An interview with David Sonatore, LMSW, career/life coach and psychotherapist, who conducts workshops with people and horses to inspire personal and professional growth.
You use horses as a metaphor in working with individuals and companies. How did you come up with this idea?
The idea actually found me. For over a dozen years as a commercial film and video editor, I had a unique vantage point to observe corporate executives working together toward a common goal – creating a great video. During post-production, stress levels intensified and scapegoating proliferated. These conditions would often reveal dysfunctional teams.
Through personal experience, I saw that dominance-based leadership and group disintegration were rampant in most industries.
Seeking a change, I spent some time out in northwest Montana and serendipitously met several people who were the subject of Nicholas Evans’ book The Horse Whisperer. In working with them, I came to realize that the way they interacted with “troubled” horses would have proven invaluable in overcoming the challenges I saw in corporate life.
It wasn’t about “fixing” the horse, but more about working on the relationship between horse and human. For horses, the consummate herd animal, relationship is paramount and equates directly with survival – it’s that simple.
Since a horse doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a horse, it was often human behavior that offered the most opportunity for intervention.
Horses are less a metaphor about relationships and teams. Rather, they are an exemplary model for how what we do, and how we do it, significantly affects others in our personal and professional lives.
How can the lessons you learned be applied when an executive is making a presentation or being interviewed by a reporter?
I learned out West that the more an individual focused on her own thoughts and behaviors, methods of communicating, and emotional regulation, the better her horse got. I suppose this is why natural horsemanship pioneer Buck Brannaman suggests, “I don’t help people with horse problems. I help horses with people problems.”
Studies show that only 10% of how we communicate is with words, and 90% is with our body language. When working with executives, I help them to understand what it will take to get their messages congruent with their bodies.
Horses struggle when faced with incongruence. They have the ability to sense blood pressure, heart rate and respiration from a distance, a skill that helps them determine whether a predator moving near the herd is a threat or just passing through.
This horse sense often reveals itself when I have a client working face to face with a horse. If the manner in which he is presenting himself to the horse is different from what he is feeling inside, the horse simply will not cooperate and may even become agitated.
Similarly, we can’t function well when we have to deal with incongruent people, whose actions are at odds with their words. We often don’t realize what’s happening or why, but innately want to keep our distance.
So whether you’re presenting to your boss or client, or talking to a reporter, it helps to acknowledge and harness your nervous energy in order to bring your body into alignment with what you’re saying. This state of congruence inherently earns trust.
What makes a “herd” or a team in a company successful?
When working with my non-profit The Equus Effect, which serves returning veterans with PTSD, we get a sobering look at what it means to work as a team. As with horses, the survival of the individual is dependent on the connection and functionality of the group. The veterans come to know this at a very primal level. One of the many obstacles they face when returning to civilian life is adjusting to dysfunctional teams, especially in the business world.
Without pulling any punches here, in business we’re taught to value competition over cooperation, goal over process and conquest over mutual aid. So when individuals are organized into teams, these dynamics interfere and jeopardize the collective mission.
Through an understanding of the equine herd, teams can identify the toxic behaviors hindering the group and learn to manage their negative emotions. Without the fear of being judged, team members can express their opinions freely and move toward a more open and effective means of collaboration. In that sense, they begin to resemble herds because horses instinctively know how to work in teams.
Why horses and not some other animal?
Horses are prey animals with a long history of connection to humans. Think about it. We built our civilization on their backs and for thousands of years, relied on horses for traveling long distances, working farms, fighting in wars, etc.
Accomplishing anything with a prey animal, especially one that weighs over a thousand pounds, requires the capacity to build trust, communicate with more than just words, and an ability to regulate our own nervous systems so as not to trigger a fight or flight reaction in them.
It’s only relatively recently, since the advent of the automobile, that we’ve moved so far away from the invaluable utility of horses. Now that all we have to do is turn a key in the ignition, we’ve essentially lost a powerful opportunity to hone the skills required to become more self-aware leaders and communicators.
Some would attribute a horse’s cooperation to just being a stupid beast and many people over the years have used inhumane forms of dominance to gain their cooperation. While mistreating horses might begrudgingly get the job done, it seriously limits any opportunity for them to function at their highest level.
The use of dominance/submission tactics towards human beings similarly limits their capacity for growth and innovation. Ever experience a management model that works the same way?
How can understanding horses help individuals to become more physically and emotionally fit?
As a culture, we commit to left-brain development early on. Logic and intellect are valued, while right brain pursuits, such as intuition and emotion, are often considered extracurricular or even impractical. Horses, on the other hand, are emotional prodigies. Adapting insights from how they function, can bring us back into balance and increase our effectiveness in all areas of our lives.
Author Linda Kohanov, my mentor and colleague, puts it this way: “The body is the horse that our mind rides around on.” Watching an intuitive rider moving fluidly atop a gallant steed certainly conjures up an image of power and grace. The disconnected rider, however, struggles for balance and hangs on for dear life. If you could choose, and you can, how would you prefer to present yourself?
David Sonatore is an Equine Facilitated Therapy practitioner whose workshops and presentations bring the tenets of Equine Experiential Learning “out of the corral” and into the workplace. He completed his apprenticeship in Tucson, AZ with equine therapy pioneer Linda Kohanov (Tao of Equus).