Recently I came across a list of continuing professional development courses I made back in 2011. It wasn’t a bad list—equine nutrition, physiology, improved knowledge of various equestrian disciplines, and so on. However, it was all about horses—nothing on improving my skills with human clients. Which is interesting, as this was the area where I had the biggest problems, but I hadn’t yet even identified that there was anything I could do about it!
Like most of us, I set out with a huge desire to make life better for horses, and with my expanding awareness of mental and physical welfare issues, I was probably developing an increasingly negative view of horse owners. From my perspective, I went out and gave them all the information they needed, and, bizarre and unfathomable creatures that they were, they didn’t follow my advice! I put huge amounts of effort into writing long reports, which I felt like they ungratefully didn’t follow or probably even read. I often complained that I would love the job if it weren’t for the people.
Not surprisingly, I didn’t have a great success rate in helping the horses I saw, which in turn made the job hard going. I felt that I was failing, and so I looked harder for new and better information about equine behaviour that I could use to convince my clients.
Seven years on, my attitude towards clients is very different. People are not the downside of the job. Helping people feels as satisfying and intriguing as helping horses. As well as being more effective, I enjoy my job so much more than I used to.
I don’t (as is probably clear from the above!) have any education in “people behaviour,” so this is not a comprehensive guide on how to work effectively with your clients. It is rather an exploration of the process one struggling behaviour consultant went through to move from dreading dealing with clients to looking forward to meeting the next one—trying to capture some of the lightbulb moments that helped me along the way.
Don’t just help the client to be safe, help them to feel safe
Four years ago, I started teaching a course on equine behaviour and invited my students to accompany me on visits. On a cold mid-winter day, a student came with me to visit my client Rachel and her pony Apple. Apple was, appropriately, quite little and round, and very sweet, and I took to him immediately. Rachel was fairly new to horses and was concerned that Apple was “barging out of his stable.” She described the behaviour as very dangerous. However, on seeing Apple, watching Rachel interacting with him, and getting a detailed description of his behaviour, it seemed from my perspective that he was pretty much ambling out of his stable, going over to a nearby hay bale in the secure American barn he was housed in, and tucking in happily. He was quite relaxed about being taken back to his stable after a few mouthfuls.
Having found a safe place to park my student and client, I then spent some time with Apple. I was aware of the client making frequent comments like, “Be careful,” “Watch him, he might hurt you,” but I focused on Apple and didn’t feel the need to do anything differently
Discussing the visit over coffee afterward, my student tentatively observed that Rachel had been anxious throughout the practical session and asked how I usually addressed this. I told them I’d addressed it by keeping her physically safe.
Later, I thought about how I would work with a horse that had that level of anxiety over something I knew to be safe, and realized I would handle it very, very differently—I’d consider their emotional state as much as their physical safety. This led to a big change in my approach. Working to assure that a client remains under threshold—whether they are interacting with their horse or not—is just as important as the horse being under threshold.
In contrast, a couple of months ago I visited a client who had been badly injured when leading her horse. The first thing we discussed, at length, was what changes could be made so that she could feel safe day to day, rather than dreading each visit where she had to bring her horse to or from the field. Having agreed on a safe routine for the short term, the client was then able to focus on discussing the issues productively and could start considering things from her horse’s point of view also—a hard task when you’re feeling seriously endangered.
This has interesting parallels with Judith Herman’s three stage trauma treatment framework, which involves first establishing emotional and physical safety, followed by gaining an understanding of the situation, then building solutions. Another idea I’ve found useful here is to think about how LIMA (least intrusive, minimally aversive) applies to the client as well as to their horse. If the client is in a situation where they feels they must do things they finds very aversive, or feel they don’t have control, this is bound to be counter-productive in lots of ways.
And then there were three
So, I started by always doing my utmost to help the horse to feel calm and confident. Then I realised this should also apply to the client throughout. This was when I realised there were three of us involved in the process…
A few years ago, I went out to visit Hugo and his owner, Jane. Hugo was a strapping young 16.3hh Irish sports horse who had recently started biting people quite badly whilst being led in from his field. Three people had sustained injuries severe enough to require hospital treatment. Jane and I were settled in a quiet spot near Hugo’s stable, discussing his history when the yard manager appeared, looked me up and down and said, “Well, you’re the great behaviour consultant, are you? Let’s see you lead him then.”
I was unprepared for this sudden demand and didn’t know what to do. I felt that if I didn’t handle him right now, I wouldn’t be able to help him because I’d lose credibility with both Jane and the yard manager. On the other hand, I wasn’t finished with my discussion, and hadn’t intended to lead Hugo at all today. On the spur of the moment, it seemed the lesser of two evils to lead him in from his field. This actually went very well—he responded to being led a few paces and then getting a scratch on the withers, and we walked to his stable without incident. However, it might have been a very different story. I was out of my comfort zone and had felt pressured to do something that didn’t benefit the horse or the owner.
I thought about this incident a lot afterwards and realised that there’s a certain type of horse person who throws me off balance. This may well come from a childhood of scary riding instructors who were to be obeyed without question. I realised that to go out and help horses and their people, I needed to not only try to keep them feeling emotionally safe, I had to feel safe too!
If you have a long-held pattern of struggling on regardless, it is hard to accept that it’s not only OK, but very important to look after yourself too! There are lots of resources out there to help you learn self-care. I found the most important aspects for me were:
- Self-awareness—noticing your own emotional state and behaviour; recognising your triggers so you can find solutions or coping mechanisms.
- Self-compassion—you wouldn’t label a horse as “stupid,” “cowardly,” or “pathetic” for not being able to cope with some situations. You would try to work out how to help them. Why shouldn’t you be worthy of the same treatment?
- Setting boundaries—in relation to your ethics, capabilities, and so on. Clarity here really helps to keep you comfortable and helps stop you from being swept along by the emotions and desires of clients.
The next time I got into a similar situation, working with a horse called Mia, I’d had a chance to think it through. It’s still an area I need to work on, but this time I could at least remind myself to take a moment before reacting, and to feel empathy for the person who I wasn’t coping with, who was reacting because they felt stuck in a frightening situation and were unable to admit to being scared.
Developing solutions with the client
As I mentioned at the start of this article, I set out as a behaviour consultant with the idea that solutions would be clearly defined by a diagnostic process. We identify the problem, then tell the client how to fix it. Sometimes this works, but often, especially in more complex cases, it just doesn’t.
Coming up with solutions that would work if the horse were yours is easy. Truly working on solutions that work for the client-horse partnership is quite a different process, but it’s essential in developing a positive attitude to working with people. It is so rewarding when you work out effective solutions with a client rather than feeling like you’re working against them; the horse and the client are helped, and you cannot help but feel increasingly benevolent towards your clients, making your job so much more enjoyable.
To return to Jane, Hugo, and the biting problem, it seemed that Hugo had started this behaviour with playful nips, which occasionally turned into agonistic gestures when he was frightened or hurt by his handler’s response. After I (foolishly) agreed to lead Hugo, I began to make a plan to address this problem. I intended to use gentle handling to slowly shape the desired behaviour. However, I needed to address the fact that Jane had become understandably frightened to handle him.
We started with an “experiment,” Hugo in his stable with a haynet, Jane outside the stable door. Initially, Hugo was given a treat for touching a grooming brush over the stable door with his nose. Hugo learned quickly, and got the idea of touching a variety of objects with his nose, and not with his mouth. After a while, Jane was keen to experiment with offering her hand to be touched.
Through this, Jane picked up a lot of little signs that told her about Hugo’s emotional state and became interested in this. She realised that his biting probably wasn’t “out of the blue” after all. She enjoyed interacting with him for the first time in many months and was delighted to see him so engaged.
This may seem routine for us behaviour consultants, but by not appreciating the benefits of this kind of work initially, I was missing a big part of the puzzle of finding solutions that work for both client and horse. We had the basic requirement of both Jane and Hugo feeling emotionally and physically safe. Then we added an activity that both enjoyed and both become more receptive to learning and change, whilst useful work in improving their relationship was taking place. Jane felt that spending time with Hugo need not be frightening and unpleasant and started to think of other things they could do. I think the value of the client actually feeling this benefit, rather than being told of a solution, is invaluable. From there, Jane and I could productively and even enthusiastically discuss next steps, and what the path to the final goal of leading Hugo without conflict or unwanted behaviours may look like. Jane’s motivations also shifted with her understanding; initially her only concern was, of course, not to be hurt, but now she could consider Hugo’s perspective too.
It still amazes me how much and how quickly people’s attitudes and emotions towards their horse can shift with simple exercises like these, opening the door for the next stages of treatment.
Judgement and empathy
Even where there seem to be serious welfare issues, I must remind myself that I don’t know everything about the client’s situation, and not to slip into being judgemental.
I visited Linda and her horse Major some years ago. Major had a very obviously tender back and a saddle that fit very poorly. He was bucking frequently, and Linda’s teenage daughter had fallen three times when riding him. My first advice was to stop riding him until Linda could get him checked. She agreed to this on the day, but then continued to let her daughter ride, resulting in her falling and breaking her arm. Talking to Linda later, it turned out that she was going through a difficult divorce, and was terrified her daughter would choose to live with her father. She thought that riding Major was the only thing keeping her daughter with her.
When we manage to be non-judgemental, we can then feel empathy for the client’s situation. Being non-judgemental and empathetic to both our client and their horse (and to ourselves!) changes how the client perceives and understands us and makes consultations so much more effective. We are also leading by example; often a calm, honest and empathetic approach will influence the client, helping them to behave likewise towards their horse, and even towards others around them.
If you’re like me, this may still be a work in progress. Trying to understand another’s situation and behaviour without judgement can be difficult and requires continual self-awareness. It can feel as if our brains constantly want to slip back into “them and us” thinking. That way of thinking seems much more comfortable, but we can distinguish between an unwanted behaviour and a bad person—we do this all the time with horses! When we think of the client’s actions as unwanted behaviour, we may move from frustration or other negative emotions to viewing a problem that we can help with.
Over the years my interest in behaviour change has expanded from just the horse to include the client, and then to include myself. The most important moments of insight for me have been:
- Prioritising keeping everyone involved physically and emotionally
- Recognising that we are effectively dealing with a complex system in many cases, and it is not helpful to label or categorise either the problem or the solution, but rather to view evaluation and treatment as an ongoing process.
- Resisting the righting reflex! Really trying to understand the client’s motivations, goals, and abilities and barriers to change, and working with them towards a good outcome.
- Recognising how important self-awareness is, and also being brave enough to let other people evaluate what I am doing and hear their thoughts.
- Acknowledging that the relationship between client and consultant is often the key to success; if the client feels your understanding and empathy, and trusts you, it can make an amazing difference.
- Letting the client see and evaluate changes (experiential learning) is usually so much more effective that just giving information and discussing what to do. It’s the doing and feeling that gives the client real understanding and confidence in their abilities.
- If in doubt when working with a client, it may help to step back and think, “What would I do if they were a horse?”!
- Learning that making mistakes and being human is OK! Indeed, it is positively helpful to be human and approachable, and talking about your mistakes (as hopefully evidenced in this article) may be useful to others.
Much of our work involves helping the client to understand their horse better, changing attitudes and developing empathy for their horse. Likewise, we can help ourselves to understand our clients better, change our attitudes and develop empathy!
For me this has made the difference between continuing consulting or looking for another way of working with horses, one that avoided people. It’s been the major factor in increasing the number of good outcomes for my clients and their horses, making the work much more rewarding and sustainable.
Suzanne Rogers is a director of Human Behaviour Change for Animals, and their website is well worth looking at. Her contributions to my development in this area have been very valuable. Suzanne is also an IAABC CHBC and will be speaking at the IAABC UK Conference later this month. Another book I have found extremely useful is Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson.
Thanks to Dr. Marie Holmes BSc, MSc, DClinPsych, HCPC, consultant clinical psychologist for providing the following links and references which relate the stories and reflections in this article to the evolution and practice of clinical psychology:
Felicity has a strong background in science, completing a BSc and a MPhil at Edinburgh University in the 1990’s, and working there for several years as a research scientist. Her love of horses has been lifelong, and in 2009 she combined her interests in science and horses and after undertaking training began working full time as an equine behaviour consultant. She is a certified horse behaviour consultant with the IAABC and an accredited animal behaviourist with the ABTC. She is also a registered equine behaviour consultant with the Society of Equine Behaviour Consultants in the UK, and runs a professional training course for them.