Rachel Avitan’s task was to lead Cricket, a towering black quarter horse, around the barn’s dirt-floored pen without tugging or pulling at her. Rachel, a diminutive, galloping executive in her sixties, called out softly and gestured towards Cricket. The mare complied and began circling around the pen.
Everything was going well until Cricket crept into -Rachel’s space, nudging her close to the pen’s fence. Cricket was asserting her dominance as the leader. Who is walking who here? Rachel thought to herself. I want you—not me—to be close to the fence.
Rachel and her partner, Amos Avitan, run a successful business consulting company in BC’s Lower Mainland. Both stubborn and independent, they’d been butting heads in the workplace since their company’s inception fifteen years ago. “We were addicted to being right,” says Rachel. “For years and years, we’d dig our heels in.”
A month before Rachel found herself with Cricket, simmering conflict between Rachel and Amos had boiled over into a shouting match in front of staff. They had each been to counselling, but it seemed that no human could tame their animal impulses. As they yelled at each other, their staff sat in silence, exuding tension. Everyone looked down at the table, their hands, the floor, says Rachel, not knowing what to do.
It was a fearful, top-down workplace culture. No change in sight.
Rachel had heard of an executive coach who used horses to teach conscious communication, emotional intelligence and other workplace leadership skills. Getting lessons from a horse, Rachel thought, might make their managerial shortcomings feel less personal. With nothing to lose, Rachel booked an appointment at a stable in Langley, BC, with Evelyn McKelvie, an equine-facilitated executive coach.
Facing off with Cricket, Rachel realized that there was no way she’d be able to gain the horse’s respect and trust, to truly lead her, without first developing a connection. Rachel became frustrated. It was a frustration that mirrored the one she sometimes felt with Amos, and she just wasn’t sure how to fix it.
In 1998, Evelyn McKelvie was working for a busy, -Toronto-based tech company that was undergoing massive change. Like many office settings, her work demanded a ton of brainpower—both to churn through the reams of data coming her way, and to navigate complex interpersonal issues, particularly the fierce competition that had recently cropped up between sales personnel and the company’s owners. The workplace felt like a pressure cooker.
McKelvie needed something outdoors and physical to offset the challenges of her job and to clear her head. She’d been horseback riding a few times as a teenager, and had always wanted to learn how to ride properly. She signed up for lessons. Initially nervous, she soon bonded with the horse. “It felt like a cross between ballet and sailing,” McKelvie says. “I was fully aware of my own body.”
Back on terra firma at the end of the day, McKelvie felt both literally and figuratively grounded. She knew right then and there that she wanted to be able to share the profound physiological, emotional and spiritual experience she’d had with others. McKelvie spent the next twenty years learning the language and rituals of the horse, studying under two internationally acclaimed equine trainers: Carolyn Resnick and Chris Irwin. Under Resnick and Irwin, McKelvie learned that horses have survived as traditional prey animals by developing a heightened sense of awareness of threats in their surroundings. Contemporary horses use their body language and play games—for them, ancient survival-of-the-fittest techniques—to establish herd hierarchies and relationships. McKelvie shaped her understanding into a way of working with horses that was built on acclimatizing to horses’ language, rituals, and behaviours, as opposed to using aggression—such as pulling and kicking—or discipline to keep horses under control.
“You get to know their personalities and moods by how they raise their heads, swish their tails, or pin their ears back,” says Anne Clermont, a former animal behaviour researcher and current horse novelist. “Some are grumpy, some are shy, some are sweet, and some are easy to anger.”
While most animal behaviourists would see the attribution of moods and personalities to animals as inappropriate anthropomorphism, others, like McKelvie and Clermont, are sensitive to animals’ sentiments and language abilities. In the nineties, Temple Grandin paved the way for this approach. A professor of animal science at Colorado State University and a pioneer in the humane treatment of animals (ironically, focusing on the conditions of livestock before slaughter), Grandin penned a series of scientific articles on the behaviour of beef cattle during their handling.
Grandin observed how animals such as cattle are particularly sensitive to their multi-sensory surroundings—similar to the sensitivity experienced by those who fall on the autism spectrum. “As a person with autism, it is easy for me to understand how animals think because my thinking processes are like an animal’s,” Grandin wrote in 1997. “People working with horses and other animals need to think more about how the animals perceive the situations we put them in.”
To speak “horse,” as McKelvie advocates, humans must be aware of the horse’s power to sense our emotions by reading our body language. Clermont, who ran a seventy-five-horse equestrian training centre in Woodside, California, for seven years, witnessed this firsthand. “If you are angry or uptight, the horse gets more flighty or spooked,” she says. “If you’re calm and -relaxed, more steady in the saddle and your hands aren’t jerking, horses will sense those vibes.”
Like Clermont, McKelvie seeks to harmonize the energy flowing between horses and humans. In order to help high-strung, -headstrong business people, however, she also needed to learn the art and science of leadership. In 2008, McKelvie received a graduate certificate in executive coaching at Royal Roads University. Armed with a deep understanding of horses and training in how to coach humans, she set out to teach people, via horses, how to become better attuned to themselves in order to become conscious communicators.
On the opposite side of the continent, Dr. Maria Katsamanis, a specialist in bio-feedback and professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, was searching for ways to improve her students’ non-verbal communication. It’s long been understood that -doctors’ attitudes, and the way they communicate, can affect patients’ experiences and outcomes. Rutgers medical students had not been performing as well on the floor as they were scoring on paper, and conventional classroom-based courses were not doing the trick.
Katsamanis, who grew up riding horses in her native Greece, had been a horse trainer for much of her life. Revisiting her passion for horses, Katsamanis approached the faculty board about running an experiential equine-assisted medical course, a novel approach that had gained some popularity at schools such as the University of Tucson and Stanford. At first, Rutgers—a fairly conservative school with what Katsamanis describes as an “east-coast mentality”—was resistant to sending its students to a stable. But after teaming up with Spring Reins of Life, a local non-profit that uses equine-assisted therapy, a relatively new behavioural therapy approach, to work with at-risk youth, bereaved children and military vets, Katsamanis got the green light to teach Horses for Healers at Rutgers in 2011.
Over Katsamanis’s two-week course, students mimic real-life, clinical situations through role-play with horses. In one exercise, groups of students are given up to one hour to get their horse to follow them for a physical examination in a makeshift exam room, a small space cordoned off with pool noodles. Students do the exercise twice: the first time speaking English, and the second time conversing in “gibberish” to learn about the importance of their vocal tone.
“Horses naturally pick up on everything—you can’t lie to them,” says Katsamanis. If the students aren’t aware of their body language and vocal tones, the horses will tell them by running. While patients may not run, Katsamanis explains, a lack of trust between them and their doctor means that they may not comply with their treatment. Participating Rutgers students, though their numbers are relatively small so far, have been performing better on their patient empathy exams since they worked with their horse teachers.
Beyond harnessing horses’ communication lessons, equine-assisted learning and executive coaching have the benefit of taking place outdoors, away from the busy offices and sterile classrooms that are the norm for many North Americans. “Focus is power,” wrote David Rock, an American management consultant, and Jeffrey Schwartz, a leading research psychiatrist at the School of Medicine at UCLA, in a 2006 article on attention density. By focusing one’s brain on a mental experience—such as a thought, insight or picture—for long and hard enough, it’s possible to stimulate the associated brain circuits and eventually induce physical changes in the brain’s very structure. More than that, Rock and Schwartz claim that the quality of our focus—how many different circuits of our brains are involved and stimulated—is just as important in creating long-term personal change.
For city people, interacting with horses in the expanse of nature is unfamiliar and engaging, ideal for developing self-awareness and sparking new brain-altering behavioural patterns.
Back in Langley, after Rachel’s setback with Cricket, McKelvie led the Avitans to a quiet, cottage-style clubhouse to walk them through the neuroscience underpinning her approach. Conventional thinking, McKelvie explained, used to assert that the -development of one’s brain was fixed: your brain cells would grow, and then inevitably die off later in life. But neuroplasticity research had begun to demonstrate that your brain can, in fact, develop new neuro-connections and reorganize its structure and functions, even as you age.
One groundbreaking, ongoing study -focuses on a group of nuns in Mankato, Minnesota. Thirty-two years ago, these nuns agreed to provide detailed records on their lives and to donate their brains to research after their deaths. Nuns are ideal subjects: they live stable, less-stressed lives, eschew smoking and drinking, and devote their lives to learning, praying and educating. The early results were unexpected: one third of the nuns’ brains that were tested had signs of full-blown Alzheimer’s, but cognitive tests showed that those nuns had showed no symptoms of the disease while they were living. The implication is startling: one can be sick in the brain yet remain unaffected because of the development of new neuro-connections, a kind of rewiring of the brain.
McKelvie and others believe that applicable lessons may be learned from this study; for one, that equine-assisted coaching may help people unlearn bad business habits and learn, instead, healthier methods of understanding and communication.
As McKelvie explained to the Avitans, our often-distracted way of living impacts the functioning of the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain linked to personality -expression and decision-making—which hampers our ability to pursue conscious, mindful thought in tune with our hearts. A lightbulb turned on for the partners. Prior to that insight, they couldn’t understand why two rational adults were getting into childish arguments at work. “My amygdala got -hijacked,” says Rachel, reflecting. “We would go into an automatic, fear-flight, knee-jerk reaction, a non-productive way of dealing with things.”
What’s more, according to McKelvie, workplace stressors—caused by everything from an inability to get an idea across in a meeting, to a fruitless drive for a promotion, to the high pressure of delivering company results—cause people’s cortisol hormone levels to rise, which in turn contributes to high blood pressure and emotional volatility. Being around horses, on the other hand, releases oxytocin, sometimes known as the “love hormone,” which promotes feeling good and helps our bodies heal.
For Amos, being with McKelvie and her horses gave him insight into how he physically experiences stressors. “Now I can feel it, physically and emotionally, so I can get control of it,” he says. “I am less reactive when I [feel myself] tipping.”
In December 2017, nine months after her first visit, Rachel Avitan returned to Langley. On a bright, sunny day, she headed out onto an open field for a walking meditation with a brown and white American paint horse named Romeo. Romeo walked right up to Rachel, occupying her space and flaring her nostrils to say hello. “She’s assessing you,” McKelvie told Rachel. “Muster your body language and energy to block her from taking your space.”
Rachel needed to detach from her past and future, to live in the same time and space as the horse. She strolled out to the centre of the field and sat down on the firm dirt ground. She closed her eyes, breathing in the fresh scent of trees and feeling the warmth of the sun’s rays. The sounds of nature—of horses grazing and birds calling—permeated the air. Infused with new life, she waltzed back to Romeo and gently patted her head. The mare stood near, but did not encroach. Asserting herself, Rachel had started to gain Romeo’s respect—Romeo had begun to see Rachel as a member of the herd.
As the session ended, Rachel felt rejuvenated. “I don’t believe it’s possible to be in the field and be tense or to fret about ‘hot emotions,’” she says.
These days, Rachel and Amos are far more civil at work. There is a lot more smiling, and even laughing, in the office, Rachel says. Their employees are more comfortable presenting their ideas and admitting their failures. The office has even adopted a fluffy grey and white Maine Coon kitten, named Sire Nickolas, who brings the team a calming presence similar to the one the horses gave the Avitans at the acreage. “I can’t look at him without smiling,” says Amos.
At times, they catch each other going back to their old, argumentative ways—it’s one thing to live like a nun, or with horses, and another thing entirely to implement the lessons learned from them in the midst of stressful workplace environments. “We’ll just say, ‘My amygdala farted,’ and give each other a wink,” says Rachel.