By Alissa Gauger, MBA, Certified Life Coach and Lifetime Student
“Watch what I’m doing very, very closely,” instructed Koelle Simpson, the Equus Coach, as she stood inside the round pen below, preparing to unhook a horse from a long line, a 30 foot flat black rope with a clasp at the end. She gathered the line up in loops like a lasso and held it to her side. “I’m going to do a demonstration with this horse and will ask you to do the same thing in a few minutes. I won’t give you any instruction right now. I’ll share my feedback with you at the end after everyone’s had a turn.”
In March of 2010, twelve of us had assembled at the horse ranch in Arizona to take Koelle’s renowned Equus Coaching workshop with Martha Beck, which promised to show us how working with horses could offer us new perspectives on communication and trust and find our right lives.
I watched Koelle’s demonstration of a horse “join up” exercise with microscopic intensity. The horse seemed to magically walk, trot and canter around her exactly as the trainer wanted, yet Koelle didn’t say a word. In fact, she appeared to be doing NOTHING. How on earth could I repeat this? Since I’m someone who likes to do things perfectly, my mind raced to figure this puzzle out. Maybe you were supposed to charm the horse? Act really nice? How would I know?
When my turn in the ring came, a volunteer led a horse into the ring and handed me the line. The soft brown horse looked at me casually and then glanced away. I unhooked the clasp and gripped the long line at my side. I smiled at my horse and implored him to go to the outer edge by batting my eyelashes, cooing and swishing my hand toward him. I put on quite a show, prancing and flapping my arms ahead of the horse to convince him to move. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but my flailing earned a beautiful kiss from the horse on my hand. Wow, I’d pulled it off! I thought “applause, applause!” As eleven other people peered down from an observation area into the pen below, it felt like theater in the round–and I’d turned in a dazzling performance. I wanted to bow.
In contrast, the eleven other participants seemed to struggle with their task. Their horses pawed frantically into the ground as if to escape. Some sent sawdust flying madly as classmates ran around them, arms flapping like birds and the longe line swinging chaotically. Other horses rolled on the ground like toddlers having a tantrum, while some horses meandered on their own, the classmates following behind and imploring them to do something. I was feeling pretty good about my performance.
Until it was time for Koelle and Martha to give me my feedback. “Alissa, that horse didn’t kiss you. He bit you!” My horse BIT ME? Yes. BIT ME. The horse was beyond frustration with my fake performance, my lack of leadership, my muddled communication, the fact that I didn’t even know what I was asking the horse to do and my not-so-charming antics. So mad, in fact, that he’d bitten me. Ouch.
“Okay, now you’re each going to go back into the pen and do the exercise again,” Koelle said. After our painful experience in the round pen we were told we were going to do it AGAIN. Seriously?? Wasn’t it painful enough the first time?
“This time, Alissa, I want you to take down your wall,” Koelle told me. “Being fake isn’t fooling anyone, especially a horse who could care less. Your wall is telling the horse that you’ve got something to hide. He doesn’t trust you, so he doesn’t want to listen to you.” I thought the wall would let me invent a version of myself the horse would just like better. It was time to show the horse the real me and stay in the present moment. Breathe, I told myself.
Back in the round pen, I asked the horse, an ancient fellow with a gamey eye, for space. And got it. Okay. Then, I sent the horse to the outer area by staying calm, yet energetic and directive. I pointed myself at his back end and pictured him going to the outer edge of the pen. I then asked for a walk by picturing it and upping my intensity. So far, so good. It was taking all of my energy to stay present in that moment and focused only on that horse. A flash came to me–it was about seeing instead of being seen. I forgot all about the eleven others, the clip boards and the performance and there was only the horse. After staying in that mindset for a couple of minutes, I began to sense a genuine connection with the horse. The horse was listening! I was present! This works! That astonishing feeling of connection felt like a white hot light. It was so bright and so new that I burst into tears thinking that it had taken years to feel it. My connection with the horse vanished as my mind swirled into thinking about my past. Instantly the horse started cantering around me out of control. Fear overtook me. I didn’t know what to do as I was laid bare in front of those I respected most — Martha and Koelle. I just stood there crying, fragile as a newborn baby. My brain said, Pull it together and smile. My heart said, Just please let go.
I heard Koelle’s voice from the observation area. “Alissa, what is happening right now?” I slobbered an incoherent response, but inside I was thinking, I messed up. But really, who cares? I let go. Suddenly I felt hot breath on my cheek. My horse had come up behind me and was now standing with me quietly. I felt so honored. The horse noticed my pain and joined up with me. I had been SEEN. Koelle spoke again.
“Alissa, you are finally being real. Right now.”
Now, several years later, I am both a Certified Martha Beck coach and Koelle Simpson Certified Equus Coach. It’s a calling that answers so many questions for me. Why have people always come to me for advice? Why are my “feelers” so long that they will never wrap neatly into Princess Leia buns? Instead they pick up the Richter scale of feelings all around me. Why have I heard a whisper inside me since I was a child to do my “real” job of helping others? Well, after experiencing a lot of coaching myself and an amazing process of becoming certified, it is now my privilege to help others. Are you ready to get real?