Being in the present moment for 2-3 hours is no easy task. As a facilitator, you will be like a duck: It looks like you aren’t working very hard, but just below the waterline, you are paddling like mad!
It’s easy to think the meat of this program is the activities with the horses. If we could just design the perfect activity, and ask the right questions, hold our hands in just the right way, enlightenment would dawn and we would all be healed. There are moments like this, and we have been blown away by the shifts that people have made while being with the horses. These moments are up to the horses and the participants, not you. You are their servant, not their director.
First off, you’ve got to deal with your own anxiety. Where you want to over-function, you instead hold back and wait to see if others take over. Where you want to under-function, you jump in but without taking over. Where you want to blame and distance yourself from participants or horses by deciding who they are based on who they have been up to now, you breathe and invite yourself to let go of that story. This is the work you are actually doing under the water: Stopping this, doing that, and always asking: “Is this anxiety? How can I bring myself back to the present?” You will always be asking yourself if you are doing too much, if you are too close or too distant, if you are stuck in a story or right here in the present, letting events hit you.
You know you are not anxious when you are delighted by whatever presents itself, and able to offer unconditional acceptance and support to participants. Being non-anxious, present, and accepting is one of your primary jobs.
It takes structure and preparation to achieve this. The activities have to be well-structured and planned, and the horse handlers and volunteers able to hold a therapeutic shape with you that allows the horses to focus on participants and the participants to stay in the moment.
Once you’re present, it’s time to practice mindfulness as defined by psychologist Ellen Langer: Paying attention to the novel. What’s new? What’s different? What has shifted, however subtly? What is about to shift? If you are not paying close enough attention, you’ll miss it. If you are over-functioning you’ll trample on it.
Your second job is make space for it. So much of the time you’ll do this by doing absolutely nothing. Noticing is often all that is needed. Sometimes you’ll need to flex an activity or replace it with something else. Some of the time you’ll intervene directly with a participant. When you do, be as subtle and unobtrusive as you can.
Don’t answer participant’s questions about the facility, your background or what a horse’s behavior means. This pulls them out of the present. Instead, tell them you’ll answer their question at the break because you want to help them stay present to what the horses have to offer. If they want to know why a horse is doing something, tell them that you’d only be telling them a story if you answered their question. Then invite them to keep watching and wondering what the horse is doing. Encourage them to experiment by changing their approach.
Don’t pet or interact with the horses. In order for the horses to focus on participants, it’s crucial that you not distract them. It’s tempting, especially when the horses approach you or would like a scratch or any of a hundred other ways they attract attention. The most powerful experiences are created when you support horse-participant interaction and keep yourself out of it.
The Connected Horse program is a series of experiential activities followed by a debrief in the whole group. As such, there is a cadence to all we do. Once you have grounded yourself, set aside your hopes and fears so you can be present to what is, and used an exercise to ground participants as well, follow this rhythm:
1. Setting up the Activity
The facilitator gives clear instructions to participants about what they are to do and what they must pay attention to when doing it. The communication tips you encountered in modules 3 and 4 can help you avoid confusing people by saying too much.
2. Conducting the Activity
This may require little beyond making sure participants are not getting stuck, without making yourself the center of attention. Be close enough for comfort and guidance if necessary, but don’t be so close or intervene so much that participants start pleasing you instead of being fully in their experience. This is a very common facilitation mistake among inexperienced, unaware, or anxious facilitators.
3. Debriefing the Activity
The simplest way to do this is to ask, “How did that go for you?” ”What did you find interesting about that experience?” A more focused question is “What did you notice?” or “What did you learn?” It’s important not to lapse into teaching mode here or to talk too much. That interrupts the participant’s ability to access deeper levels of their experience. In addition to debriefing after each activity, it is important to close the workshop with a debrief and to remind participants that reflections, emotions and ideas will continue to percolate throughout the week. Encourage participants to share these with their partners, write them in their journals and bring them back to the group the following week.
Before each activity involving a horse, facilitators conduct a safety briefing, both talking through and demonstrating how to stay safe during that activity. A sample briefing follows.
The Safety Briefing
Before workshop activities begin, you will need to tell participants about horses and their behavior. Horses are prey animals who live in a highly-structured herd for comfort and safety. They are hard-wired for connection and protection. They regulate their own emotions and those of their herd mates. They perceive on subtle levels that we cannot imagine due to their herd instinct and unique aspects of their physiology.
Their eyes are on the sides of their heads so they have a 180-degree field of vision. They also have 4 blind spots to be aware of. The blind spots directly behind them and directly in front of them require care in approaching a horse. The blind spots directly above their ears and below their throat mean that moving quickly from above or below their heads can startle them.
Horses are connected to each other in ways that seem mystical to us. They will move and react to each other in ways that are hard for us to perceive. They will react to potential danger in ways that we may not understand or anticipate. Horses respond to our intention in ways we can’t explain, but have come to trust. If you are not getting the response you hope for from a horse, try making your internal intention clearer and singular. Remember that you can change your breathing, body position or location too.
That’s a lot of information! Here is how a facilitator might cover this ground during the Participant Safety Briefing:
If questions come up, it is best to ask the participants what they think is going on. If there is a direct safety issue, it is best to say something like, “It looks like to me that this horse is uncomfortable with us brushing him. His ears are back and he is stomping his hooves. Let’s step back and take him back to his stall. We will get another horse.” This is a great opportunity to talk about being aware of nonverbal communication. It isn’t that something is wrong with the horse, or participants did something wrong. The horse was just showing us he wasn’t enjoying this. We don’t know why. But we know he wasn’t. So, we listened and took him back.