There are many analogies between what horses need naturally and a solution focused approach. What’s more, long before I experienced Solution Focus in action, horses had taught me the core aspects of it.
In this article, I want to highlight some of these core elements to show the added value of working with horses in solution focused coaching.
It starts with how I approach horses with a solution focused mindset. I do not start from a relationship based on control (‘you have to obey’) nor on conditioning (training the horse). I start from one in which I put authentic communication first. This authentic communication presupposes open curiosity to get to know the horse and a willingness to find out what this horse needs for me to become meaningful in this moment.
You can translate this authentic communication directly into the relationship that you as a solution focused coach have with the coachee; you do not want to tell the coachee what you think he/she should do. You also do not want to ‘train’ the coachee in a particular behaviour. You want to become meaningful to the coachee out of your genuine interest and full attention for what he/she needs in this moment.
When handling horses, you can directly link the following critical aspects to solution focused coaching:
A crucial characteristic of horses is alertness. It is an essential leadership quality for them to scan the environment actively, to check whether it is safe. When they are alert they:
- Have an overview
- Sense opportunities
- Estimate what is the most accurate thing to do
That makes alertness a critical characteristic of a solution focused coach, too.
When you give 360° attention, it is a solution focused action. It moves you from a focus on the problem and makes you aware of the fact that there are always other options, even if you do not see them (yet). The solution focused question, “What else?” is a perfect tool to achieve this.
Horses live a nomadic life in the wild and always travel to more or less the same grass areas. After all, there is a high chance that there will be good grass and herbs where they previously found them. These grass areas are not a goal; they are a destination. If on the way a route they once took is blocked, they will find an alternative route on their ‘radar’ (sweeping their attention through 360°) and take it. A detour is nothing but an alternative path.
Horses always go towards somewhere, not away from it. They may run away in a first flight reflex, but they immediately start to look for the best escape route. They do not run away blindly.
That also counts when you coach with a solution focus. When a coachee comes to you, he/she might be in a flight reflex and know very well to where he/she does not want to return. If the coachee does not have a direction, he/might react out of a layer of emotions, judgements, interpretations, assumptions, scenarios and get stuck.
As a solution focused coach, you help the coachee to find where he/she does want to go and to understand that this desired future is not a goal they must achieve. Instead, it is a direction, a ‘dot on the horizon’ that a coachee chooses to put energy into reaching and for which they feel enthusiasm. The route there will most likely not be a straight line, and that is entirely OK; even in solution focused coaching, a detour is nothing but an alternative path. The destination might even change during the journey, and that is also OK. The point is to help the coachee to continuously choose a direction, to make the choices that feel right for him/her. When the coachee finds a desired future, a destination, he/she will probably find out what is needed to get there and will start to take small steps.
Horses are big and robust creatures, and they use their power in the form of clarity. It is about functional, ‘unencumbered’ clarity that leads to connection. It is not about making the other horses less powerful. Amongst horses, there are no bosses who claim and defend their position. Amongst horses, it is about being a leader, about becoming meaningful by using (and testing) qualities in an unmistakably clear way.
As a solution focused coach, you do not want to be the omniscient expert who pretends to know all the answers and steers someone to given solutions. Instead, you help the coachee to
- See (other) options
- Define a specific direction
You do that by generating a kind of clarity that leads to connection. To do that you ask powerful solution focused questions. These connect you and the coachee and connect the coachee and his/her answers to these questions. As a coach, you become a leader in the conversation, not a boss.
As mentioned before, alertness is a natural characteristic of horses: they always have their attention 360°. They don’t do this from a stance of ‘make sure nothing goes wrong’ (i.e. problem focused). They do this out of ‘staying alert, observing to be able to do what is needed’ (i.e. solution focused). This stance is not cautious, nor reckless; this is thorough.
Thoroughness is a mindset that makes a difference:
- It starts from factual observation instead of fear
- It makes you look at opportunities
- It invites you to take constructive action
Also, in solution focused coaching, you do not communicate cautiously (beat around the bush), nor recklessly (bluntly intervene). You communicate thoroughly. You listen ‘with strong ears’ to hear qualities, resources and positive exceptions that may help the coachee find and take small steps.
And what do you do when a conversation turns into a ‘difficult’ conversation? Where you seem to get stuck? Where obstacles arise? Even then, as a solution focused coach you do what horses do.
How do horses deal with obstacles? First of all, for them it is not about obstacles. There is no right or wrong. For horses everything is useful information. In that respect, obstacles are mere circumstances. With an open mindset of, “Interesting!”, horses explore situations factually to be able to act accurately.
That mindset is precisely what you use as a solution focused coach. With an open mindset of, “Interesting!” you embrace everything that happens, in a non-judgemental way; everything is useful information. That feeds trust and generates resilience for the coach and the coachee.
Just like horses do, you deal with circumstances in a solution focused way:
- Horses always have a direction, literally (where they go) as well as in a broader sense (to survive).
- As a solution focused coach, you help people to find a desired future, as a guideline.
- To reach their destination, they look for opportunities, and they do what works.
- As a solution focused coach, you listen to hear what is already working, qualities and positive exceptions.
- Testing and being tested provides crucial information in a reality in which it is of utmost importance to utilize every opportunity that can help you survive.
- As a solution focused coach, there is no right or wrong. Underneath the layer of emotions, judgements, interpretations, assumptions and scenarios, everything is useful information to help the coachee find small steps to take in the direction of his/her desired future.
Horse assisted coaching has exceptional added value because you bring the solution focus approach into the experience. It shows Solution Focus in its deepest core: not (only) as a method, but as an undeniable part of nature; of our nature.
Wendy Van den Bulck
Author of “Connective Clarity. When Horses Invite You to Take up Authentic, Solution Focused Leadership” and of “Verbindende Duidelijkheid. Als paarden je uitnodigen tot authentiek, oplossingsgericht leiderschap”