Valuable coaching advice straight from the horse’s mouth (and nose)

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I stared up at the large nostrils above me, breathing hot air right into my face. My heart was beating fast and I had a tense grip on the rope which was attached to the side of my horse’s head.

“Get your personal space back,”  Koelle said, giving me instructions from the side of the ring.  “Let the horse know that you have boundaries and he must respect them. Use your energy, not your physical force, to get him to back off.”

I took a deep breath and looked back at the horse.  “OK buddy,” I said in my head, since I had learned from prior attempts that it is quite ineffective to speak English to a horse.  “This is my space and you are in it. I don’t want to get mad, I would just like you to back off a bit.”

He was not convinced.

So in an attempt to motivate him to move, I purred at him and stroked his nose.  This served to make him to move into my space even more, and he tried to push me back by nudging my body with his nose.

“Getting affectionate right now is not setting clear boundaries,” Koelle said. “What he needs to feel safe is for you to clearly demonstrate that you are a strong leader and capable of keeping him safe.”

With deep breaths and some maneuvering of the rope, I was able to get him to back off a bit.

Koelle debriefed with me. “Something in you is not allowing you to set clear boundaries in your personal space. Maybe it is the stage you are in with your business, where you want to grow, but also want to stay back where it is safe.”

“It reminds me of dealing with my son Josh,” I said.

And I suddenly “got” the dance that he and I do on some mornings, as I am trying to get him ready for school and he refuses to comply. Or when I am trying to talk on the phone or read quietly and he demands attention.  My typical reaction is to try to “lovey” him into complying by sweet talking and giving hugs. This nets about as much success as cooing at my giant horse.

So the next day, armed with my new awareness, I was determined to do some child whispering and magically direct Josh with my clear boundaries and authoritative energy.

As if on cue, he awoke with a particularly independent streak and began pushing my buttons immediately.  He refused to get dressed, and ran screaming as I tried to brush his hair .  He fought every part of the morning routine.

I tried to act calm. I did my best to stand in a clear and authoritative stance. I did not raise my voice.

Like his buddy Obstinate the Horse, he laughed at my attempt to control the situation.  So I did the exact opposite of what Koelle instructed:

  • I tried to bribe him with a treat
  • I pleaded for compliance to no effect which resulted in
  • losing my temper

By the time I dropped him off at school, we were both tired.  I went straight to Starbucks and got an extra shot in my latte, feeling like those women in the 1950s who began their day with a stiff glass of vodka and a cigarette.

What went wrong?

Or did something go wrong?

When we learn something new; parenting skills, sales skills, or physical skills, we often repeat the old behavior we are trying to avoid.  It is so frustrating because we are totally aware of what we are doing, are trying not to do it, but do it anyway.

This is actually a totally natural stage in the learning process.

Awareness is the first step in making a change.

And when the change feels really different or hard or unnatural, we resist it.

Fundamentally, we resist it because we don’t want to feel the feeling that will come when we change our behavior.

We don’t set boundaries because we can’t bear to watch the people we care about suffer.

If we say no when we normally say yes, our kids may be upset. They may cry or rage.  If we give direct feedback to a valued employee that the way they treated the last customer was inappropriate, we are afraid they will get upset and not like us.

We don’t want to put the ice cream or Oreo down, even though we know that we are trying to lose weight, because then we might feel the feeling we have been avoiding by medicating ourselves with food.

We may feel really angry.  Or really tired. Or really scared.

So the path through the frustrating, awkward stage of behavior change is to try this experiment:

1)  Pick one specific behavior you want to learn.  This can be skipping dessert, setting boundaries with your toddlers (or pets) or asking for your full fee when you are on a sales call.

2) At the point where you are about to revert to your old behavior (eating the dessert, caving to your toddler, backing down from firm fees), don’t do it.

3)  Notice the feelings that come up as you stop yourself from doing the thing.  If you have difficulty naming the emotion, ask yourself “Do I feel more mad, sad, glad or scared?”

4) Let the emotion wash over you. Do not resist it, or try to hold it back.  If you are in a place where it is safe, yell or cry or whatever you need to do to express the emotion fully.

5)  Notice what happens.  Do you die? Go into convulsions? Does your toddler require immediate therapy?  Do you immediately pass out from lack of strength from not eating one Oreo?

Amazing, isn’t it?


  • Find out more about the amazing work my friend Koelle Simpson does with horses here.
  • Discover some great tools for getting comfortable expressing emotion in Chapter 9 of Martha Beck’s book Finding Your Own North Star.
  • My friend Havi Brooks does amazing work on changing habits. Read her blog at
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22 Responses to “Valuable coaching advice straight from the horse’s mouth (and nose)”

  1. […] I have to share this incredibly insightful post from Pam Slim, entitled “Valuable Coaching Advice Straight From The Horse’s Mouth (And […]

  2. LeaderCast says:

    Thanks for the tips Pamela! I really enjoyed reading this article 🙂
    .-= LeaderCast´s last blog ..5 Steps to Follow to Make Great Decisions =-.

  3. Vic says:

    That was a nice story with real lessons in life and business. I must agree with the awareness that you have mentioned. As for me, knowing is the start of loving. Awareness and getting to understand what you have been aware of can be beneficial for the person / animal in a relationship.
    Thanks for sharing your story.

  4. […] at Escape From Cubicle Nation, Pamela writes about a horse riding lesson that taught her some valuable LIFE lessons. My favorite: awareness is the first step in making a […]

  5. Jeanne B. says:

    Wow. As a student of Parelli Natural Horsemanship (which is “self-mastery disguised as horsemanship”) and of the LOA, this post blew me away. The horse is definitely our mirror. While reading of your experience, I thought back to yesterday’s training session with the horses at my barn, as well as my general interaction with horses.

    What are they trying to tell me about myself? Such as, the “tasks” I put off because I’d rather play with the fun tasks than the (tedious) foundation tasks. Or finding out that an effective Phase Four does NOT always mean be FIRMER—that with some horses, quiet subtlety speaks louder than drama and high energy. That when I feel threatened, my modus operandi is to go into avoidance of the situation (see “foundation tasks” above) or to get firmer due to fear (trying to intimidate the opposition rather than understand or see it from their POV).

    Like you, I have boundary issues. It’s hard to say No or to say “Well, my opinion is different” without feeling fear. Fear of rejection offset by the fear of being dominated if I’m NOT firm enough.

    This was an incredible post. Thank you for shedding light.
    .-= Jeanne B.´s last blog .. =-.

  6. Doron says:

    I’ve used this technique when dealing with social situations that were once awkward. For example, if I’m in a crowded room where I don’t know anybody, I like to take a moment to breathe in the feeling of just standing in this place not knowing anyone, and then imagining that I’m in my own living room on the sofa watching television. In other words, I like to first get comfortable with my false sense of alone-ness, and from there I can move into the feeling of being in the most comfortable and relaxed place I can think of.

    Great post Pam, thanks for sharing these awesome insights!

  7. Pat McAnally says:

    What a timely post for me – I have been wrestling with the boundaries of how far to let work intrude and overlap with what I want/need to do for me and mine for a couple of weeks. By introducing the horse/space example, you opened up another way of looking at it. We have a 3 year old German Shepherd who comes from a high drive working line and it tooks me awhile to physically create respect for boundaries with her using presence. But– I had not made the connection with the rest of my life. If I know what boundary energy feels like working with my dog — I can recreate that success in other areas. Good one!

  8. Jim Taggart says:

    Ah, if I could only go back in time – 30 years when I first became a dad and get it right. Now with four ‘kids’ in their twenties I can only play the role of armchair expert with two granddaughters.

    It’s very interesting about animals and the parallels in dealing with them when they’re young and little children. Our 90 pound, three old American Yellow Lab taxed our patience repeatedly as he went through puppy and adolescent stages: challenging us, teasing us, loving us, and defying us. Sometimes we didn’t know if we were raising a fifth kid. And like our former teenagers, he’s acquiring his own personality.

    Thanks for a very insightful piece, Pamela.
    .-= Jim Taggart´s last blog ..Mr. Clinton Goes to Pyongyang…Kim Jong-Il Keeps His Toys =-.

  9. Powerful example to use with my clients. Boundary issues abound – especially now when layoffs leave the survivors overwhelmed and confronted by bosses wielding broad-swords to slash through boundaries. Thanks Pam!

  10. Carrie says:

    Amen Sista! I’m saying that a lot lately. Love the post and the horse-in-your-space picture. I am so ready to do Koelle’s workshop! It’s amazing how difficult it can be to stay with that feeling we don’t want to feel. But it does get easier with practice. And for me, it’s about leaving behind the old me, which at times feels scary. But I do enjoy the new me…
    .-= Carrie´s last blog ..Break On Through to the Other Side =-.

  11. gina rudan says:

    Fabulous Post!!! Pam, once again you speak to me in a time of my life where I am experiences EXACTLY what you are describing. My toddler is in rare form these days and I try so hard not to revert to old parenting behaviors. In the hopes of following a prgram to keep me in “mom is the boss” check I recently read 123 Magic and am now following the methodology and it’s helping me stay firm. Running a business, being mom, dreaming of having the time to go horse back riding and staying sane isn’t easy. Although I will admit its fantastic and your advice and wisdom in both areas continues to be a dollop of genius for me. Thanks!

  12. Tonya Leigh says:

    LOVE THIS POST!!!! What a great reminder for me to feel my feelings. I discovered recently that I was resisting feeling. I thought I was engaging in healthy behaviors, such as exercise, working, writing, and just about anything that would distract me from feeling the anxiety that has been popping up for me lately, but even these behaviors can be toxic if it causes you to disconnect.

    Allowing those feeling to surface is like watching a little bubble come up in an ocean. It’s so powerless when you think about it, yet we spend so much time trying to avoid it.

    Thanks for giving it to us straight from the horse’s mouth.

  13. I too agree that awareness of the undesired behavior is the first step. Many behaviors (such as the oreo example) stem from an attempt to distract or numb yourself from what is really going on behind the behavior. The key is to realize what you’re doing (awareness), then take specific, purposeful steps to correct it. This is hard work, but well worth the payoff once the negative behavior is replaced with one that is a much better alternative.
    .-= Alicia Gardner´s last blog ..Getting Involved and Finding Yourself =-.

  14. Doug says:

    Wow. It sounds as if you are still on the threshold. I’d love to read more about how you get from knowing what to do to actually doing it.

    Hi Doug!

    The short answer is: just keep doing it.

    When you allow the underlying feelings to vent, often the resistance softens, and then with time and practice goes away.

    This post explains the learning process in more detail:

    Thanks for stopping by!


  15. Thanks for the encouragement that change takes time and the suggestions on how to overcome the emotional inertia.

    I once had the opportunity to see a man who had mastered the art of defending boundaries gently, but firmly, at work. He was the state veterinarian and he was talking to a horse owner whose unvaccinated horses had been exposed to rabies. He calmly and gently told her they would have to be quarantined and described how it should be done. She tried to argue with him and ask for looser precautions. He didn’t get hot, or loud, or even annoyed. He understood her feelings, but for him it was already a fact that the horses were quarantined. No give, but no histrionics.

  16. Hugo says:

    Thanks for this great post.
    Sometimes i feel tired when i have to deal with potential clients. Its all about maintaining the energy i think and embrace the emotions, i guess i try to avoid them.

  17. Tina says:

    love this pam! can totally relate to the example of dealing with josh of course… and yes, have resulted to (ineffective) bribery many times myself with my 3 yr old. food for thought indeed, in business and in life.
    .-= Tina´s last blog ..What are they trying to hide? =-.

  18. Your process of changing thinking and behaviors reminds me of Tony Robbins’ 10 Action Signals. By recognizing the emotions you’re feeling in the moment, you can change your behavior and do something differently, or change your perception and ultimately your thinking. Its kind of like your situation with the horse. You had to change your thinking about the situation in order to change what you did.

    Recognizing those emotions can be tough (heck, Tony mentions 10 of them), that’s why I created an acronym for them to make it easy (check my post on the HOFFA GUILD). I often tell my clients that when anxiety hits, if you’re still breathing, and the world doesn’t come to an end, then things will be OK.

    I really appreciate you sharing your experience with us! I think we all hit those moments when we’re not sure what to do, and only after a bit of reflection can we learn and grow from them!
    .-= Jim Valeri, LMHC´s last blog ..The HR3200B and You: Is This Kind of Thing My Bag Baby? =-.

  19. Emiko Jaffe says:

    This post is so timely for me! I’m taking Koelle’s workshop this weekend (BEYOND excited!) and one of my desired outcomes is that I’ll be able to use what I learn this weekend with my kids and do some “child-whispering” as you so perfectly put it! But there is the learned skill and then there’s the follow-through and practice, so I will definitely be aware that when I come back home with my new skills I will have to scale the learning curve a bit to really incorporate it into my parenting life (my most challenging teacher!). Turtle steps, your “experiment” and practice are now a part of my follow-through plan. . .Thanks Pam!

  20. Hiro Boga says:

    Pam, how wonderful to learn about owning your sovereignty by relating to a horse. 🙂

    Change can take time, especially when you’re working to transform a pattern that’s deeply entrenched. Awareness helps. So does commitment and compassion. And patience.

    It also helps to explore the issue with curiosity and an open heart. Discover its geography as well as its history–find out what pictures and beliefs lie at its roots. Explore what feeds it, what diminishes it. Working with the underlying energy can effect change very quickly.

    Lovely post. Thank you! 🙂
    .-= Hiro Boga´s last blog ..Sunday Poem #3 =-.

  21. Dave Kaiser says:

    I have found it useful to include Shame along with Mad, Sad, Glad & Scared. It’s a sneaky one, too.

  22. Pace says:

    This is great advice, Pam. Observing without judgment is the first step toward change. Knowing is half the battle. (:

    It’s hard to sit with an emotion, especially a negative-feeling one, instead of trying to make it go away. Anger is the trickiest one for me. If I’m upset about something, I want to FIX IT or DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT, not just sit around and feel angry, even for just a minute!

    But as it turns out, that anger is usually part of myself (my heart, my body, my inner child, or something) trying to tell me something. If I turn away immediately and disconnection from that feeling, that part of myself won’t feel heard. And in any communication, whether it’s between two people or two different parts of the same person, feeling heard is very important. So I’ve learned that even though it’s unpleasant to sit in the anger and feel it, it’s very important because it keeps all the parts of me in good communication with each other.
    .-= Pace´s last blog ..The little girl and the hammer =-.