Navigating the New Normal – Putting One Foot in Front of the Other

Navigating the New Normal – Putting One Foot in Front of the Other

This is a letter Michael Remole, NL trainer, recently sent to his clients.  We were touched.  We related, and we felt more connected to our community.  We hope you feel the same way.  Thank you Michael for your thoughts, your kindness, and your dedication to genuine connection.


As an empath, a business owner, and a mental health professional, there are so many pieces of this COVID-19 plan that are quite difficult to fully address and properly articulate.  In short, my heart is broken.  


My heart breaks as I put on my mask and head out to greet your child.  I try hard to smile under this mask and show the excitement with my eyes, yet it is not the same.  I can feel the glances of “are you going to make my child wear a mask?” and “you believe this stuff?” and “it’s about time you meet in person again.”  My heart breaks as our young clients try to make sense of why a “safe place”—a place where we promote authenticity and a metaphorical mask free zone now requires a mask to keep us safe.  I cringe as I watch myself and our client fight our masks as they slide down our face, get into our eyes, and muffle our words.  It’s not the same, and I battle wondering whether telehealth was better than this awkward clumsy in-person session.  But I have to remind myself that connection is on a continuum and this IS connection, even if it feels awkward.  


My heart breaks as I watch your child touch doorknobs and grab buckets or latches.  I ask myself a million questions…did we wipe that down properly since the last client touched it?  Did the client touch their face after?  I pray that my clients don’t feel me holding my breath, but I know they do.  My biggest fear is not me catching the virus, but what if a decision I made to open up to in-person sessions causes your family to be directly impacted by this virus.  I ask myself a million times, “did I make the right decision?”  We want to help people and I pray that this is somehow helping.  


My heart is also very heavy for everyone given the way this virus is wreaking havoc on all areas of our lives—most importantly our mental health.  I hear the hurt in your voices and I feel the fear about the current state of things, as well as the fear of the future when we talk.  I know how desperately we all want answers and we want to fix this.  As an empath, one of my greatest gifts is to feel what you are feeling.  Right now, it is as if the volume to my empathy is blasting to a deafening volume.  Daily I am faced with the question, do I shut it off, do I figure out some way to turn down the volume, or do I learn to live with the volume blaring?  As I think about that, I know the pros and cons of each decision.  I often find myself paralyzed by all of the various ways for me to move forward.


Over the last two months, I have shared with clients about ambiguous loss and how it impacts people.  We’ve talked (I’ve even taught) on the idea that we are all grieving various losses and that each one of us has experienced loss on various levels.  What I did not realize was that coming back to in-person sessions would be what made me see more of the ambiguous losses.  


Lately, I’ve been working on the things I can do for myself personally that help me move toward a healthier version of myself.  I returned to running during this time after one of Dr. Perry’s office hours with Dr. Brandt.  She talked about rest, refuel & reflect.  Something struck me that day and I have logged over 100 miles in just a few weeks. I have been running the same road every day, but varying the distances.  This past Monday I decided to do one of my shortest runs and go a different route.   Interestingly, it was insane how difficult it was. It felt as if I were running a marathon.  My body did not have any problem with the mileage.  My brain did because it was new; it wasn’t what I was used to and I did not have those normal benchmarks of how far I had run.  This is similar to what’s been happening with COVID-19 for me.  I’ve been on the same route (telehealth) for a while now. Even though it’s had its own challenges, it’s what I know.  This week, we embarked on a new route by adding some in-person sessions.  Mentally, it has thrown me for a loop.  


 During my runs, I’ve been listening to music and an older song from FUN came on my playlist, “put one foot in front of the other.”  That has been on repeat in my head.  So today, I am taking one foot and I am placing it in front of the other.  I do not have the answers and I cannot fix this situation.  As an agency, we will continue to strive to provide exceptional services, despite having to wear masks and concerns over germs.  As an individual, I will work hard to identify those areas that are out of my control and what areas I can control.  And together with my clients, we will navigate this new normal and work hard to ensure that the physical masks do not hinder what we both need—genuine connection.

Defining Relationship Logic®

Defining Relationship Logic®

Sara Sherman is the founder of and a coach at Discovery Horse

Our business, Discovery Horse, has been doing a large volume of work in our community in MN. As our circle of influence grew it became essential that I have a succinct definition of Relationship Logic (the ground component of Natural Lifemanship) that I could share in our conversations with the community. I grabbed some language from the NL website and wrote a few words of my own. The following is the result of that endeavor. I hope it can be as helpful to you and your communities as it has been to mine. There are 2 versions. The first is a little wordier and clinical.  I use this one for conversations with other mental health professionals and their agencies. The 2nd version is shorter and more easily digestible.

More in-depth version:

Relationship Logic® (RL) was developed by Natural Lifemanship and offers us a way to bring sound, consistent principles to the relationships in our lives. RL teaches that building attuned, connected relationships is always the primary goal from which other desirable outcomes follow. RL offers the neuroscience that empowers us to identify relationship patterns while maintaining the belief that our brains can change through new and healthy experiences. The ability to identify those patterns in a way that informs both compassionate understanding and a clear path to healthy change is an essential step toward healing, growth, and transformation. The principles we teach are the principles we practice and model in all of our relationships. We allow simple relationship principles to guide us as we work to transform these patterns. Behavioral patterns, especially those acquired in the early stages of development, are largely subconscious. They exist in the body and manifest as automatic reactions to situations we encounter each day. They become habitual. The way to change old patterns that no longer serve us is to practice something new. RL principles may be practiced in relationships with other people, and even within our relationships with ourselves, our families, animals, and communities. As these are practiced both during sessions and in daily life, new healthy patterns for relationships begin to replace old patterns that no longer serve us well. Connected and attuned relationships lead to healthy development; they contribute to healing at any age and enhance well-being.

Shorter Version:

Relationship Logic® (RL) was developed by Natural Lifemanship and offers us a way to bring sound, consistent principles to the relationships in our lives. RL teaches that building attuned, connected relationships is always the primary goal from which other desirable outcomes follow. RL offers the neuroscience that empowers us to identify relationship patterns while maintaining the belief that our brains can change through new and healthy experiences. The ability to identify these patterns in a way that informs both compassionate understanding and a clear path to healthy change is an essential step toward healing, growth, and transformation. The principles we teach are the principles we practice and model in all of our relationships. The way to change old patterns that no longer serve us is to practice something new. RL principles may be practiced in relationships everywhere; with ourselves, our families, our work teams, animals and communities. Connected and attuned relationships lead to healthy development; they contribute to healing at any age and enhance well-being.

Get started on your path with the Natural Lifemanship Institute.

Getting to the “Root” of the Problem

Getting to the “Root” of the Problem

One of our greatest joys at The Natural Lifemanship Institute is hearing how our trainings have opened people’s eyes and transformed their lives. We are occasionally fortunate enough to receive unsolicited blog articles written by folks who have participated in our trainings and who left feeling inspired to reflect and write about their experiences and their realizations. Below is one such article. In it, Fundamentals of NL participant, Debbie Frey, discusses her realizations about trauma, resilience, and the ultimate healing that comes with connection.

Would you like to experience a Fundamentals of NL training? If you’ve already been to a Fundamentals training, would you like to go deeper and sign up for one of our advanced or specialty trainings? Click HERE to view and register for our upcoming trainings.



Getting to the “Root” of the Problem

By Debbie Frey

Picture a seed that’s been planted in soil and is ready to sprout. A seed that gets well-cared for with plenty of water, sunlight and protection grows a strong trunk, plentiful branches, and hardy leaves. But that’s not the case for all seeds – some might not get watered enough, some might get stepped on as a sapling, and some might even be attacked by a disease or swarm of insects later in their life.

These type of traumatic events are going to have an impact on the rest of the tree’s life whether the tree knows it or not. But here’s the thing – something that is traumatic to one tree, might not be as traumatic to the other. For example, maybe two trees get hit by the same disease. The first tree is super healthy and is able to fight off the disease quickly. Or maybe this tree is being carefully watched by an arborist who cares about the tree and has the resources to support it and help it get back to good health. Either way – the disease is more or less a bump in the tree’s road and it moves on. Now the second tree gets the same disease. It has a harder time fighting off the disease due to health issues it has had in the past. It’s just simply not as strong as the first tree and doesn’t know how to deal with this new disease. It’s also not under the watchful eye of someone who appreciates it and wants to see it get better. So it takes a deeper toll on the tree’s overall health.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet – we’re the tree.

Trauma happens to all of us. Problem is some people are wired to deal with trauma better than others. If they were raised in a loving and nurturing home, they might be mentally stronger to deal with it because their brain is well-developed and they can effectively deal with and process the pain. Or maybe they have close family members or friends to reach out to for support, or have the means to get help from qualified doctors, therapists, etc. who can help ensure they stay mentally healthy after the traumatic event. But not everyone is so lucky. Maybe they went through something traumatic as a baby or child (or even in utero). At the time, they didn’t have the means to get help (or even know that they needed it), and the wiring in their brain starts to gets all twisted. It has a cascading effect because it’s never addressed and pretty soon the parts of the brain that should be talking to each other aren’t. As a result it’s harder for them to rationalize, reason and deal with their emotions. And now, when this new traumatic event happens, they simply aren’t wired to deal with it. They might shut down, they might develop addictions and obsessions to deal with what they’re feeling, or they might lash out via anger and even try to hurt someone. These people need someone to teach them the right ways to deal with their feelings and the trauma they’ve experienced. The brain can be rewired, it just takes time, effort and a better understanding of what we as human beings need to get better.

And that’s a huge problem to tackle, especially in a society with a “just fix it” mentality. So we make efforts to prevent and protect – we try to ban guns, we make drugs illegal, we medicate with the ones that aren’t, and we try to raise awareness about mental health issues like PTSD, depression and anxiety. These are all valiant and honorable efforts but as the past has proven, mentally ill people will still find guns, they’ll still commit suicide, they’ll still develop eating disorders and they’ll still do drugs.

So what do we do? How do we fix all the trees?

We need to get to the root of the problem that is the mental health crisis in this country or it’s just going to keep happening. My hypothesis? It’s a side effect of the modern, increasingly disconnected world we live in. Families and social groups are getting smaller and more distanced from each other as we all strive for our (or our nuclear family’s) success. We’re becoming less of a “we” society and more of a “me” one. We’re forgetting how to develop the healthy and connected relationships that’s part of our DNA. Yes, technology has made it really easy to stay “connected” to important people in our lives, but not in the way our body craves. So, if it’s not getting that connection through a human relationship, there’s a good chance it’s going to try to find it elsewhere through other addictions – drugs, food, gambling, etc.

Just because we’ve essentially created our own problem doesn’t mean we’re screwed as a society. This isn’t the first time we’ve done this to ourselves. We all just need to think a little differently. We can’t expect the government, school systems, and healthcare to fix all the problems. They can certainly help, but it’s not going to solve anything until we all realize the severity of the threat. At the turn of the century when automobiles were invented we created a more physically dangerous world. Sure, the government stepped in and created roads and rules but WE had to do something too. We had to be more observant everywhere we went, we had to take our cars into the shop when they needed fixed, we needed to educate our children on safety around cars and the dangers of playing in traffic. We had to change. And change is hard. But we did it anyway. We did it because we knew cars were here to stay and we wanted to create a safe world for us and our children.

So now it’s time to do that again. But this time it’s not a physical danger, it’s a mental one. Time to own up. Time to change. Time to CONNECT.


About the Author:

Debbie rediscovered her love for horses, and also her passion for equine-assisted psychotherapy about five years ago. She was beginning her last (and eventually successful) attempt to recover from the eating disorder she had been fighting for almost ten years. While reading a recovery book one day, the author started talking about a certain mental state that could be called the “essence of passion.” According to the book, when you’re in this state, you’re so fully engaged and focused in an activity that you love — one that’s well matched to your personal skills and gives you a sense of control – that you to lose awareness of time and yourself and it feels like a reward, regardless of the end result of your efforts. Debbie knew right away that for her, this was horses. In the few times she rode while she was sick, she recalled how present she was…which is a challenging feat for someone in the midst of an eating disorder whose mind in constantly racing about food, calories and control. So she decided to get back into riding and soon found it wasn’t the actual riding that was the most healing for her, but rather the relationship she was building with one particular horse, Finn. The mutual trust and connection they were developing was like nothing Debbie ever felt. Not only did she end up buying Finn to continue working on her relationship with him, but it also sparked her desire to learn more about the field of equine-assisted therapy and how/why being around horses has such healing power, especially for those recovering from eating disorders. During her research, she stumbled across Natural Lifemanship and knew immediately this was the methodology for her given the focus on trauma and building a connected relationship with a horse, much like she did with Finn. Since then, Debbie has taken both the Fundamentals and Intensive training in her pursuit of certification. She is currently a PR director at a Fortune 50 company and has intentions to complete her certification and slowly but purposely build her own Natural Lifemanship practice outside of Philadelphia once all the pieces fall into place and her life is at the right stage. Much like her recovery and also her relationship with Finn, she knows this pursuit won’t happen overnight, and that there will be setbacks along the way. But with time and patience, Debbie is confident the Lord will answer her prayers and put her in the right place to pursue her new-found passion.

Self-Sufficiency Has Met Her Match

Self-Sufficiency Has Met Her Match

In December 2017, I attended my first NL Intensive training in Brenham, TX. I’m pretty sure it was day two, which in my experience at these trainings, is when things really start getting stirred up internally. This life lesson came to me in my blind spot. Like a horse’s blind spot, it was right in front of my face (or maybe right behind my rear?). In fact, the only one who could see what was going on was my partner for the weekend.

I was in the round pen with the horse, Indigo (name has been changed for this article), trying to connect through attachment. When we had worked together the day before, we had a pretty quick connection, so I figured it would happen pretty easily again. This was not the case. Indigo was completely ignoring me. So I started to gradually increase my efforts, going from clucking and calling her name, to stomping my feet, to waving my hands in the air, to getting closer and jumping up and down and waving my hands all at the same time.

My partner stopped me (thank goodness!). I walked over to her and took a much needed break from all the jumping and flailing around. She said something simple like, “It seems to me like your energy on the outside does not match your energy on the inside”. At first I shot a quick answer back like, “Really? I feel like all of my energy is as high as it can go! I don’t know what else to do.” And then the thought settled somewhere deep within, and I took a deep breath and looked at her. She was right.

At some point, Tim Jobe had joined the conversation (he has a way of popping in at the just the right moment). He asked something to the effect of, “What might be keeping you from raising your internal energy?” I explained that it felt like there is a line that divides where I feel safe and comfortable to make an “ask” in a relationship and where it feels all together too risky and vulnerable. Tim asked, “What is the risk if you cross that line?” I started to process out loud about how if I gave more energy toward the relationship, what if it wasn’t reciprocated? What if she still kept ignoring me? The fear of losing what connection I did have seemed to outweigh the potential of gaining an even deeper connection. A wave of realization was rushing over me. This, of course, directly correlated to how I often felt in my human relationships.

Then something beautiful happened that I’ll never forget. By this point, I was back to standing in proximity to Indigo. As soon as I acknowledged my true inner feelings to Tim and my partner, Indigo turned and came toward me. She planted herself right there next to me as tears began to steadily stream down my face. I hadn’t even asked her to come over. She chose to all on her own. And all I could do was stand there next to her and let the tears fall freely. I savored that moment with her and all that she “said” to me through her actions.

In a way that only a horse can, she affirmed so many truths for me in this moment. She affirmed that all she wanted was the real me. She didn’t require that I had it all together. She only required that I was being real with myself and with her. It was as if she was saying, “Oh good, you’re truly present with me and now I want to come be with you”. She also affirmed that the experience of a connection like this was totally worth the risk and vulnerability it took to get it.

“Most people believe vulnerability is weakness. But really, vulnerability is courage. We must ask ourselves…are we willing to show up and be seen?”

–Brene Brown

Self-sufficiency has met her match, her name is Vulnerability. It’s only through vulnerability that true connection is experienced. Self-sufficiency may give a false sense of security, but it will forever leave me feeling disconnected from others. Indigo helped me realize that what I want more than independence and self-sufficiency is the sense of being known and accepted for who I am. In order to get this, I have to show up in relationships as my authentic, vulnerable, messy self.

Every day we have the choice. Today I choose vulnerability.


Jamie offers life coaching, both equine assisted and non-equine, to the Central Ohio area. She is dual certified through Natural Lifemanship as a Practitioner and an Equine Professional and is a certified Life Coach through the JRNI Catalyst Coaching Intensive. Her coaching business, Hope Anew, thrives on this motto: Healing Occurs through Purposeful Elements- Art, Nature, Environment, and Well-being. She loves taking creative approaches to helping people on their path to personal growth, as the path to transformation looks different for everyone!

The Ride

The Ride

She feels as if she’s flying, the wind whipping at her face,

The movement underneath her offers peace and grace.

Her eyes tear and tingle by flowing mane and tail, as her horse takes her swiftly up the rocky trail.

His hoofbeats are steady. The rhythm sure and true. It’s something she can count on, a feeling all too new.

Exhausted yet excited she brings him to a walk.  As they both inhale deeply to God she starts to talk.

Her horse soon relaxes, steady on the reins as she speaks to the Lord about her fears and pain.

She screams loudly. Shaking her fist in the air. Wondering boldly does God not even care?

Yet her horse stays steady never missing a beat.  Ears forward and ever ready on his sure and sturdy feet.

As the trail widens and he eases to a trot, the girl looks up and wonders about her sorry lot.

She exhales deeply as she sits across his stride. She is thankful for this moment and is grateful for this ride.

As her burdens are lifted with each clip clop of his gate, she has time to re-examine and to understand her fate.

While people often let her down, look through her greatest need, he has always been her truest friend, this loyal, trusty steed.

He lowers his head and takes a breath, exhales a mighty sigh, and with ears that listen for dangers call, he hears his mistress cry.

She cries for all the worry, the words she’s left unsaid, the anger, fear and furry—emotions she so dreads.

Now, finally spent and empty she turns and rides for home, able to enjoy the quiet and not feeling so alone.

She notices the landscape as if for the first time, the hues of the beautiful sunset, the warmth of the fading sunshine.

Her horse senses the difference and pauses for a bite, no longer feeling anxious he has lost his need for flight.

Together they are a picture standing on this hill and no one else would notice his therapeutic skill. 

 The ease at which he is able to rectify her course,, and there-in lies the beauty of a lone girl on her horse.


This poem is a special contribution from Kelli Adams of the Barnabas Horse Foundation. Thank you Kelli!


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Building Connected Relationships

Building Connected Relationships

By Sarah Willeman

Building Connected Relationships

Horse-assisted psychotherapies show tremendous promise in helping people with trauma, which is notoriously difficult to treat. Trauma 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. Horses can help people regulate those deeper brain regions. Recently I attended a training in one particular therapy model that’s captured my attention. It’s based on healing through connected relationships, beginning with the horse.

The Model

The model is called Natural Lifemanship. I found the name corny at first, but now I get it. Beyond just therapy, this is a way of being in the world—a guiding mindset for building relationships in all areas, with people and animals. The Natural Lifemanship school of therapy is called Trauma-Focused Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (TF-EAP). It’s based on the structure and function of the brain, and it combines neurobiology with sound relationship principles. People learn these principles in the context of their relationship with the horse and can then transfer them to other relationships in their lives.

The founders, Bettina Shultz-Jobe and Tim Jobe, have backgrounds in psychotherapy with at-risk groups and horsemanship with challenging cases, like wild mustangs. (In his job starting mustangs, Tim could take a horse never before touched by a person and be riding him in a couple of hours—and not through coercive techniques.) In other words, the founders have deep expertise with both horses and psychology. And the method goes far beyond just that “magical” quality that contact with horses can have. This work has clear principles, organization, and purpose and has helped a lot of people.

The Neurobiology

A horse’s brain works in similar ways to that of a traumatized person: the lower, survival-focused brain regions are largely running the show. 


The Equine Brain

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 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.


The Human Brain in Trauma

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—the calm that’s necessary for good relationships and physical wellbeing.

That over-exercising of the lower brain leads to two things, anatomically: it builds up the lower brain 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.


Healing the Brain

The good news is the brain has plasticity, and new connections can be formed. The most effective trauma therapy will first regulate the lower brain and then engage the upper brain regions, thereby forming new pathways, helping all parts of the brain to integrate with each other for healthy functioning.

In Natural Lifemanship, it’s crucial to understand which part of the brain a horse or person is responding or reacting from. (Responding is associated with calm, integrated thinking; reacting is habitual and reflexive.) This understanding is important because if someone’s in survival mode and you try to reason with their thinking brain, they’re simply not there to receive what you have to say.

Horses demonstrate this phenomenon. A scared horse cannot learn. The best horsemen understand that training through intimidation will ultimately fail. The horse might robotically comply out of fear, but he’ll eventually make a panicked mistake, or try to run away from the rider’s signals, or become injured from the constant stress. But a horse in a calm, connected state can develop and flourish.

And here’s what gives rise to a powerful road to healing: humans and horses are born with an innate desire to connect. 

We want to form safe, caring bonds with other beings; we yearn for experiences of trust and mutual understanding. In fact, as psychology’s well-established field of Attachment Theory teaches, we need those safe connections in order to have a healthy nervous system. Natural Lifemanship uses the power of emotional connection to heal and integrate the brain of both human and horse.


How Natural Lifemanship Works

Although the principles can be applied in any setting, the primary mode of TF-EAP is working with horses in the round pen.

The person gradually builds a healthy, connected relationship with the horse by learning to make requests of the horse, recognize the horse’s signals, and respond appropriately. 

This process requires the person to become aware of her internal state, which the horse instinctually senses. (You could do the same outward gestures with different internal states and get a completely different reaction from the horse.) Throughout the work, the therapist and horse together help the person develop self-awareness and self-regulation, as new neural pathways are formed.

If the person’s nervous system is too agitated, the therapist can use specific techniques to calm those lower brain regions. Certain types of sensory input and movement—namely, rhythmic and repetitive—have been found to regulate and soothe the nervous system. (Think of a steady heartbeat or rocking a baby.) TF-EAP therapists use a variety of proven methods to help the client regulate her brain from the bottom up; in other words, beginning with the lowest brain region that needs support. The survival-focused brainstem has to settle before higher brain regions like the limbic system and neocortex can be engaged in relationship-building activities.

The Horse-Human Relationship

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.

In Natural Lifemanship, the relationship with the horse is not a metaphor or proxy for a human relationship; rather, it’s a real relationship. Although there’s apparent overlap with many schools of Natural Horsemanship, there are important differences, too. Instead of viewing the human as the horse’s leader and asking the horse to be submissive, Natural Lifemanship seeks a dynamic of mutual respect and trust, with self-regulation and good decision-making on both sides. The horse learns to pause, think and freely choose to do the right thing.

This key conceptual difference arises from the model’s basis in neurobiology. Just as a human can develop new neural pathways, a horse can, too. Interactions with humans offer a unique opportunity to actually build up the horse’s neocortex (and capacity for self-regulation) in a way that wouldn’t happen in herd life.

And because horses are so direct—their responses are immediate and honest—they provide excellent feedback for the person. Horses sense how we really feel. Communication is visceral and genuine. When it goes well, there is a simple, genuine pleasure. Connection is inherently rewarding for both human and horse.

As human and horse begin to co-regulate, they help each others’ nervous systems become calm, integrated and functional. And that quality of mutual benefit is essential for true connection and healing. Natural Lifemanship teaches a profoundly empowering skill: how to develop a strong relationship that’s good for both parties.

These are two key principles:

  • “If it’s not good for both, it’s eventually not good for either.”
  • “Regardless of the task or activity, connection is always the goal.”

These principles can be applied to work with horses and to all relationships with people and animals.

Compliance Versus Cooperation

In order to create connection, we need to understand the difference between compliance and cooperation. Compliance is a submissive action; it’s reflexive and robotic, arising from the lower brain’s survival instinct. On the other hand, cooperation is willing and freely chosen, arising from an integrated, whole-brain process in which the horse calmly figures out what to do.

So how do we tell the difference?

Well, it can be hard, because both can lead temporarily to very similar outward behaviors. Certainly, there are emotional cues, which can be subtle. But the real answer lies in the process.

Asking For Connection

As Natural Lifemanship explains, “Connection is predicated on a request.” In other words, rather than waiting for connection to magically happen, we need to ask for it. And how we ask—or how strongly we ask—has a major impact on the horse’s (or person’s) response.

The teaching is this: neither placate nor coerce. Both those extremes will eventually lead to aggressive behavior from the horse. (And as we talk about the horse here, continue to think of parallels with people.) Between those extremes lies the powerful zone of growth and connection.

An essential part of the process in TF-EAP is learning to make requests in an authoritative, calm manner, using the appropriate amount of pressure.

The Pressure Continuum

In this context, pressure is not a bad thing but just a fact of the universe. Making a request is a form of pressure. The goal is to use the least amount of pressure necessary.

Too little pressure and we’ll get ignored. Too much pressure and we’ll get fight-or-flight-type reactivity. Imagine an example: if someone yells at you when you’d’ve been happy to listen to a kind request, you might be mad (fight) or scared (flight) or too startled to know what to do (freeze). 

Similarly, too much pressure can scare or anger a horse. If he’s in this state and still complies with our immediate request, he’s in his survival brain. This is not freely-chosen cooperation, and it’s not connection.

The appropriate amount of pressure compels the horse to search for an answer but leaves his options open, so he can figure it out and make a voluntary choice. This is the sweet spot of learning and relationship-building.

When we make a request of the horse, he can do one of three things: ignore, resist or cooperate. Herein lies one of the most powerful insights of the work: resistance is not necessarily bad. It means he’s trying to find an answer.

If he tries some wrong answers, we just keep the pressure the same. In order to do so, we need to stay calm and maintain control of our body energy, which can be hard to do when we’re not getting what we want. (Master horsewoman Sarah Dawson described this phenomenon during foal training: “I have to be careful I don’t take offense to any of the wrong answers he tries. He’s just trying to figure it out.”) We need self-awareness and self-regulation in order to succeed at this step.

Then—and this is equally crucial—when the horse begins to find the right answer, we immediately release the pressure. Which probably sounds familiar; the timing of pressure and release is the most fundamental skill of horse training. But you’d be surprised how often people mess this up, with horses and with other humans.

In the Round Pen

So, what does all this look like in the round pen?

With the horse lose in the pen, we apply pressure by raising the energy of our body and directing that energy—movement, sound, internal state—toward the horse. 

We might lift our arm or swing a rope; cluck or make other sounds; walk more energetically or, at the extreme end, stomp our feet. Depending on the sensitivity of the horse, we could get a response from just a small shift in our energy. The specific direction of our energy is crucial, beginning with the direction of our gaze.

And an important note: we need to learn to raise our energy while maintaining a state of calm. Energy and agitation are not the same thing.

In the following series of photos, I’m working with Cruz on attachment, which is a central part of the method. In this case, attachment means I’m asking him to follow me. Here’s what to look for:

The Request

To ask Cruz for attachment, I apply pressure to his hindquarters. (Another difference from typical horse training, which drives the horse forward from the hindquarters. Here, to ask him to move forward I’d apply pressure near the girth region, where my leg would be if I were riding.) To begin with the least amount of pressure, I simply look at his hindquarters, with my torso pointing toward that part of his body. If necessary, I can increase my body energy and movement from there.

The Release

I want him to turn his attention toward me and begin to move in my direction, so those are the things I reward by releasing pressure—specifically, by lowering my body energy/movement/gestures, backing away, softening my voice, or actually turning and walking away. I don’t reward submissive gestures like dropping his head and licking his lips. If he does those things after I’ve released the pressure, that’s all right; it’s a sign of relaxation (along with yawning, sighing or snorting in that particular relaxed horsey way). But if he does those things in response to pressure, it’s a reflexive, lower-brain attempt at submission, which we don’t want.

The Connection

When he attaches and follows me, I let myself really feel the enjoyment of it—which he senses and enjoys as well.

So let’s begin…

Cruz ignores the subtler signals, so I kiss to him and swing the rope to help me raise my body energy:

He searches for an answer by trotting away, but since that’s not what I’m asking, I keep the pressure the same:

As soon as he starts to slow down and shift his attention toward me, I lower the rope and back away. He walks toward me; I release further by turning and walking away, allowing this sense of connection to soothe my own nervous system:

When he reaches me, I stand with him calmly, letting my body energy completely relax. I scratch his withers, praise him, and enjoy hanging out with him:

Then I ask him to follow me again, simply by looking toward his hindquarters and kissing to him. This time, he responds to those cues—much less pressure than before—and attaches:

When his attention wanders, I simply notice and make the request again, using the least amount of pressure necessary:

Again, he attaches, and we both enjoy the connection:

We finish by standing quietly together again. Even when he looks across the round pen, we’re still connected. He’s relaxed, not alarmed by whatever he sees, and he easily brings his attention back to me (notice the tilt of his ear in the second photo):

Photo series by my husband, Philip Richter


Horsemanship Insights

The legendary horseman Bill Steinkraus wrote, “Since the horse will have the last word in any case, we must try to ensure, through skill, tact, and moderation, that this last word is ‘yes.’”

Natural Lifemanship explains what that “skill, tact and moderation” consists of in its most evolved form: it’s about understanding the horse’s mind, including the neurobiology, in order to form a true partnership.

The very best compassionate horsemen might talk about leadership and submission (both Steinkraus and Sarah Dawson sometimes do, eg.) But in practice, the way they relate to their horses aligns closely with Natural Lifemanship principles. The best horsemen do create partnerships of mutual respect and trust. For them, this framework can provide some new language, a subtle shift in thinking, and a brain-based explanation for why their methods work. Plus maybe a few new tools and techniques, in the round pen and elsewhere.

In other cases, horse trainers could benefit from a major paradigm shift that encompasses not only their ideas but also their actions.

The Main Ideas

Submission should not be the goal. We do need to stop the horse from misbehaving because it’s not good for the relationship. But we don’t want the horse to be stuck in his lower, survival-based brain. We don’t want to dominate or control him; we want him to learn to appropriately control himself.

The most effective trainer neither coerces nor placates the horse. Instead, she uses well-timed pressure and release to have a conversation, with a goal of mutual understanding, trust, and connection. To succeed at this, she must be able to regulate her own internal state, in order to help the horse learn to regulate his. She does what’s right for the relationship, and the horse learns to do the same.

When horses learn to slow down, think, and freely choose to do the right thing, they become not only happier but better at their jobs, whether competing or trail-riding for pleasure.

Connecting in Everyday Life

Although Natural Lifemanship arises from a framework of healing trauma, it can help everyone. We all benefit from enhanced self-awareness and self-regulation. We all benefit from relationship-building skills. Through this work, we can learn to stay calm and grounded when faced with challenge; to enjoy more fully those moments of connection with others, and to create the most fulfilling relationships possible with people and animals.

A Few Takeaways

Make connection the priority.

Whether talking with coworkers, walking your dog, or working out a disagreement with a family member, prioritize connection and you’ll get a much better outcome. Rather than fixating on issues, trying to control others, or insisting you’re right, try to connect. This approach leads to considerate listening and more genuine self-expression—which make for better immediate experiences and healthier relationships.

Plus, connection feels good; it cultivates wellbeing for yourself and those around you. As you go about your day, remember you can connect with others even in casual interactions.

Do what’s right for the relationship.

Let this principle guide you in your relationships with people and animals. Do what’s right for the relationship, and ask the other to do the same. This means you’ll communicate what you need and be aware of the other’s needs. You’ll make your own requests and listen to theirs.

Be aware of how much pressure you’re using.

When you communicate with others, be aware of how strongly you’re coming across. Think about what constitutes pressure in a given situation, and be mindful of how you apply it. Use the least amount of pressure necessary to get a response. And make sure you learn how to take the pressure off when you need to! (To learn more about this, you can attend a Natural Lifemanship Training.)

Cultivate your self-regulation.

In order to make use of these ideas, you need to be able to regulate your own system. Like well-traveled paths in the woods, the brain pathways we repeatedly use become our go-to reactions, while the ones we don’t use wither away. Notice your habitual thoughts and reactions. Learn to pause. You might make some subtle shifts that have a profound effect on how you feel and how you relate to others. A daily meditation practice can help.

Natural Lifemanship is both a science and an art. It helps us heal and evolve so that we can, in turn, have a positive impact on those around us. And the bottom line is, it just feels better when we live by these principles.

See more, and meet the horse-celebrity Grappa, at GrappaLane.com.

Find Natural Lifemanship trainings in your area.