The Shaman and Executive coach – The Animal as Teacher, really not such a modern idea

In this second decade of the 21st century it is not totally unsurprising to hear “we need Horse-whispering” brought up at the boardroom table alongside the business plans, the budgets and CEO reports.

The growth of the equine assisted market is quite staggering with international organisations now handing out al manner of certifications, franchises and partnerships. And so the medium spreads it is as common now supporting the boardroom, as it is the classroom or the therapists coach.  Universities are starting to fund research into it as well – notwithstanding occasional media outbursts, this is not some lunatic fringe but an increasingly respected mainstream engagement.

So why?  The “why horses” question is quite well documented – just google it and pick a site of your choice – and they will explain it better than I. SO WHY HORSES!!!   Many of those sites will talk about herd dynamics. Or talk about the innate hard wired behavioural of being flight animal. Yes they are right….. however beware…. 

In our modern world – even when it has the capacity to perceive the value in the this work – often loses the soul in the model when ego kick in: think of some of the old Cowboys out there purporting to be some kind of Stetson-sporting Guru Doolittle, issuing interspecies insight for busy awestruck humans who have long forgotten that work-life balance is even a life option. And so without subtle handing it just becomes another human-centric interaction.

That said, in my experience and observation IT IS incredibly powerful, and in the hands of a talented and intuitive facilitator it is a thing of real beauty. An experience that all should engage with.

However, it is not actually about the horses – or how they are. It is actually about us and who we are, or more importantly who we are not. The foundation of emotional intelligence is awareness of self, understanding our own state and working from there. This self-awareness becomes an important foundation in our interaction with others. It was the root from which we develop our empathy. The learning does not occur without a degree an empathic connection to the horse.


I am talking about long-standing human practices – much older than our current Christian type monotheistic belief mechanism. I am talking about traditional Animism. Belief systems such as these all imbue the natural and spiritual world around us with sentience and awareness. If we use such words these days we often at best might get a nod and “yes, I suppose you’re right”, at worst, well ….. take your pick.

We have disengaged ourselves from nature so completely now that we are surprised when it shows any signs of independent behaviour – we still of “conquering” nature. And if some myths are to be believed, we have dominion over it.

We are nature. Remember that occasionally and we might engage more openly with, and more acceptance of, our own humanity.

Fashions aside learning from animals is not such a novel concept – even in popular culture. If we look into the first book of TH White’s The Once and Future King (The Sword in Stone) the young Arthur is transformed by the magician Merlin into a succession of animals: fish, hawk, ant, goose and badger. In their worlds he has to learn their ways, to work with their innate qualities and attributes; these represent skills personal learnings which shape the great king that he will be one day. 

What Merlin practices here with Arthur is by any other name traditional shamanism – taking the consciousness on an Otherworld journey to receive learning and insight. In transplanting the young boy to these the life lessons of a hawk (for example) become the life lessons of the young king.

The point being, that without this empathetic learning process our hero would never have been the figure of enlightenment that he is now recognised to be.

Perhaps at its most ancient human example we have the prehistoric ritualistic otherworld intercessionaries for the hunt – connecting with the higher spirit of their objective (perhaps deer or horse) – seeking the gift or a life to support life and committing to take no more than what is need for their survival. Think of those iconic cave paintings around the world dating back tens of thousands of years. Perhaps through these connections the real qualities of the beasts were learned and in consuming those qualities were transferred in the process – so something deeper than mere sustenance.

More commonly, shamanic work recognises the idea of the power animal as a spirit guide. Perhaps a fundamental of the above, perhaps some kind of evolution. John Matthews describes: “Throughout the literature of Shamanism the concept of the helping animal is mentioned repeatedly. In each case the shaman possesses a non-physical inner helper in the form of an animal which provides strength, intuition, ad understanding of events from a different point of view.”

There is no questioning the value of obtaining an alternative perspective. And what better than amplified through the lens of qualities that are not so common or familiar to us. 

Developing this and bringing to the current day, Steven D Farmer explains: “Spirits guides assist shamans in bringing back healing and important information for the individual or community…. Even those raised in contemporary cultures can learn to take a shamanic journey and to work with a power animal.” 

Those practices have survived in most traditional societies from Native American to Aboriginal – despite attempts to outlaw such primitive practices. In contemporary western society there is a definite resurgence in the practice of the shaman – just google it or type it into a search on Amazon – and with that comes that reconnection with the animal world and its wisdom.

We do not need always to engage the journey, sometimes faith is enough to open the door to such awareness and in that awareness we engage with a broader concept of sentience, for example, older longer practiced eastern religions – such as Shinto in Japan, to quote Wikipedia: “Kami are defined in English as “spirits”, “essences” or “gods”, referring to the energy generating the phenomena. Since Japanese language does not distinguish between singular and plural, kami refers to the divinity, or sacred essence, that manifests in multiple forms: rocks, trees, rivers, animals, places, and even people can be said to possess the nature of kami. Kami and people are not separate; they exist within the same world and share its interrelated complexity.”

If we recognise wider sentience of life then we create an interactive scenario – whether it be simply honest respect or deeper communication. And within that scenario there is communication of kind and therein begin the opportunity to learn.  

Whether the shamanic journey is actually real or whether it is an allegory of consciousness – whereby we create an imagined Otherworld – in which we can explore our deeper feelings and experience, it creates a powerful and insightful personal and intuitive learning.

Not everyone want to imagine or travel to Otherworlds and so for them we are blessed with real animals who can offer us their own direct personal learning experience. 

More simplistically let us think of the writer – how often does the animal become the more appropriate teacher, engaging a wider social or political observation – think of the satire within the works of La Fontaine or Swift, and of course more recently George Orwell and Animal Farm.

Animals always somehow have the answer. And more importantly there is something deep within our human psyche that is willing to accept such learning when it comes from an animal. They do not judge in the same way that we so often do, so it seems we reflect this – we judge the lesson less ourselves when the lesson is delivered honestly and without judgement.


Business often blame the education system for not producing the work force they need but it is much more fundamental than that – is society producing the humans (or appropriately skilled humans) it needs. Good humans and good employees are not mutually exclusive states – in fact perhaps one might genuinely benefit the other.  

I am not suggesting that we perform shamanic rituals in the board rooms or take their CEOs on journeys to meet success and smiling shareholders but I am saying a little empathetic learning might be of some value. At any age. In any scenario.

We don’t necessarily need horses (or any other animal), horses just fast track the process. What they do is offer us a connection back to some non-dominion based, co-existence with nature. And in that space if we are open, we stand the chance of glimpsing ourselves, but it is only a glimpse, a fleeting awareness – but it offers us an alternative. Whether we pursue it further is then our choice.

Once upon a time we might have taken the shamanic Shaman’s journey – to receive the innate wisdom of the appropriate power animal, today depending on the need we might seek the appropriate Coach or Mentor to work with us through that change or learning. The outcome might most probably be the same but the sad thing is that in a mode based, procedure driven world the journey is always going to take much longer. And being structural it risks losing people on route.

Boardrooms take their execs to horses to learn because it cuts through the structural noise – the animal’s teaching is immediate. We don’t need 6 weeks to peel off the layers of professional pride and personal protection, it just happens you are there.  Still maybe every board should have a horse – or even better a Shaman – profits and share-holder might be reduced but what might happen to the happiness of our staff, or the ecological impact of their corporate activity. 

At the end of the day if we do develop a real grounding and connection with our true self, to the point where we genuinely recognise our own reflection, then we are might just about be ready to emapthize with others. And then and only then might we successfully lead others.

It is worth observing as we close that as a learning medium animals are not something new, we have just developed some new modalities. More interestingly I would like to sugest that this work provides a connection to often forgotten animist beliefs and practices which carries innately a powerful respect for the nature world around us. 

It is in nature that we will find our humanity and not the consumer experience, the edifices of our age or the growth of share prices. Enlightened businesses recognise the value of the individual and all that entails, it means that they respect the need for the self to be fully satisfied – in and out of the workplace!


(c) The Mindful Horse