bad. Their bad habits can be changed to good, and those good habits can be reinforced, through patient retraining. "This very much dovetails with new neuroscience research, called neuroplasticity, which suggests that humans can literally change their brains," Bennett-Goleman says. "We can create new maps of the mind to re-pattern self-defeating habits." Our work, she writes in "Mind Whispering," is to learn and keep repeating modes that lead to "equanimity, wisdom and compassion."
"Just as you can lead a horse to water and let it be free to make its own choice," she adds, "in a gentle way we can lead the mind to a more positive way of thinking, communicating and acting — and make it part of our nature."
Upcoming Workshops with Tara Bennett-Goleman and Daniel Goleman
"Mind Whispering: A New Map to Freedom From Self-Defeating Emotional Habits": September 5-7, Omega Institute, Rhinebeck NY
"Mindful Habit Change": September 12, Harvard Coaching Conference, Boston MA
"Chemistry of Connection": November 21-23, Garrison Institute, Garrison, NY
For full schedule and information, see: www.tarabennettgoleman.com/schedule