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Profile On: Cindy Jacobs, Equine Assisted Learning

Being rather ignorant to equine types of learning/therapies, I was eager to go on a road trip with a mate who wanted to meet up with Cindy Jacobs of Free Rein Australia.  Boy am I glad I did!  It was a great day and very insightful.  Cindy since then has kindly agreed to answer some questions about this line of therapy with horses.

Have you always been interested in horses and how did Free Rein Australia come about?
I’ve always felt a connection to horses and loved them from a distance. I acquired my first horse fifteen years ago, and continued to increase my herd – half of them are ‘rescues.’ While I was working as a change management consultant and executive coach, I continued to increase my herd to fourteen. I began to notice how much they taught me about presence, self-awareness and other personal and leadership qualities. I heard about work being done in the U.S.A. that uses horses to facilitate human development– so I travelled to there to attend training. It was a perfect fit for me.

What is it exactly that you do?
We facilitate experiential learning workshops and programs, for personal development, team building, and leadership development – using horses as co-facilitators.

Participants engage with the horses in activities where the horses are usually at liberty. Often the activities include games with the horses, but there is absolutely no riding, and horsemanship skills are not taught.

Angel going over a jump

It ‘works’ because we draw on horses’ natural instincts as prey animals who are hypersensitive to their environment. They can tell, for example if we are congruent – whether our outer expression matches our inner thoughts, beliefs, and feelings. Horses have an indisputable ability to mirror participants, and show them their ‘blindspots.’ Being herd animals, horses live in a community where everyone matters. When teams interact with them, they give immediate feedback on how well the human herd is functioning. Horses naturally seek leadership, and they look for the same qualities in leaders that we do – honesty, trust, respect, clear intention and direction, focus, presence, compassion – and again, give us undeniable, immediate feedback on our leadership skills and qualities.

Because the feedback is often unique, immediate, and undeniable, and the learning is experiential, personal and professional development is accelerated and belief, thinking, and behaviour changes are common and sustainable.

Free Rein Australia

I also offer individual coaching for people who want a different perspective on any particular challenge or situation. Rather than the usual dialog approach to coaching, this form is experiential where the horse responds uniquely to the participant, which creates the opportunity for reflection. This very intimate form of coaching continues to unfold and reveal further insights long after the coaching session.

How much of your day/week is related to horses?
With a herd of 14, the short answer is 24/7 (almost). I am on call 24/7, but horse care and handling would take up 3 hours a day on average. Hands on workshop-related activities would average 10-15 hours a week. The rest of my week is spent on the business – developing workshops, marketing, giving demonstrations and presentations. Eventually I expect to reduce the time I spend marketing and increase the time I spend facilitating workshops and programs.

In this field is it possible for someone to be a full time professional, earning a livable income?
Yes, and not yet. Yes – assuming they already have the facilities and horses – or access to facilities and horses. And not yet – meaning this is an emerging industry, and almost unknown in Australia. People have to first understand what we do and its benefits before they are willing to give it a try. As more and more people are exposed to this method of learning and development, the demand will increase, and then it would be possible to earn a livable income.

What are the general steps taken to be able to provide such a service to clients?
It takes a minimum of two human facilitators to run a workshop or program.

One facilitator takes on the role of ‘equine specialist’ – responsible for physical safety of both people and horses, emotional safety of the horses, and horse management and care. The equine specialist should be competent at horse management, horse psychology, and reading their body language.

The other facilitator takes on the role of human development professional (with appropriate training and qualifications in their field – such as a qualified coach, or adult learning professional, etc.). This facilitator is responsible for managing the process (of learning) and participants’ emotional safety. Both facilitators should be competent in experiential learning facilitation. They should also be formally trained in experiential learning with horses.

To offer this work, facilitators also need a well-tended inner world. The horses don’t distinguish between facilitators and participants, so the facilitators must be self-aware, non-judgmental, transparent, authentic, and compassionate so they have minimum impact on the horses.

The horses are selected for their willingness to participate, their temperament and ability to behave safely and respectfully around people. They must be physically and emotionally healthy, and live in a herd community.

When facilitators, horses, and facilities are ‘in place,’ we ask the client to identify three learning objectives in preparation for a workshop. The workshop is then designed around these objectives, the number of participants (being mindful of any physical or fitness limitations), and the space being used for the event.

Even with all the pre-planning, ultimately the horses will identify the real issues and challenges to be addressed. In this work, the horses’ input is respected and acknowledged.

Any advice for those interested in pursuing this line of work?
A common ‘mantra’ in facilitators’ circles is “trust the process.” It is no different in this industry. However, I would go further to say you must embody – with you whole mind, body, spirit – the conviction that horses mirror us and behave in direct response to us. There are no coincidences. Everything they do is a response to us. As facilitators in this work, if you don’t hold this belief with conviction, you not only miss out on many of the subtle messages offered by the horses, but you are in fact being inauthentic. The horses will know. The participants will doubt.

Anyone who has a horse or access to a horse can develop this conviction. Simply notice your thoughts and feelings every time you interact with a horse and notice its responses. When I drench my horses and I mindlessly think about how much I hate it, how disgusting it must taste, and that it is a poison of sorts, the horses resist, and it becomes a huge struggle. If, on the other hand, I think about how I am caring for them, and keeping them well– and believe what I am thinking, they always cooperate – every time!

Is there anything else with horses you’d love to learn about or try?
I am always learning. This work is so rich with meaning I don’t think I could ask for more.

Favourite horse memory?
I witness several profound moments during our workshops, and I would like to share one of them. A team had been working together with the horses and one of the participants appeared to bully another participant. At the end of the activity, the group was called together to debrief and the two participants were standing next to each other. The horse that had been handled by the person being ‘bullied,’ walked between the two people, cut the ‘bully’ from the group and moved him as far away as possible – all the way down the length of the arena to the furtherest corner. Until then, no one had been successful at telling the bully about his behaviour and how it affected them.

Future goals?
I took four horses to a mens’ prison and ran a pilot workshop that demonstrated the potential of this work for positive outcomes and modified behaviours of prisoners – ultimately to reduce recidivism. I would love to be part of a program that works with horse rescue organizations to foster home a number of horses inside a prison (eg. a prison farm that is already geared up for livestock), works with an animal husbandry program from a local university to educate and train prisoners in horse management and care, facilitate experiential learning programs for the prisoners, and train other facilitators (to ensure sustainability of the program and reduce dependency on me).

I would also like to be part of a national network of equine facilitators that can offer services for nation-wide issues such as suicide prevention for teenagers.

I would love to offer world-class leadership retreats for senior executives of large corporations because the culture and quality of the work environment is dictated by the qualities of the leaders.

Free Rein Australia

Best thing about your sport/profession?
Everyone ‘wins!’ On so many levels participants ‘win.’ They learn about themselves. They change their thinking or behaviours that manifest beneficial changes in their lives and work. They often have the experience of being seen, being known, and being accepted like never before. Horses – as in the species – benefit because everyone who experiences them this way, never see them in the same light. They are acknowledged for being wise, compassionate and sentient beings. I benefit because I have been honoured to witness and contribute to the process, and I always learn from it.“A moment’s insight is sometimes worth a life’s experience.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

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