A cool coastal-California breeze settles in around us as Koelle Simpson and I, sitting side by side on an observation deck, gaze into a round pen below. Inside the pen, a woman named Avery* stands nervously beside a half-ton chocolate-colored horse named Ernie. She eyes him warily. Ernie eyes her back. Then Koelle gives Avery the deceptively casual, heavily loaded instruction, "Do whatever you want."
Avery looks utterly bewildered. Since her confusion is vital to the process, I just smile.
I've brought Avery to my ranch today to help her understand why she feels anxious and uncertain in her life; why she rages at colleagues, her children, her husband. Though I've been serving as Avery's life coach for several weeks, there are things she can learn here, with Koelle and Ernie, that all the talking in the world could never convey.
But Koelle's request has thrown her. "Do whatever I want?" she repeats. It's clear she has no idea what that might be. Since infancy, Avery—like most of us—has done what she's supposed to do, not what she wants to do. She knows how she's "supposed" to act as a wife, mother, employee. But in equine life coaching, there is no "supposed to." There is you, an animal, and the present moment. What you do with the situation is your choice, and for Avery, choice is an unfamiliar prospect.
An equine coaching session consists of the following: You stand near a horse. You gesture to that horse. It gestures back. For a while, it all feels strange and random. But eventually, in a process beyond verbal description, you begin to feel a cell-deep, almost telepathic communication between you and this creature. Awakening your ability to connect with the horse allows you to understand yourself in entirely new ways. And in the weeks that follow, that understanding quietly transforms your life.
But Avery isn't there yet. For now she just stares at Ernie, paralyzed. He wanders around keeping his distance, smelling the dirt.
Then, without warning, Avery begins to cry. "I feel like I'm supposed to do something," she says, "but I don't know what it is."
"And where else in your life do you feel that way?" asks Koelle.
Avery's voice cracks as she answers, "Everywhere."
"Yes," Koelle says. "The way we do anything is the way we do everything. How you react to the horse is how you react to the rest of your life. That's why we're here."
*With the exception of Koelle Simpson's, all names have been changed.
Next: How interacting with horses can help us tap into our deepest emotions