Wisdom Horse of Hudson ARTICLE for Wisconsin Trails Magazine, 2009
By Britt Aamodt
Coaching in Hudson is not your average executive coach experience. First off,
you'll want to dress comfortably, and wear the kind of shoes usually reserved
for lawn-mowing days. Because to reach the pasture, you have to trek through
mud and navigate warm piles of manure. And while you're slogging, hands stuffed
in pockets against the nippy air, you'll want to hang your skepticism on a back
hook. "You can bring your skepticism and talk about it," says Wisdom
Horse co-founder Lynn Baskfield, 60. "The horses want you to be honest.
But it helps if you're open to the experience and willing to see what happens."
The horses are
geldings and mares, nine of them, quarter horses with a few paints thrown in. Their
home encompasses the 40-acre Hawk's Ridge Ranch outside downtown Hudson on the
Wisconsin-Minnesota border, also the site of Healing Arts Wellness Center, a
naturopathic clinic that comprises a main building, several acres of fenced
pasture, and a horse arena the size of a football field.
Coaching is but one of the center's offerings—and probably the one most likely
to excite raised eyebrows. Everyone's heard of acupressure points and homeopathic
medicine, but Equine Guided Education?
EGE embodies a
relatively new practice in the leadership and personal development field. Put
simply, Wisdom Horse is executive coaching with horses. Lynn and her business
partner, Ann Romberg, 57, teach clients how to halter, saddle, groom, and guide
horses. Yet the leadership and team-building exercises merely provide an
infrastructure to the real work, which you can call horse talk, self-talk,
mirroring, or mumbo jumbo, so long as you remember to keep an open mind.
don't actually talk to you," emphasizes Ann, who came to coaching after 20
years in corporate America. "But they do mirror what you're thinking. So,
when Lynn and I take you to the pasture and ask you to reflect on what issues
are most important to you today, and you're not being authentic, the horses
won't have anything to do with you. We see it again and again."
Wisdom Horse Coaching
works with highly-functioning executives who want to bring soul to the
workplace. People who are as committed to fostering a creative and energetic
work environment as they are to the bottom line and company mission statement. Hardnosed
pragmatists who, by and large, aren't known for quoting the horses in boardroom
All that said,
Wisdom Horse Coaching is experiencing a surge in interest. Facing an uncertain economic
climate, some leaders are looking outside the office for answers to their
questions. And you don't get more outside than 40 acres of country with a wind
clipping from the west.
Yet, how exactly
does Equine Guided Education work? How does voicing your dreams and dilemmas to
a 1,200-pound horse, and then waiting for the horse's response—a nudge, a turn
of the head, a yawn—help the decision-making process?
Lynn, a lifelong
horsewoman and life coach with a master's in human development, says the
human-horse connection has to do with the horse's evolution as a prey animal
with a finely-tuned fight-or-flight mechanism, and an ability to attune itself
to the minutest change in the environment. That includes changes in the vocal
intonations, body language, and emotional state of nearby humans, a claim which
might sound like a lot of hooey until you consider how important nonverbal cues
are to human relations as well. If your date yawns, checks the clock, and stares
blankly at the punch line of your joke, chances are you're not getting a second
EGE began in 2000
when Ariana Strozzi, owner of Strozzi Ranch in California, coined the term. But
horse owners have long recognized a sympathetic bond with their horses, animals
hardwired to know and respond to the world through their bodies. EGE is effective,
says Ann, because "participants are able to use their bodies. You groom,
halter, and saddle the horse. You lead the horse by a rope. And the horses
mirror back your behaviors. Are you hesitant? Because if you don't lead, the
EGE gives you
instant feedback on how you manage in the world.
Fraser-Johnson, a Madison native now living in St. Paul, wants direction. On a
brisk morning, Lynn and Ann lead her to the pasture. In the distance, horses
graze, for now more interested in green shoots than the three women.
"Let's just wait
here a moment and ask permission from the herd to enter," suggests Ann,
who along with Lynn, stands slightly apart from Cindy, a client of three years.
Most Wisdom Horse clients—executives, office work teams, families, couples,
professional organizations, and artists—sign on for three months. Others opt
for daylong sessions or two- to four-day retreats at the ranch guest house. But
Cindy, a plucky entrepreneur, has been in transition. She has been giving up
control of one business while shifting her focus to a new coaching and healing
"What sort of
questions have been coming up for you?" asks Ann, with a glance at the
horses. Still no interest.
"When I was
driving here this morning, I was thinking, Well, I’m pretty good. I’ve been
working hard, and my life is going in the right direction. Is there anything I
need to do?" Cindy considers. "Maybe just keep moving forward with
the new business."
As she says this, a
black gelding, Coal, lifts his head and takes a few steps.
Coal just do?" asks Ann.
forward," says Cindy.
you thinking when he did that?"
Cindy rubs her
stomach. "I was thinking about these work leads I've been pursuing—they've
postponed till January—and how my stomach feels tight. Maybe some thoughts or
feelings bubbling up. Gut feelings."
That's when the big
animal trots over and, as if on cue, rests his nose against Cindy's abdomen.
Coal's volunteering to work with you today," says Lynn. Part of the EGE
process is to allow the horses to select themselves. Rarely do Lynn and Ann
choose a horse for a client. As facilitators, their job is simply to observe
and to ask questions. Later, the coaches take Cindy through a haltering
exercise. Cindy tries to halter Coal, but he pulls away—three times.
Cindy returns the
halter. "He doesn't want me to do it."
or you don't?" asks Lynn.
the halter represent to you?"
says Cindy. "A kind of control that's too confining."
difference between control and leadership?" Ann chimes in. The questions
and answers flow back and forth until Coal removes himself, apparently finished
with his role in the session.
"I thought, Yeah,
right, horses can sense your emotions," admits Randy Heiser, who
participated in a Wisdom Horse session as part of a leadership program
sponsored by the Hudson Chamber of Commerce. "Let's face it, I'm a guy.
I'm in my thirties. I almost didn't go but then I figured what the heck."
Two days before, Randy,
the sales manager at Hudson Chrysler, had received a new boss. He wasn't sure
where his company was headed, or if he wanted to be part of it. Lynn and Ann
set up three cones—representing home, work, and community—and asked the
participants to guide their horses around them. Randy led his chestnut gelding,
Moon, around the home cone.
recalls Randy. "But then we got to the work cone, and Moon wouldn't go my
way. He went the other way. I don't know if it was coincidence, but to me he
was saying, 'You're switching directions now and you're going to have to follow
Randy remained at
his job. "I don't know how works. But at the time it changed my life.
I was confused about my direction at work, and working with Moon made me realize
things were going to be okay."
When clients leave
a session, they come away with what Cindy calls a body sensation. "I feel
it in my body. It's a feeling I can remember later at work. When a control
issue comes up, I can remember how it felt with Coal, saying, 'No, I don't want
to halter him.' How it feels to set boundaries."
Do you lead with
purpose? Or do you put on a show of power, leaving someone else to take the
reins? Are you committed to your career? To your marriage? What block is
keeping you from taking that next step in life?
Maybe the horses can't
give you the answers, but they can reflect how you're feeling about the
questions. "The horses just want you to be authentic with yourself," says
Lynn, who has witnessed the authenticity of her work with hundreds of Wisdom
Horse clients. "They can be counted on to take you into what you don't
know you don't know. You can't fail a horse exercise because it's all about
seeing how you show up in the world. There's the breakthrough."
Britt Aamodt is a freelance writer living in Minnesota. She
is currently working on a history of cartoonists for the Minnesota Historical
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