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Lessons Learned About Life & Leadership From a Horse

Lessons Learned About Life & Leadership From a Horse

Back in December, my business manager Melanie Bates and I trekked down to Martha Beck’s new ranch in San Luis Obispo to plan the first part of the Whole Health Medicine Institute Physician Training (which you can read all about here). We kind of knew we were going to be guinea pigs for the kind of work Martha is jonesing to do with doctors, but I don’t think we fully understood the magnitude of what we were about to experience.

As we got off Highway 101 and started driving out into the boonies, the fog was low over a lake, and Melanie said, “It feels like the Mists of Avalon, like we’re leaving the real world and entering someplace mystical.” And it did.

The hills became more silent.  Birds stopped singing. Time suspended.  It was clear we were opening the wardrobe to enter Narnia.

And then… voila! We were driving up to the butterfly gates (of course there were butterfly gates!) of Martha’s horse ranch. What proceeded to unfold was so magical I am only now able to digest it enough to begin to write about it. I’m still pretty wordless about the whole experience, but let me share with you some vignettes that exist like movies in my mind.

The Join Up

Horse whispering equine therapist Koelle Simpson brought me into a pen with the most beautiful horse, not a trained horse, but a stranger horse she had borrowed for me for the day. My instruction was simply to set an intention of what I wanted to learn from the horse – and then to observe what showed up.

I set the intention to examine my leadership strengths and weaknesses in preparation for co-leading the Whole Health Medicine Institute Physician Training with Martha. Then I walked into the covered ring and started walking to see what the horse would do. And WHEE!!! The horse walked right behind me, sniffing at me as we walked.

I got more daring. I spun in a circle. So did the horse.

Then I did a cartwheel. And the horse backed away from me, looking at me with this look that loosely translated into “Oooh…bitch got all upside down on me. Hmm… not trustworthy.”

Throughout, Koelle and Martha were both coaching me to examine how subtle things I did were instantly reflected by the mirror the unjudging horse held up.

When I got into Wordlessness, tapped into Oneness, and got clear on my intentions for what I wanted the horse to do, the horse followed me exactly. When I got graspy or panicky or anxious or fuzzy in my intention, the horse backed away and looked at me like I had two heads.

Note to self about leadership: Tap in, get clear, let go.

The Boundaries

I spent a lot of time buddying up with the horse, getting all up in her face, hugging her, and she cuddled back. But Koelle said, “Why don’t you try making your energy bigger,” and she handed me a rope I could throw around. I didn’t know what to do with it, so I curled it up and just threw it at the horse. She jumped, startled – and backed away.  I ran right up to her, cuddled her, and apologized for being scary.

That’s when Martha called me on it. “Hmm..” she said. “You set a boundary, asked the horse to move back a bit, and then when she respected your boundary, you apologized. Why?”

Gulp. I did do that. But I didn’t mean to. I was just throwing the rope around. I didn’t mean to set a boundary. I love snuggling the horse. I didn’t want her to go away.

But there it was again, right in my face. My desire for intimacy can be so needy that I let myself become the Cosmic Tit, and then I fail to set boundaries, then I give until I’m depleted, and then I get royally pissed because I become a doormat.

“But is she mad at you for setting boundaries?” Martha asked. “Did she reject you? Did it ruin the relationship?”

No. The horse joined right up again when I started spinning in circles.

Note to self: Boundaries good. Cosmic Tit = depletion.

The Corral

For the next exercise, Martha’s CEO Bridgette Boudreau, Melanie, and I were invited into a fenced-in area that had one inner ring with a small entry opening enveloped inside an outer ring that had a small opening too. Three horses awaited us.

The goal, we were instructed, was for Bridgette, Melanie and I to work as a team to take all the horses on one lap around the outer ring before peeling off one horse into the inner ring – and keeping him there. Then we were to get the other two horses to go around the outer ring again, before peeling off the second horse into the inner ring. Then we were to have a final lap with the one remaining horse, and after the last lap, the third horse was to join the others.

To make things harder, we weren’t supposed to talk. We had to use some elaborate charades to try to communicate what we wanted to do.

Our first attempt was a total cluster f*ck. The horses galloped, out of control, cruising right past the entry to the inner ring at 100mph.

So we regrouped. We modulated our energy. Brought it down. Waaaaay down. We got Wordless. We tapped into Oneness. We communicated nonverbally with the horses and asked if they’d be willing to play our little game. They said yes on some sort of cosmic plane. And with nothing but very subtle hand motions, the first horse trotted into the center ring, then the second, then the third.

It felt like magic. We were giddy.

Note to self: Be careful what you communicate without words. Make sure your energy is in alignment with your intentions.

The time we spent with Martha was so mystical, this is just the tip of the iceburg, but stay tuned. I’ll write more. Make sure you’ve subscribed to my blog if you want to make sure you don’t miss more posts about how to bend spoons, call in the whales, bring your dreams into form, and invite real live magic into your life.



Lissa Rankin, MD: Creator of the health and wellness communities and, author of Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof You Can Heal Yourself (Hay House, 2013), TEDx speaker, and Health Care Evolutionary. Join her newsletter list for free guidance on healing yourself, and check her out on Twitter and Facebook.

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Lissa Rankin

Lissa Rankin, MD is a mind-body medicine physician, founder of the Whole Health Medicine Institute training program for physicians and other health care providers, and the New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself.  She is on a grassroots mission to heal health care, while empowering you to heal yourself.  Lissa blogs at and also created two online communities - and She is also the author of two other books, a professional artist, an amateur ski bum, and an avid hiker. Lissa lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her husband and daughter.


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7:15AM PDT on May 31, 2013

I have visited lots of the blogs but this blog is truthfully wonderful.

7:58AM PST on Mar 3, 2013

thanks for sharing

9:03PM PST on Feb 15, 2013

I'm known for looking for the positive in any situation, and I usually follow my mother's advice "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all", but I'm sorry, this time I just can't help myself.
What a load of bollocks!
I've worked with horses for years and love them dearly, and I know you can have wonderful communication with a horse, but really, this is just a lot of management-speak and another example of high-level people getting out of the office to enjoy themselves while no doubt the receptionists, office clerks, patient assistants, etc were actually doing some work.
The poor horses were no doubt totally bemused as to why these total strangers were cuddling them one minute and throwing ropes at them the next. There are plenty of management and leadership programmes that don't involve animals. Just leave them in peace.

8:53AM PST on Feb 12, 2013

Lovely! Thank you for sharing.

6:00AM PST on Feb 10, 2013

Interesting. In all the years I spent with horses I never experienced this sort of communication with them. We had a great relationship and they liked me and I them, but this sounds really wacky.

4:10AM PST on Feb 10, 2013

Mists of Avalon? Narnia?

2:16AM PST on Feb 10, 2013

yes its true how we can learn from one another -be it animal or human- we've all got something to learn and something to give. Thanks for sweet article

12:50AM PST on Feb 10, 2013

Noted. Thanks.

10:42PM PST on Feb 9, 2013


8:26PM PST on Feb 9, 2013

Lovely article, thanks !
The French trainers Jean-François Pignon and his brother Frédéric Pignon of famed equestrian show Cavalia, have been using this technique for the pase 20 years.

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