Mari Harris can't tell you a lot about horses. But that isn't stopping her from leading a horse named Luca around a Stillwater barnyard with hopes the horse will tell her something about herself. Harris' barnyard adventure moves along smoothly until the horse decides to take charge. He stops. He munches on grass. He doesn't seem to want to budge. "I think he's walking me," Harris says. Hmmm. "What do you want the horse to do?" asks Harris' life coach Lynn Baskfield. "You can decide what you want and don't want."
Equine-assisted coaching sessions of this sort reflect a trend in the self-growth arena. The trend is built on the burgeoning recognition of a horse's ability to reflect people's behaviors and emotions — some they're not aware of themselves. With self-interpretation and a trained coach or counselor's guidance, the result can lend insights into what works for individuals and what doesn't — in business, relationships or anyplace they want to hit their stride. Equine therapy is being used in leadership trainings, psychotherapy, chemical-dependency treatment and other settings, some even designed for children. Some participants sign up in pairs — a mother and her adolescent son wanting to improve communication, for example. Others, such as workplace teams, work in groups. "It's so much less difficult to accept feedback from a horse than a human," says Ann Romberg, Baskfield's coaching partner for Harris' equine-assisted session. "You know the horse doesn't have an agenda."
Not everyone instantly jumps on the idea of a horse leading humans to brilliance. But many skeptics become believers as they observe horses' natural ability to mirror how people show up for a challenge. Sometimes, the lesson emerges as metaphor for a real-life situation. Peter Vollmer admits to some skepticism at first. That was before he participated in a leadership-training seminar in the Twin Cities last month led by Ariana Strozzi, founder of California-based Leadership and Horses. Strozzi takes equine-assisted learning into corporate America. Vollmer attached a lead rope and got his horse to walk nicely beside him at first. Then, the animal sped up and took over. "It was pulling me along and almost wiped out all the chairs and people sitting in them," he says. "It was running roughshod over people." Strozzi asked him this question: Did the horse's antics represent Vollmer or his business? "It got me thinking," he says. "What came to light was I let the business lead me." The insight led him to commit to better balance between his work and family life. "That was what I needed to ground me," he says. The next time he led the horse, it walked calmly alongside him. "The change was the oddest thing to see," says Vollmer, who runs a vehicle dent-repair business based in Savage. He now subscribes to the equine-assisted phenomenon. "I think the FBI is using the wrong lie detector," he says.
Larry Freeborg's metaphor came in an earlier leadership training with Strozzi in California. As he was leading a horse, a coach asked how he was doing. Freeborg took the question as an indication he wasn't making the grade. "I froze, and the horse froze," says Freeborg, of Hastings, a life and business coach. It was the first time he identified his tendency to clutch under pressure. The experience led to a solution to help him keep going in times of stress. "I have an exercise now," he says. "It helps let the energy flow."
Back at the Stillwater barnyard, Mari Harris is still trying to figure out what she can learn today. She came here because she wants insight into how she can attain her goal of becoming a world-class singer. But Luca the horse is still stuck. What will Harris do now? Her coach steps in to help. "What are you feeling?" the coach asks. "I want to do well with the horse," Harris says. Seeming to get it, Luca nuzzles her neck and nibbles at her colorful beaded earrings. "That's a kiss," Baskfield explains. It also means Luca has quit munching grass and is focusing his attention on Harris. She thinks for a moment, then coaxes the horse. "C'mon, honey," she says, tugging on the lead rope and making a clicking noise with her mouth. "Cmon, you're walkin'," she persists. "I decided where I want to go. And I'm doin' it." Luca starts to walk beside her. She picks up the pace, and he does, too. Then, Harris' rich alto voice bursts into song. "We all are a flicker from the same flame," she sings, from a song her brother wrote. Next comes a song for the horse. "Camp town ladies sing their song. Doo-dah, doo-dah." "Do you like horse songs?" she asks Luca. Harris successfully leads Luca back to the barn, calling her session "a big accomplishment." What did she learn? "I'm being intentional about being intentional," she says. "There's a clarity that comes with being intentional." Next steps for the 49-year-old singer of jazz, pop, gospel and R&B are a move to Los Angeles and then a performance on Broadway, she says. "When I get my Grammy," she adds, "I'll need to thank the horses, too."