Many of us on the Natural Lifemanship team have been working with equines for decades. We’ve spent much of that time preparing mustangs for domestic life, training horses for ranch work, and partnering with them for equine assisted services.
Long ago, we moved away from a traditional utilitarian approach to horses, and toward a perspective that seeks to engage horses without the need for fear, domination, and control. This launched the unique approach of Natural Lifemanship (NL) that has flipped the script on how equines participate in healing services.
Understanding Equines as Sentient Partners
Natural Lifemanship developed a way of thinking about how the equine is involved in therapeutic settings that includes the equine’s unique contributions as an individual.
Not all equines are the same, just like all people are not the same.
This consideration, of how each participant in a session contributes to the stability or instability of that session, is necessary for providing ethical treatment.Neither the equine, nor any facilitators, are exempt.
Get to Know the Treatment Team
Today we are sharing what we have named the Jobe Treatment Ratio —a framework for considering all the individuals in a therapeutic session, including the equine.
The Jobe Treatment Ratio is an attempt at providing a more concrete way to conceptualize the complex fluid relational development between all those involved in a given session, and to recognize how that relationship determines the level of care the team can provide to clients. This model is still oversimplified in many ways, but hopefully provides a snapshot of the complex relational interactions that are flowing through every moment.
For simplicity, this model assumes a session involving a licensed or certified co-facilitator, equine professional, horse, and client. These roles may differ in reality and therefore the model can be adjusted to help you conceptualize any specific situation.
When you think about the four individuals involved, then you can start to separate, on a simplistic level, who is there to receive services (client) and who is there to provide services (facilitators).
Facilitators engage in months, if not years, of training and supervision in order to offer services to clients ethically. A client and their facilitators often, either formally or informally, arrive at a social contract of expectations for services, sometimes called an informed consent.This agreement sets a framework for guiding the professionals in decision-making throughout the process of providing services.
Hopefully, it is clear that the equine professional and therapist are providing services and the
client is receiving. This scenario would create a 2:1 treatment ratio for a session, two individuals providing services for one.
Where Does the Horse Fit In?
Equine Assisted Services are unique – involving not only the professionals and the client, but one or more equines as well.
So what about the horse in this scenario? On which side of this ratio does the horse fit?
A horse is not developed in the same way humans are and does not have to commit to a social contract in order to provide or receive services. And yet they are part of this interaction. The question then becomes, are they there to provide services or receive services?
Well, the answer is complex and fluid from individual to individual—and truly, moment to moment. As humans, we determine our ability to provide services according to the guidance of professional structures and assessments we have created and maintained as a society—as well as in assessing our own personal development. We attempt to determine the ability of equines in similar ways. The development of each horse and human will determine whether or not they are mostly providing services or mostly receiving services. As the moment and environment change, so too do the abilities of each individual involved. This is the complex nature of relational interactions.
Each individual offering services requires a foundation for understanding the ins and outs of a session, knowing what is expected of them, and having a strong level of communication with other partners.
If the social contract is that the EP and co-facilitator are there to provide services for the
client and involve the horse in that process, then it stands to reason that the horse could be part of the treatment team. Proper development of the horse’s thinking skills are necessary for him to be a valid partner on the treatment team. This is not easy, but is possible.
It is important to ask, can this horse consent to participation? Can this horse move freely, think freely, and communicate freely?Can this horse understand the expectations of the session?If you can answer yes to these questions (and others), it is possible for this horse to be a partner in the treatment team.
An Ideal Ratio for Treatment
If the answers above are “yes,”then we have the possibility of a 3:1 treatment ratio, where 3 individuals (EP, co-facilitator, and horse) are supporting and providing services for 1 client.
Vital to the quality of services that are offered is the relational development between these three members of the treatment team.This relationship cannot be picked up and put down at will. Conscious effort and ongoing team development are necessary.
The model below for the 3:1 ratio represents just one of an infinite number of ways this could look. If we have done significant work with EP, co-facilitator, and horse, then they can all work in unison to serve the client and you have an understanding and communication about how they are achieving this in every moment.
Yes, we contend that equines can develop to this level. It takes intentional practice, building an equine’s ability to maintain his sensitivity and think for himself, which is only possible when we let go of outdated ideas of domination and control in human-horse interactions.
Notice in the diagram below, the quality of therapeutic or “safe” space made possible when the horse, equine professional and co-facilitator are well-developed as a team.Maintaining connection in a well established relationship takes little energy, while building connection in a newer relationship can require much more attunement, focus, and regulation.
In a well developed ratio of 3:1, the treatment team has significant energy free to devote to the client, rather than diverting it to support each other during a session.
When the Horse is Not a Part of the Treatment Team
We would say that it is more common that equines in these settings have not yet developed enough to easily create and sustain connection with others while maintaining their own autonomy. Therefore, they are unable to hold the same understanding as the EP and co-facilitator in a therapeutic setting.
If, as is common, the horse has not yet developed this skill set, then a closer representation would be a 2:2 treatment ratio. With a 2:2 treatment ratio, the EP and co-facilitator are having to extend themselves a bit more to provide support for the client as well as the horse in session.
The 2:2 model below shows one way that this could look. Notice the shift in energy and focus particularly for what the Equine Professional can offer the client, as well as what the horse can offer the client.
In a Less Developed Team
Finally, if the humans in the treatment team are not well developed (either personally or relationally) we may devolve into a situation where each member believes they are having to support and offer treatment to everyone else involved. Then the situation may more closely resemble the dreaded 1:3 ratio.
At this ratio, we are doing our clients a real disservice. Below is one way this could be represented. It is referred to as the model of the 1:3 ratio.
Keep in mind this is one way this situation could evolve. There are many other possibilities, including if the co-facilitator is less experienced working experientially, working with horses, or working in a team. Their energies may be less predictable as well.
You can also see how the quality of the relationship between the members of the treatment team affects each member’s ability to offer support to the client. Notice how it affects the ability of the team to create a safe space for the client. The cohesiveness, personal development, and team communication present in a treatment team vastly influences the quality of services offered.
Assess Your Team
Insert your treatment team into this model and determine what your development and percentages might be. Notice which human-horse combinations put you at a 3:1 treatment ratio and which combinations put you at a 2:2 ratio. Also, consider scenarios that would put you at 1:3 and work on growing out of those.
This should help you and your team grow together towards that ideal 3:1 ratio. Perhaps in exploring these ratios, you and your team will pinpoint a few of the areas that may need more work outside of the session.
Also consider how things change (dramatically!) if you include more than one equine, or more than one client.This is why, ethically, it may not make sense for a facilitator to work without an EP—or for only one or two professionals to offer services to big groups of people and/or equines.Imagine the complex web of energy necessary for providing connection and a safe space to a whole family, group, or herd!
Each facilitator, equine professional, equine, and client will come with their own histories, tendencies, and needs. Hopefully, the professionals also come with a clear self-awareness and understanding of their equine’s abilities and limitations so as to create an ethical therapeutic environment.
While this concept of ratios is simplified, it should make the ideas adaptable to whatever scenario you find yourself in, helping you and your team gain greater awareness of where your energy is going during a session and how you can all develop toward a ratio that better supports your clients.
Learn more in Our Upcoming Webinar
Tanner Jobe will be hosting a webinar on August 3, 2022, at 5pm CST where he explores the ratios illustrated above, and answers your questions. This is a great opportunity to dive more deeply into the concepts presented here. Sign up here.
Not only do we share our lives with nature and animals, they are an integral and influential part of our well-being. Within the pages of Nourished is wisdom collected from respected professionals across the globe (of whom we are honored to be a part!) on how we can intentionally incorporate the natural and animal world into mental health, wellness, and personal growth.
Working With Horses to Develop Secure Attachment
Natural Lifemanship’s CEO and co-founder Bettina Shultz-Jobe and I are thrilled to have contributed a chapter in Nourished titled “Working With Horses to Develop Secure Attachment”. In this chapter we offer theory as well as a case study discussing how attachment wounds can be brought into awareness, gently explored, and healed through authentic engagement with equines.
We ventured not only into the cognitive aspects of attachment, but the embodied ones as well – for much of our relational patterns are held in the body. As this NL community knows, being in relationship with horses is a unique opportunity to transform ways of being, even when deeply held in the unconscious body.
If you are a practitioner in the field of equine assisted services, this is a chapter, and a book, not to be missed!
Psst…when you order the book through the links in this article, we earn a small affiliate commission. This transparency is important to us, but since we contributed to the book, you know we recommend it whole-heartedly!
Recently, I was watching the inspiring Netflix series Queer Eye, a heartwarming reality show that focuses on supporting people in reconnecting with themselves. This year Queer Eye filmed in my hometown, Austin Texas!Double joy!
Not only did I get to see humans being good to humans, but they were my dear Austin humans!
Imagine my excitement when on episode 7, “Snow White in Central Texas”, the Queer Eye team introduced us to an incredibly selfless woman named Jaime who runs an animal rescue, “Safe in Austin” – and lo and behold, one of the wonderful opportunities presented to her in the episode was a chance to participate in Equine Assisted Learning with a Natural Lifemanship trained professional!Let me explain.
About the cast of Queer Eye
On Queer Eye there are five cast members, each responsible for a different aspect of the makeover process.One of the cast members, Karamo Brown, a former social worker, always helps the guest of honor get in touch with the emotional aspects of the makeover.
In this episode, Karamo took Jaime to a resort called Miraval, for rest and relaxation, as well as an equine experience with the talented Leigh Wright! Leigh has been learning with Natural Lifemanship since 2019 and her understanding of our approach is made clear in her facilitation of Jaime’s session.
A quick recap of what Natural Lifemanship does
At NL, we teach professionals a principle-based approach to Equine Assisted Services, based on the science of relationships, that can be integrated into their work with clients.
At the beginning of her session, Jaime was introduced to several horses and encouraged to feel into choosing which horse she wanted to work with. This is an approach NL advocates for, as it allows a real connection to begin to unfold between horse and human that is fully of their own making.Rather than Leigh choosing a horse for Jaime, Jaime got to experience the emotional process of choosing for herself.
Once chosen, Jaime and her horse entered a round pen in order for both to move freely while the two got to know each other.
Freedom of movement is so important for both the horse’s and Jaime’s regulation, as well as a part of freedom of choice – a fundamental principle of Natural Lifemanship.
Jaime and the horse both needed to be able to move into and out of proximity of one another in order to take care of themselves, regulate, and make choices.Jaime described how in her life she cared for everyone else, often putting herself last.Leigh encouraged Jaime to practice “making a request”.
What makes this unique to NL?
In Natural Lifemanship, making a request is the crux of the work. While it is enjoyable and often soothing to be near a horse and ask for very little (except perhaps allowing petting!), it is when we decide to make a clear request that vulnerability enters the equation.This is when we begin to really feel the sensations and emotions of what it means to be in a relationship.
When we ask for something, we are allowing the other to have an impact on us, we are communicating a need, and have to wait for the response.To do so, without assuming control of the whole dynamic, can feel daunting and bring up powerful feelings.
As I watched Jaime navigate this truth for herself, I was struck by how impactful this moment can be.Leigh offered kind and empathic support, while also observing Jaime’s difficulties to bring them into her awareness.As they continued, Leigh also suggested that Jaime might try asking for space – using the word “detachment”.Considering what I learned earlier in the episode about Jaime taking on the weight of the world and leaving her own care at the absolute bottom of her list – I thought this was another powerful insight from Leigh.
Diving deeper into “connected detachment”
Jaime really did not want to ask for “detachment” – the word coined by Natural Lifemanship to describe the aspect of a relationship that requires some structure and separation, while still maintaining an internal sense of connection (rather than constant nurture and physical closeness).
Detachment is often difficult for people (and horses!) because when we create space between us, we have to trust that our connection can still be strong.Jaime bravely practiced this in her session, and with Leigh’s warm support, she was able to ask for space and still maintain a connection!Confidence lit a smile on Jaime’s face afterwards!
In this small amount of time together, Jaime felt, in her body, what it meant to make a request of others and ask for space when needed – all without hurting the relationship she had begun with her horse.It was eye-opening for her.A beginning, of course, but a good beginning!
While Leigh has studied other models and uses her own blend of approaches, her integration of Natural Lifemanship principles into her work was a pleasure to see.
Way to go, Leigh!!!
You can integrate the NL approach into your life and practice
What we teach at NL is not a specific series of techniques or activities or interventions. Learning Natural Lifemanship means learning principles and the science of relationships so that you can integrate it into your practice in the way that best serves you and your clients.
Want to learn more about Natural Lifemanship and the principles used in Queer Eye? We would love to connect with you!Registration for the Fundamentals of Natural Lifemanship opens soon!
Thank you, Leigh, for your poignant demonstration of an Equine Assisted Learning session!
Thank you, Queer Eye, for bringing the power of Equine Assisted Activities to the public!
Want to support the incredible work of Safe in Austin?
On August 7th, 2010, Tim and I were married.We had a sunrise wedding at my family’s ranch in the Texas Panhandle.It was outside on a plateau, overlooking a beautiful canyon, so sunrise was about the only time of day we could lessen the chances of enduring ridiculously high and relentless winds––the kind that blows houses over the rainbow, twirls wedding veils into a wadded up mess, and wreaks havoc on a sundry of other wedding delights.
We did our first dance horseback to a country song called I Run to You, and I almost fell from Zeus, my trusted steed.We shared a communion of coffee and homemade biscuits with friends and family during the ceremony.We then had tequila sunrises and a delicious chuck wagon breakfast, prepared by a dear friend.The day was perfect!
It is practically impossible to think about our wedding and engagement, without thinking about our business, our first “baby.”The weeks prior to our wedding we built a website, (with the help of my brother in law), trained our horse, Aries, for the aforementioned wedding dance, set up an LLC, and. . . oh yes––planned a wedding!We simply can’t separate ourselves or our relationship from Natural Lifemanship and the idealized belief system at its foundations.
Many years ago, Tim and I wrote the statement you will read below.Natural Lifemanship has grown well beyond the two of us, but these beliefs are the hands that continue to hold us personally and professionally.They are still the touchstone of Natural Lifemanship’s principle-based and process-oriented approach to therapy and learning.
Moments after we were officially married the wind arrived––and, truly, it has been a whirlwind ever since!
We are terribly imperfect at practicing what we believe and what we teach. I guess this is why we so deeply believe in the power of grace and repair.Tim and I are quite complicated human beings, with all kinds of baggage, and a fly on the wall would attest to how inadequate our best is in the hardest of times. Actually, our closest family and friends can attest to this wholeheartedly, I’m sure.
We are so very different from each other, and there is a rub that doesn’t work each and every moment but does seem to work out most days.So much has changed for us in the last 11 years, but what we believe has not, and our daily choice to try our darndest to care more about connected relationships than anything else remains.
The statement below is found in The Natural Lifemanship Manual, which is intended to serve as a resource to support students’ learning as they move through our Fundamentals and Intensive trainings.It is also what our certification students agree to before they complete certification in Natural Lifemanship.
As Tim and I reflect on how these beliefs have affected our life, our mission, and our passion, we feel infinitely blessed to be part of a community that chooses to attest to such a statement––and humbled by the many people whose work and heart have contributed to our mission––and by each moment’s grace to change, grow, and, above all, connect.
NL Ethics and Beliefs Statement
Committing to weeks, months, or years of learning with a specific teaching organization is also the forming of a new relationship. It is our hope that you do so with a clear understanding of who we are and why we do what we do. Whether you intend to become certified, or are just trying out a training, it is important to us that we “orient” you to The Natural Lifemanship Institute so we begin on a foundation of trust. We want to be in good relationship with you! With that in mind, we have written an NL Ethics and Beliefs Statement that we feel answers the ‘who we are’ and ‘what we do’ question from an existential and ethical standpoint. This is the big picture of Natural Lifemanship and it is a commitment embraced by our certified practitioners. It is our goal that students learning with us will come to understand and integrate these ethics into their own way of being in the world. This statement is included in this manual so that you may know who we are and what we stand for.
As a person certified in Natural Lifemanship I attest to the following:
I believe the most important thing in life is connected, attuned relationships with self, others and the world around me (including relationship with animals, my Creator as I understand him or her, and nature, the universe, etc.) All of life’s healing happens in the context of attuned relationships based on trust, mutual respect, appropriate intimacy, and partnership.
I believe strength is found in vulnerability, and that conflict in relationships can be an opportunity for growth that can strengthen the relationship. Therefore, regardless of the task or activity, a connected relationship with self and others is always the goal.
I believe that a partnership can happen when each party seeks to control or manage themselves only, and true partnership happens when each party appropriately manages themselves for the good of the relationship. I believe that if it’s not good for both, it’s eventually not good for either and that a one-sided relationship is damaging to both parties.
Regardless of what is going on around me, it is possible to control what is happening inside of me.Relationship with self (what we sometimes call self-regulation or my way of being in the world), quite simply, flows out of relationship with others, because effective self-regulation is born out of safe co-regulation.Relationships are then built on the foundation of relationship with self.
Therefore, WHO I am is more important than WHAT I do. I realize that I can’t teach someone to do something I can’t do. Likewise, I can’t teach someone to live a life that I don’t live. As a result, personal growth becomes the foundation for ethical practice.
The most important thing is to do my best to do what is right for my client. I understand that what is best may not be what is easiest. In order to do what is right for my clients, I have to know myself – my biases, my blind spots, and at the moment, I have to be connected with my own reactions and impulses so I can filter them. Only then can I do what is actually, truly best for my client.
The team approach in NL affords me the opportunity to model a relationship where the NL principles play out and provides a space for the therapy or learning team to notice and discuss biases and blind spots. It is, therefore, my ethical obligation to foster a healthy relationship with my therapy partner. Clinical consultation is a regular part of ethical practice, especially if I am, at times, working alone in therapy sessions.
I believe animals are sentient beings, who have relational and thinking capabilities, and can be capable of partnership if given the chance to develop.
I believe that a good principle is a good principle regardless of where it is applied. Therefore, all NL principles apply equally to relationship with self and others. The relationship between horse and human is a real relationship in which relational patterns emerge, just like in any other relationship.All NL principles apply to this relationship as well.
When NL certified, I become part of a community of individuals who are deeply committed to connection with self and others, and who strive for connected relationships the way nature intended. As such, this community of practitioners strives to foster relationships that bring about healing for self, others, and the animal partners with which we work.
We invite you to join our growing NL community where transformation, healing, and purposeful relationships take place.Learning how to best serve your clients and communities is a lifelong and deeply fulfilling journey – we would be honored to join with you on this path.
Registration for the next Fundamentals of Natural Lifemanship training opens in September!This is our most entry level training and is required for all certification paths. We hope you can join us!
“Being human is about being in the right kinds of relationships,” said John A. Powell, author and civil rights scholar. He was speaking about social justice and the central importance of living from our heartfelt connection with other beings. At the most basic level, feeling genuine care helps us get along with each other. And from a larger perspective, the felt sense of connection—with ourselves, with others, with animals, with nature, with our conception of spirituality or the divine—is what brings meaning to our lives. At the end of life, when we look back, achievements and material things will matter much less than the quality of our relationships, our lived experiences of love and care.
In fact, the quality of our relationships affects not just our sense of meaning but also our psychological and physiological health. As the well-established field of Attachment Theory teaches, we need to form safe, caring bonds with other beings in order to have healthy nervous systems. Secure attachment creates neural pathways that are crucial for the functioning of our brains. In other words, our biology is intertwined with the natural yearnings of our heart. As mammals, we are born with an innate desire to connect. We yearn for experiences of trust and mutual understanding. Connected relationships are central to our wellbeing.
Natural Lifemanship: A Model for Building Connection
The field of trauma therapy offers insights that can help all of us heal and thrive. Trauma is notoriously difficult to treat, because it lives not only in our conscious mind but deeper in our nervous system, in parts of the brain responsible for basic survival. We can’t will our way—or talk our way—out of it. Instead, we need to understand and heal the functioning of the nervous system. Horse-assisted therapies can help people regulate those deep, surivival-focused brain regions and reintegrate the relational parts of the brain. Much of trauma happens in relationship, and trauma can most powerfully be healed in genuine, connected relationship with another.
Natural Lifemanship is a model of equine-assisted learning and psychotherapy that fosters healing through connected relationships. The model combines neurobiology with sound relationship principles. Clients learn the principles by working with horses and then can translate those principles to all other relationships in their lives. Natural Lifemanship heals and integrates the brain, develops self-awareness and self-regulation, and empowers people to build the kinds of connected relationships we all need.
I came to Natural Lifemanship from a background of psychology, horsemanship, and my own trauma history. As a rising young star, I lost my showjumping career to traumatic injuries. Although I never returned to the big sport, I fought my way back to being able to ride and work with horses again. In recent years I’ve raised and developed young horses. Natural Lifemanship has helped me to work with horses who’ve had difficult experiences. It has also helped me to heal myself, strengthen my relationships, and build transformative new ones.
Beyond just therapy, Natural Lifemanship is a way of living—a guiding mindset for how we relate to people, animals, ourselves, and the world around us.
The Neurobiology of Survival
The brain of a horse works similarly to the brain of a traumatized person: the lower, survival-focused brain regions are largely running the show. Horses’ brains are naturally built this way. Compared to humans, horses have a small neocortex, the region responsible for thinking. In herd life, only the lead mare needs to do much thinking. Horses are prey animals. They mainly need their fight-or-flight reflexes, and they need to follow the herd. Survival is the horse’s essential skill, and it’s governed by the lower brain.
With trauma, a person becomes stuck in those same lower brain regions. The fight-or-flight response actually has a third component: it’s fight, flight or freeze. When a person is stuck in these states, the survival regions of the brain get over-exercised, the nervous system becomes dysregulated, and the person has trouble regaining internal calm.
That over-exercising of the lower brain leads to two things, anatomically: it builds up the lower brain regions and simultaneously sacrifices connections to the upper brain regions, where thinking and emotional connection happen. There’s a use-it-or-lose-it phenomenon with brain pathways. A traumatized person has trouble with self-regulation because many of the cross-brain connections that allow us to consciously calm our survival reflexes have been lost—or in the case of childhood trauma, perhaps never created.
These primitive lower brain regions may help us survive in life-threatening situations, but they do not serve us well in most day-to-day experiences of modern life. When we’re stuck in survival mode long-term, it wreaks havoc on our health, happiness, and relationships.
From Surviving to Thriving
The good news is the brain has plasticity, and new connections can form. The most effective trauma therapy first regulates the lower brain and then engages the upper brain regions, thereby forming new pathways, helping all parts of the brain to integrate with each other for healthy functioning. The survival-focused brainstem needs to settle before higher brain regions like the limbic system and neocortex can be engaged in relationship-building activities. Therefore, understanding the brain is a crucial part of helping people heal. It can also make all the difference in communicating with others in our daily lives.
Natural Lifemanship 101: We need to understand which part of the brain a horse or person is responding or reacting from. Responding is associated with calm, integrated thinking, while reacting is habitual and reflexive. This understanding is important because if someone’s in survival mode and we try to reason with their thinking brain, they’re simply not there to receive what we say. A child having a meltdown won’t respond to reason and logic because they can’t. You can’t talk someone out of a panic attack. A scared horse cannot learn.
The Natural Lifemanship model offers specific tools to help regulate the lower brain regions. Certain types of sensory input and movement—namely, rhythmic and repetitive—have been found to soothe the nervous system. Think of a steady heartbeat, rocking a baby, taking a walk, watching snow fall, or listening to ocean waves. We can learn to use these regulating tools for ourselves, and we can offer them, in appropriate contexts, to help others settle.
First and foremost, to connect with others we need to become aware of our own internal state. Horses instinctively sense our physiology and give us direct and honest feedback: if we’re dysregulated, we won’t feel like a safe person for the horse to connect with. Do the same outward gestures with a different internal state, and you’ll get a completely different response from the horse. Similarly, humans respond to these biological signals without even realizing it. When people react to us in ways we didn’t expect, the state of our nervous system can sometimes play a role.
On the positive side, when we develop self-awareness and self-regulation, we have a reassuring effect on those around us. This is partly because we feel the electromagnetic signals from each other’s hearts. When our heart is rhythmic and regulated—in a state called coherence that corresponds with a regulated brain—we broadcast calm and safety. To form healthy relationships, we need to be able to access this state. And the feeling of connection, in turn, helps us regulate; the cycle reinforces itself in a deeply healing way.
In the Natural Lifemanship model of therapy and learning, the client gradually builds a healthy, connected relationship with the horse by learning to self-regulate, make requests of the horse, recognize the horse’s signals, and respond appropriately. The horse is seen not a tool or a metaphor but as what he actually is: a real, living being with whom we can form a real relationship. Communication with a horse is visceral and genuine. When it goes well, there is simple, genuine pleasure. Connection is inherently rewarding for both human and horse.
In this work, the principles learned while working with the horse apply to all other relationships, with both humans and animals. These sound relationship principles hold true across all contexts. Once we’ve internalized them, they can provide us with a source of inner guidance to help us navigate whatever situations arise.
Natural Lifemanship 101: A good principle is a good principle no matter where it is applied. In other words, whether the context is therapy, learning, horsemanship, parenting, marriage, or team building at work, the guiding ideas are the same. For example, self-awareness and self-regulation are crucial to the health of every relationship. And as you read each new principle introduced in this article, you might pause to consider how it applies to relationships you’ve experienced—and how it might offer guidance for navigating any challenges in your life.
The story of one horse in my care illustrates the transformative power of connection. I worked with him over the course of several months and saw his wellbeing and pattern of relating to humans completely change for the better. The principles of Natural Lifemanship guided my approach, in a way that went far beyond any traditional horsemanship training.
His name was Nabo. He was a shiny auburn bay with fine graceful limbs and a big, expressive eye. He arrived at my barn fearful about riding. At the previous barn, they said he had too much blood—too sensitive, too fast, too hard to slow down. It seemed to me they’d trained him with controlling methods, thereby pushing him into survival mode. When I led him to the mounting block, he’d tense his body and widen his eyes in alarm. The bottom line was, if he didn’t feel safe and at ease, I wasn’t going to get on his back against his will. We needed to start over.
Natural Lifemanship 101: If it’s not good for both, it’s eventually not good for either. Any relationship that involves control, manipulation, advantage-taking, or one-sidedness is not a healthy relationship. When one party’s needs and wishes are continually sacrificed, both parties lose in the end. If we harm others or allow ourselves to be harmed, we do not thrive. A relationship on those terms cannot succeed.
In healthy relationships, we choose to do what’s right for the relationship, and we ask the other to do the same. Compromises can happen, certainly. But on the whole, we honor the needs on both sides.
Nabo needed a new kind of relationship with humans—one in which his needs and preferences mattered and there was mutual trust. It was time to do the work of repair.
Every day, I’d take him to the round pen and let him loose—no halter, nothing on his body except wraps to protect his legs. Using my body energy, gestures, and voice, I began to communicate with him. By sending energy toward him in different ways, I asked him to follow me, or stand quietly with me, or move calmly around the edge while we stayed mutually attuned. In this setting, he didn’t feel controlled in any way. I was simply making requests, and he could choose how to respond. When he began to understand and choose to cooperate, it felt good to both of us. This was the beginning of connection. And his sense of freedom and choice was central to the process.
Natural Lifemanship 101: You don’t want to take away the other’s sense of choice. When you come across too forcefully, the other doesn’t feel safe. They might comply with you because they feel they have to, but that’s not healthy. Compliance is a submissive action; it’s reflexive and robotic, arising from the lower brain’s survival instinct. What you want instead is cooperation, which is willing and freely chosen, arising from a whole-brain process in which the other calmly figures out what to do. In other words, control is not connection; willing cooperation is.
Importantly, giving someone choice means they might not always do exactly what we want. And we need to understand that’s part of relationship-building. It doesn’t mean we give up on our request; usually it just means we keep working on it in a healthy way. This is what’s needed if we want to build a good relationship.
A crucial thing in my work with Nabo was that I needed to make sure not to get offended by any of the “wrong” answers he tried. If I made a request and he reacted in a way I didn’t want, that was okay; he was just trying to figure things out. I simply needed to maintain my own regulation and keep asking—and wait until he started to get it. Once he tried a “right” answer, I’d immediately release the pressure, telling him, Yes, that’s it! Releasing the pressure, in other words, means I’d stop making my request—in this case, usually by taking a step back, so that I was no longer gesturing or sending energy in his direction. It’s essential to release the pressure as soon as cooperation happens, because that’s how the other knows they’re doing the right thing.
Natural Lifemanship 101: Release the pressure when the other cooperates. This is crucial. Releasing the pressure lets the other feel that they’ve done the right thing. And conversely, think of how unpleasant it feels when you do the right thing and someone keeps nagging, holds a grudge over a misunderstanding, or doesn’t forgive a mistake. That makes for a bad relationship. As an everyday example, if you’ve asked your teenager repeatedly to take out the trash and they finally do it, just say thank you. If you continue to pester them because you’re upset it took too long, that doesn’t help. You can work on improving communication in the future, but for now, give them a break and appreciate that they chose to cooperate.
Similarly, with Nabo, I needed to be patient and reward every attempt at cooperation. He was mostly in his survival brain, and it would take some time to change that pattern.
At first, Nabo was flighty. He’d hear a car in the driveway and take off across the pen, high-headed, almost frantic. In these moments I knew he’d lost his awareness of me. He’d run away from the noise and then back toward it, wide-eyed, snorting, tail streaming. I had to make myself big and flap my arms, telling him, Hey, I’m here too, don’t run me over. I was asking him to respect my needs even though he was upset; as the NL principles teach, letting him do things that were harmful to me wouldn’t help the relationship either. Gradually, I’d ask him to settle down and bring his attention back to me. When he seemed regulated enough, I’d ask him to come stand with me. Finally he’d take a breath. His eye would soften. He’d nuzzle me with his muscular, whiskery lip.
One day I had him loose in the indoor arena, a larger space, and we heard a horse gallop across the stable yard. (It had obviously escaped from its humans). The sound triggered his sense of alarm, and he took off at a high-headed canter. But something was different this time. He kept glancing at me, checking in. I kept my energy quiet, trying to project a sense of calm. And then he seemed to make a decision. He slowed his pace, trotted over to me, and stopped. I hadn’t asked him to come to me yet, but he seemed to be asking: Could I stand with you and try to calm down? He seemed to realize he felt better that way. Connection felt good to both of us, and he had internalized that knowledge. He took a deep breath and stayed by me.
After that, he was different. When we were in the pen, he might spook at a noise, but he’d settle quickly. He was learning to self-regulate. The connection between us was helping him learn it. Soon we reached a point where he’d hardly spook at all. He wasn’t getting triggered anymore. We could maintain our connection while I asked him to follow me, stand still while I walked around him, or walk, trot, and canter around the pen, moving between the paces as I raised or lowered my body energy. We were so attuned all I had to do was shift my gaze from his barrel (where my leg would be if I were riding) to his haunches (which he knew meant I wanted him to follow me) and he’d immediately come to me.
It was a warm, companionable feeling, experienced deep in the core of my body. Out there in the sun and wind, with this powerful, delicate, shining horse, communicating with energy alone: my heart felt tender and alive. A sense of peace and trust resonated between us. This was the sweet spot, the ongoing goal of our work: this powerful felt sense of connection, the key to overcoming Nabo’s fears.
Natural Lifemanship 101: Regardless of the task or activity, connection is always the goal. Connection is what it’s all about, the basis for all successful relationships. In any setting, if we get too task-focused, we tend to become tense and disconnected from the relational parts of our brain, which can undermine our success. On the other hand, when we learn to stay in tune with how we’re relating to others, our relationships improve and we get better outcomes in whatever we’re doing.
With Nabo, the next step was to work through his fear about riding. Now that we had such a beautiful connection, we could begin to approach this challenge. My task was not simply to get on his back, but rather to maintain our connection and build trust around riding, so he could learn to feel comfortable. I would need to break the process down into pieces he could manage.
I knew the mounting block would be a trigger for him. First, I brought the block into our round pen so we could start to work through his fearful associations. When he saw it, he immediately tensed and lost our connection. He was back down in his survival brain. Gently, gradually, I asked him to reconnect with me—to settle and bring his thinking brain back online—and practice what he knew. I wasn’t trying to use the block to get onto his back. I simply wanted him to learn he could still feel safe and connected, even with the mounting block nearby.
He began to learn the mounting block wouldn’t lead to scary things. Still, in order not to overwhelm him, I removed the block from the pen and introduced the idea of riding in a different way. I’d ask him to follow me to the fence, then I’d stand on the bottom rail, pressing my hand on his back. If he tensed, I waited for him to relax and then stepped down—releasing the pressure, telling him, Yes, that’s right, you’re doing well. Throughout all this, he still got to choose. He was free to walk away from me; I used no force or tools of control. If he wasn’t comfortable, I wasn’t getting on. I asked him to work with me, to see if we could sort out his fears together. We had to trust each other. Only when he stayed relaxed would I step one rail higher or add weight to his back. In this way, we progressed to the point where I could climb on bareback while he remained completely at ease.
The connection we formed changed Nabo’s life. He was no longer traumatized and fearful. He could enjoy being with his human. He could express a need and find that it mattered. And he could learn to do the right thing for the relationship, too. His demeanor and behavior changed because his brain changed. As he learned a new way of relating, he built new neuropathways that allowed him to regulate and connect.
Connection in Everyday Life
A connected relationship is one in which both parties choose to do what’s right for the relationship, and those choices are made freely and willingly. To reach this level of attunement, both parties need to make requests and listen to each other. Connection is built; it doesn’t just magically happen. You can’t fake a true, deep, safe connection. It has to be real. When we experience genuine connection, we feel it viscerally. It’s an internal, felt sense: that warmth, presence, peace and attunement; the feeling of being fully alive and at home in the moment and with each other. That’s what Nabo and I both experienced as we built our relationship together; that feeling itself was a much greater reward than any carrots or sugar cubes I could have fed him. And I can still feel our connection now, when I think back on the memory.
Natural Lifemanship 101: In healthy relationships, the felt sense of connection remains whether the relationship partner is physically present or not. We can cultivate that internal felt sense so that it stays with us even across distance. When we’re truly healthy, we carry the feeling within us rather than depending on the constant reassurance of physical proximity.
Working in the round pen, many people and horses feel more secure when they’re next to each other. Often people find it hard to ask a horse to walk away and circle the edge of the pen. They might say they “feel bad” when asking the horse for physical space, as if they’re being cruel. Some horses react with discomfort as well. But in order to have strong relationships, we need our sense of connection to remain whether we’re near or far. We need to feel secure in our care for each other. Just the short distance of the round pen’s space builds this capacity. We can feel deeply connected even when we’re apart.
Connection across distance applies to many aspects of our daily lives. For example, in a healthy relationship, spouses need to feel connected with each other even when one is traveling. Children just starting school may feel fearful about separating from a parent—but ideally, children learn to carry the feeling of the bond within them, even when they’re away from parents during the day. My Natural Lifemanship colleague recently got a note from her three-year-old daughter that said, “I really miss you today. I’m gonna love you when I’m at school.” These words, to me, reflect a parent consciously working with her child to develop an internal sense of connection.
The idea of connection across distance also applies to grief. Death is, in a way, the ultimate distance. When we lose someone we love, touching into our internal felt sense of connection with that person can help us heal. We can learn to feel the tender warmth, the deepest comfort of our hearts, even when someone is gone. Grief is still enormously painful, but the feeling of connection inside us cannot be taken away. This is essentially what it means to carry someone in our hearts: the blessings of love they brought to our life are forever part of us.
Spirituality is another form of connection across distance. When we connect with the divine, with nature, with source energy—whichever has meaning to us—we are attuned with something greater than ourselves, an abstract presence we cannot see. This kind of connection is a capacity we can cultivate through practice. It’s also a feeling that can naturally arise when we gaze across the mountains, watch a brilliant sunset, or witness an act of kindness. Something great and beautiful touches our spirit in these moments. Instead of feeling separate and alone, we feel part of something larger. If we bring our awareness to that natural feeling, we can deepen our visceral sense of it—a memory in our body and heart of the power of connection.
All these forms of connection, near and far, afford opportunities for us to develop this internal, felt sense. When we experience deep connection in one relationship, our capacity to cultivate it in others grows.
Natural Lifemanship 101: The way you do anything is the way you do everything. Specifically, our relational patterns are consistent across contexts. When we step into the round pen with a horse, our relational patterns will play out. This also means that whatever we learn through building connection in one setting is what we need to learn. Noticing our own patterns is the first step.
And importantly, as we move through the process of building stronger, more connected relationships, there is another essential teaching we need to keep in mind: mistakes and repair are a crucial part of relationship-building. In other words, we need to give ourselves and others some grace. Despite our best intentions, we will make mistakes. And that’s okay. A relationship that can’t survive imperfection is not a healthy or worthwhile relationship. In fact, mistakes and repair can make our relationships stronger.
Natural Lifemanship 101: We need to trust in our ability to repair, rather than trying to be perfect. Fear of mistakes hinders our ability to relate and thrive. Instead, we need to know we’re safe to be human. Mistakes and repair are part of building strong relationships. Moments of small, accidental damage and disconnection can deepen our relationships when we respond in a certain way: by hearing each other’s needs and making amends. This is the essence of feeling seen and cared for. In this way, we learn to understand and nurture each other through the ever-changing experience of life.
Feeling connected brings out our natural empathy and kindness. In today’s world, we need this work more than ever. Modern society suffers from an epidemic of disconnection. We fight with each other and mistreat the planet. We lose ourselves in devices and cannot even be present in the moment. Many people feel isolated and afraid, living with chronic stress. We’re spending too much time in survival mode.
Connection is the antidote. The work of healing is not just for people with severe trauma; it’s for all of us. We can all benefit from deepening self-awareness and self-regulation. We can all learn to strengthen our relationships with self, others, and the natural world.
For a society living in disconnection, it’s difficult to feel our shared humanity or interdependence with nature. On the other hand, if we can cultivate our own ability to connect, the healing effect ripples outward through everyone in our life. We learn to treat each other with care when we feel genuine connection with each other’s humanness and vulnerability. We learn to treat the earth with respect when we experience the genuine healing power of connection with nature.
We are interconnected with all of life. To fully understand that truth, we need to know the warmth and aliveness of the internal felt sense of connection. We need to carry it with us, at the core of our way of being in the world.
You can see video of Sarah working with Nabo here:
An earlier version of this article originally appeared in the EcoTheo Review.
Feature photo by The Book, LLC, of Sarah and Hurricane in 2007. He was her Grand Prix jumping partner and soul-mate horse. He died in 2014.
Sarah Willeman Doran is a life coach, meditation teacher, and Natural Lifemanship practitioner. A former Grand Prix showjumping rider, she also breeds and develops young horses. She is the author of the blog Grappa Lane, about conscious living, horses, and psychology. She lives in Colorado.
The following is an excerpt from the Natural Lifemanship Manual.Our manual is intended to serve as a resource to support students’ learning as they move through our Fundamentals and Intensive trainings. (The suggested citation is at the end of this article).
Connection is truly the way things are. Whether we are talking about the cosmos, biological systems, ecological systems, sociocultural systems, or family systems, we exist in a world of relationships. The health and vitality of each individual is inextricably tied to the health of his or her connections.
As humans and as mammals, we seek safety and comfort in connection with our families, our tribes and our herds. Connections are meant to be protective and nurturing forces in our lives, especially when we are young and dependent on others for our care. We are biologically primed to desire connection and when it is disrupted, to seek its repair.
Our personal and our collective well-being and healing rest on the powerful, transformative, life-giving experience of connection.
To practice Natural Lifemanship (NL) is to engage in a process that puts connection above all else. The process helps humans and equines overcome the internal resistance to connection that we’ve acquired as a result of the hurts, mis-attunements, and traumas we’ve experienced.
We become defended in relationships when we experience them as abusive, neglectful, or objectifying. To the extent that these defenses are fortified, we find it hard to experience the very thing that we need the most. To be open to connection, we need to feel safe – our nervous systems need to tell us we’re safe.
Being a safe connection for others requires presence, receptiveness, and authenticity. It requires our own regulation so that our nervous systems are sources of co-regulation to others. To practice Natural Lifemanship is to strive for this in all of our relationships, and most definitely in our relationships with our clients and our horses.
From the safety of our connection, our clients become free to explore a connection with their horse and the horse is free to explore the same with their client. As the client learns to become a safe and receptive partner for the horse, their own healing comes about.They experience the healing flow of connection, and importantly, they are able to offer and to experience safety and connection in their human relationships, as well.
In Natural Lifemanship’s process of Trauma Informed Equine Assisted Therapy and/or Learning, TI-EAT/L, (understand our terminology), what happens in sessions doesn’t just stay in sessions.
It transfers by design.
How this works and why it is important will become clear in the pages that follow, as you continue to move through training with us, and as you begin to explore and experience it in your actual relationships with humans and horses, both personally and professionally.
At the Natural Lifemanship Institute, our mission is to help people and animals form connected, trusting relationships to overcome toxic stress and trauma, and to work toward a world where connection and the value of healthy relationships is seen and felt in everything we do.
To begin a journey with us is to commit to the healing of self, your clients, your communities, and your horses – the ripple effect if staggering!We would be honored to embark on this journey with you.