I met Cheryl Cruttenden at a retreat at the Krishna Village in Murwillumbah (Northern New South Wales) at the end of last year. No I'm not a Hare, I was there to learn to facilitate Matrix Therapies. We just happened to arrive at the Temple at the same time and joined the line for dinner and got to talking.
I was amazed to hear about the work she did with groups of leaders to help them understand themselves, what's going on for them on the inside, and the powerful effect their presence can have on those around them, using... Horses.
How intriguing! I was never really an animal person. I never had large pets growing up, some fish, mice, and even Guinea Pigs, but I zero understanding of the kind of connection you can have with larger animals.
Over dinner Cheryl relayed how horses are finely tuned instruments for detecting how you feel on the inside. Not that they can read your mind, or your intentions. But they can read your non-verbals and 'energy' such that they know if you're 'coherent' or not. In other words: Does what you're presenting on the outside match what's going on for you emotionally?
We all wear masks to different degrees at different times. We know how we're supposed to act. And when you're trying to bond with a horse you may want to present yourself a certain way. Calm, confident, kind, what do horses like anyway? It turns out, they like you. Whatever you're feeling that's ok, as long as you don't try to cover it up. When you're in truth, they're comfortable. It's when you're trying to hide something they get wary.
I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a number of Horse Experiences with Cheryl. I saw the horses distance themselves from those who were afraid of horses, or those who were feeling anxious in general.
In fact when I entered the field for the first time with my horse coach "Jack" I was feeling a touch nervous and excited myself, given I hadn't really spent much time around horses in my life and he was quite a large strong looking male horse. I'll admit I even felt intimidated.
My strategy was to hold back and let him get used to me. Several minutes passed, me standing across the field looking at Jack, and him having spotted me but ignoring me completely. These minutes gave me the opportunity to observe what was going on inside me. I could sense the expectation and neediness in me. I needed this to go well, to not be rejected by the horse, to be able to say "I achieved this connection with the horse". In hindsight, how bizarre! To take this opportunity to be and interact with this beautiful animal and make it into some kind of performative act to serve my ego. And what an opportunity to have the space and intentional awareness to be able to observe that in myself. How much of my life is an anxious performance in service to my ego?
I made a decision to put my ego on the line rather than hold back in fear of rejection. I decided to approach the horse. But first to give myself what I was craving from the horse, validation and acceptance. I focused on that fragile, nervous, needy, and young part of me and let it know I love it and am proud of it no matter what happens. I felt much calmer. I then tried a technique I learned for use before walking on stage to speak. I imagined my love and intention to connect with the audience and their love coming back, in this case the audience was Jack. It felt like a warm energy in my body, the good old 'warm and fuzzies'. Then I imagined expanding that energy out to encompass the entire field, including Jack. At that moment Jack shifted his weight, turned toward me, trotted the length of the field and came to rest with his head over my shoulder so I could reach up and give him a big hug. Co-incidence? Maybe. I don't believe it was, the timing was just too spot on. And even if this was just Jack picking up on subtle non-verbals, e.g. the coherence of my breath and heart, it's still quite astounding.
We then spent goodness-knows how long interacting, I guess 15 minutes, but it could have been twice that, I very much lost track of time. I'd stroke him and he seemed to enjoy and receive the attention then he'd position himself so I could move on to the next part of him. I could feel his strong masculine presence, and it reminded me of my journey, very much rejecting all masculinity as 'toxic' in my mind when I was younger and re-embracing healthy masculinity over time. There was nothing toxic about his masculinity and strength. He was very gentle, but incredibly strong. With my daughter's birth only a couple of months away I felt the kind of energy I wanted to embody for her and in my life in general. I had a moment of self-awareness as I realised I was standing in a field, stroking a horse with tears rolling down my cheeks now. How bizarre! It felt surreal, and incredibly beautiful. A bittersweet cocktail of emotions, but what a unique and amazing cocktail to experience.
I'm turning 42 this year, and according to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: 42 is the answer to "the Great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything". I've always enjoyed how absurd and inscrutable that was as an answer. Which is fitting because it's such an absurd and inscrutable question to contemplate. After having very much rejected emotions as a young person it's been only recently I've realised that the only payoff we get in life for anything, is emotions. Even if and when you achieve great success, fame, fortune, relationships and have every physical thing you could ever desire, the payoff is this... It feels good, safe, joyful, triumphant, etc (hopefully). The ultimate goal is the emotional experience, and what we learn from it and share with others, nothing more. I believe that's why we're all here.
To me that's the meaning of life, the universe and everything.
Cheryl generously shares her story in Wholehearted Leadership Revolution and how we can tap into our heart and the rest of our physiology and nervous systems to increase our performance as leaders, how our energy innately impacts those around us and so we can get more out of life by being present with our emotional experiences and those of others. We can't wait to share it with you on July 21.