I am excited to announce to my community a very talented friend of mine who works with horses and their humans here in the Valley. Matney Cook offers Equine Facilitated Learning (EFL), an approach to horsemanship developed by Leigh Shambo.
Matney and I will be getting together soon to organize some co-led workshops, so please stay tuned. I am thrilled to be collaborating with this talented and multi-faceted horsewoman!
Below is an article written by Matney as a way for you to get to know some of her teachings. Enjoy!
EQUINE FACILITATED LEARNING
by Matney Cook
On a crisp winter day not long ago, I decided to have a playful groundwork session with my horse partner, a bay gelding named Mike. After doing a scan of my own body and setting an intention for the day, I took another moment to check in with Mike, concerned that in my excitement to play with him I may have overlooked what would bring him joy during the session.
He answered me, “If you listen to your heart when we are together, you will also hear mine.”
I have found that this is the simple truth at the core of how and why Equine Facilitated Learning (EFL) supports whatever activity you may dream of exploring with your horse. For when we practice authenticity with ourselves, we become true to everyone else in our presence whether they have two legs or four.
Mike’s wise statement made perfect sense to me. You may have read that the Institute of HeartMath has shown that the electromagnetic field produced by the heart is stronger than that produced by the brain and extends well outside of the body. If you’ve experienced any of Leigh’s EFL teachings, you have probably felt how the energetic “bubble” surrounding each of us carries information about our autonomic state of arousal which includes heart rate, respiratory rate, emotional state, and/or our heart’s desire within its vibrations. Our energy fields are constantly interacting with the energy fields of others – human, animal, or even plant – giving and receiving information. A horse cannot communicate verbally, so they are completely reliant on keen awareness of this invisible form of communication. Because humans have developed the neo-cortex portion of the brain (the logical “thinking” center) far beyond the levels of other mammals, most people have learned to rely on verbal communication as their sole form of expression even though they also interact on these nonverbal levels (often with no awareness).
This explains why being energetically incongruent (acting contradictory to what you’re feeling) can lead to miscommunications between you and your horse. Your energetic presence is saying one thing and your actions are demanding another. I’ve seen many horses trot for hours instead of breaking into a lope even though that’s what their rider is being coached to do and seems to be trying to achieve. Some horses may even buck once into a lope if their rider is unconsciously communicating fear to them. Actions such as bucking are most often caused by pain or fear on the horse’s part. Therefore, once you understand the nature of shared emotions, you can see how acknowledging and honoring your feelings becomes a safety issue when working with horses.
In coaching people and their horses through activities from round penning to trail riding, safety has always been my main focus. This is why I pursued a Master Trainer certification in Natural Horsemanship under Ken McNabb. In my heart, I knew that you could ask a horse to engage in an activity with you instead of using pain or fear to force them into it. One of the principles of many natural horsemanship trainers is that “pain is a deterrent to the learning process.” Now that we know that horses feel all the same emotions that humans do, this teaching makes even more sense. After earning the Master Trainer certification and spending 17 years of my 21 being with horses, I was confident teaching horses to do many things, and yet I felt ill-equipped to help their owners learn to do these things with their horses. I could teach people the linear progression of the exercises and explain how they are meant to work, but how did I teach them to feel the softness I was always talking about? I believe that this is where a lot of horsemanship teachings fall short: all of the focus is on the horse!
You can learn exercises designed to help you teach your horse how to be more responsive, more respectful, more calm – but what about your own ability to do these things? To me, this is the role of EFL in horsemanship. It lays a strong foundation in emotional and energetic awareness onto which the structure of horsemanship can be built as a place where all the activities you dream of doing with your horse can become a reality.
Through EFL, you become aware of the equine’s ability to feel the full range of emotion without judgment and that their reliance on their limbic system (the brain’s center of emotion & intuition) serves them perhaps far better than those who would have us believe that horses are “just dumb animals.” Horses will offer us information about many things including their physical health, their current living situation right down to how they feel about the tack you use. We cannot expect our horses to be prepared to join us fully in an activity if their basic emotional, mental, and physical needs aren’t being met. Understanding this allows us to view a horse’s “misbehavior” as information instead of as a situation that merely requires more training. But also know that as you learn to perceive things before the horse has to turn up the intensity on his emotions, you will avoid much of that “misbehavior.” Think about your own emotions and what your unresolved feelings do within your own body. The horse mirrors what we experience – unacknowledged emotion typically results in escalating behavior.
Once you begin to journey inward using the teachings that EFL provides, the mirror is held up to all of your actions and how they affect others around you. For if your desire is to deepen your connection with your horse, you must first deepen your connection with yourself. And, through true connection, communication is effortless, making any activity much more enjoyable. Isn’t this what we’re searching for when we ask a trainer to help us through an “issue” with our equine partner?
How does the deeper connection with self come about? EFL teaches various experiential exercises that “bring home” the concepts of emotional and physical awareness allowing you to become aware of your own emotions and the information conveyed through physical sensation. You begin to explore how your body reacts to different situations – simply bringing your sensations into your conscious awareness and using them as information. This activity alone will deepen your self-connection and will extend to your connection with your horse simultaneously. Of course, as you become more aware of this non-verbal experience you may have many other questions, and this is where your trained facilitator can act as your guide, teaching you about reuniting your divided self, and the messages behind your emotions just to name a couple.
And, as a trainer who has been taught by many trainers I have seen that those who can handle any horse with confidence are those who can get a “feeling” of the horse, not asking too much too soon while also setting boundaries to keep both the horse and themselves safe. Often times the best advice a trainer can give you on deepening your feel is repetitious practice of an exercise. Practice has its positive aspects, but when coupled with a deeper awareness of sensation in the body, of the non-verbal communication, much of the frustration on both the horse and rider’s part can be eliminated.
Here’s an example of my own experience shortly after I attended a 3-day workshop with Leigh. I used to run into an issue consistently with my horse, Mike, while riding him around the pasture. Even after my careful warm-ups and best attempts at establishing a connection, he always seemed to want to go to the barn. I got tired of using my bridle and leg pressure to keep him from ducking into a stall, so one day when my frustration was no longer deniable, I literally collapsed on his back in a heap, sobbing. “What have I done wrong? After all of the work I’d done with this horse, he still would rather be in the barn than be with me. I’m a trainer for goodness sake, and my own horse doesn’t want to be with me!”
After cleansing my psyche with a good cry and noticing that during this “meltdown” that Mike did not attempt to go to the barn, a new awareness began to grow within me. I asked myself, “Do I really believe all those things I was so frustrated about?” My heart’s answer was, “No.” After noticing Mike’s willingness to sit with me during my breakdown, I also had a new-found confidence in him and in our relationship. So, I decided to walk him by the barn with a new outlook on the situation, a curiosity – seeing it as an opportunity to discover a place within my methods that was contradictory to what I wanted.
To my surprise, I noticed myself stiffening up while riding by the barn in anticipation of my horse’s attempts to get to his stall. No wonder he was looking for a place of comfort to go to when my body’s stiffness and my raised heart rate were communicating to him, “Something is wrong here, and my way of dealing with it is being rigid.” Of course, this is not at all what I intended to tell him, and neither is it a leadership style that a horse (let alone any human) trusts, so I kept riding while breathing deeply to consciously lower my heart rate. By the end of the ride, he was no longer speeding up when facing the direction of the barn nor going through his shoulder when I turned him away from the barn. I had solved a horsemanship issue simply by noticing where the fault in the communication was, and consciously deciding to change it. All because Mike had pointed out to me some “tornado heads” that needed dispelling and how those negative thoughts were unconsciously affecting my communication with him. After those realizations, I remember being on cloud nine for the rest of the day! For it truly is a joyful feeling to be so connected with another being and yourself in authenticity.
Looking back on the situation now, I also realize the contradiction between how viewing the issue strictly from a “training standpoint” would have urged me to act as opposed to searching internally for the answer. As a trainer, I may have coached someone through doing an exercise to seemingly “fix” the horse’s “misbehavior.” Whereas, the true solution was found by me doing nothing other than listening to my emotions and awakening my non-verbal awareness of what my body was communicating, in turn honoring my horse’s and my own body’s wisdom.
I have found that sitting with ourselves, other people, or horses at these times in a place of non-judgment allows us to activate our Authentic Self. Kathleen Barry Ingram refers to this as “the place where your own self-healing emerges and you reclaim and embrace yourself.” Once your intention is expanded to include the goal of honoring this place of intuition and power in your relationship with your horse, your path toward the horsemanship activity you choose will become clear in the light of your new-found awareness. You will find that your horse will always be authentic with you, acting as a living, breathing feedback device by pointing out your incongruent behavior, and rewarding your congruency with their cooperation.
I feel EFL teachings have brought me back to a playful open space within myself, amazed by the beauty and majesty of my horse. There is no judgment there, just a supportive, loving animal whose nature (just like mine) is to build a relationship through which we can experience the world together from a childlike awe-filled peace. Once opened to the “beginner’s mind” way of experiencing horses that EFL teaches, it is no surprise that the journey toward any horsemanship goal becomes a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional experience. Using what your local facilitator enables you to learn, your horse can help you to go places within yourself you never imagined possible while completing the simplest or most complex of tasks. The most exciting and empowering part is that you will be awakened to the fact that the two beings who know what’s best for you and your horse are only you and your horse. I will leave you with a reminder of Mike’s wise message to me: “If you listen to your heart when we are together, you will also hear mine.”
CONTACT MATNEY COOK of HOOFBEAT ATTUNEMENT.