Naropa University Authentic Leadership Program at Twin Oaks Farm: Horses as Teachers.

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What Horses Teach Us.

I’m doing Naropa University’s Authentic Leadership program, right now.

It’s fun. It’s also challenging stuff.

Today, we visited Twin Oaks Farm, founded by an early woman pioneer and carried on today as a green (as in eco) farm and equine therapy (for children and adults) and leadership coaching center.

The first exercise was about fear, and humor. We closed our eyes, and a stallion roared into the barn, running around us. We opened our eyes, and the stallion was, while fierce, a little adorable pony.

The second exercise was about watching—how the horses reacted to stimuli. Learning about the characters of the various horses. Some were grounded. Some skittish. Some alpha, grounded. Some like cute clinging children. We were supposed to choose our favorite, and our least favorite, and spend time around them.

The third exercise, I went in confident and relaxed, and came out devastated. All we had to do was walk a horse across the field. I was assigned, coincidentally, to my favorite horse—a huge mare, the alpha of the herd, grounded, beautiful, imposing, gentle but powerful. I couldn’t move her through charm, talking to her, petting her, pulling her gently, anything. I left embarrassed, flummoxed, shakey.

The fourth exercise was a group exercise, containing an oft-bullied little horse as a group. I followed my instinct, watched and listened, and though still shaken, did well. I was assertive, but not aggressive.

The fifth exercise was, on the surface, the hardest. I checked in with my fear and lack of confidence, not wanting to bring that in unprocessed to the horse (coincidentally, my least favorite, a skittish white lady). We were to connect with her, then move her to walking in circles, then trotting, then walking, then back into the middle where we were to thank her. I allowed myself to rest in my uncertainty, and felt a natural confidence gradually emerge (with the help of Jean-Jacques and Andrea, the coaches). It went well for me and Lila, the horse (who I now adore).

Before and after each session, we were coached. My problems as a leader are thus: I’m almost-too-nice and gentle and communicative 95% of the time. Sometimes, I see folks “take things for granted,” and I get emotive and frustrated, sad and blustery with my words. It doesn’t help.

To end the day, back at Naropa, we applied everything we’d learned to leadership, which is a fancy word for service. I’m not a leader—leaders are big tall people, whatever their size. I’m a servant. I’ve worked hard and quietly 1,000s of hours to build Elephant for you, and to magnetize a now-great staff. It’s my honor, and my privilege to serve not only you, but our mission: to be of benefit to all sentient beings, beyond the choir.

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Waylon Lewis

Waylon Lewis, founder of Elephant Journal & host of Walk the Talk Show with Waylon Lewis, is a 1st generation American Buddhist “Dharma Brat.” Voted #1 in U.S. on twitter for #green two years running, Changemaker & Eco Ambassador by Treehugger, Green Hero by Discovery’s Planet Green, Best (!) Shameless Self-Promoter at Westword’s Web Awards, Prominent Buddhist by Shambhala Sun, & 100 Most Influential People in Health & Fitness 2011 by “Greatist”, Waylon is a mediocre climber, lazy yogi, 365-day bicycle commuter & best friend to Redford (his rescue hound). His aim: to bring the good news re: “the mindful life” beyond the choir & to all those who didn’t know they gave a care. elephantjournal.com | His first book, Things I would like to do with You, touches on modern relationships from a Buddhist point of view. His dream of 9 years, the Elephant “Ecosystem” will find a way to pay 1,000s of writers a month, helping reverse the tide of low-quality, unpaid writing & reading for free online.

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Linda Lewis Aug 8, 2018 6:23pm

This is great! Really liked the transformation you went through w/ yr least favorite horse to your most--and it's the same horse. So much opinion and judgement is just that--in our mind, rather than in reality. Also dear Waylon Lewis, check out what Margot Newman does w/ horses and veterans. She's a friend and does so much for horses and humans.

Susannah Nelson Aug 4, 2018 8:24pm

I really enjoyed this, thank you , as ever thought provoking content Waylon.

Kathi Littmann Aug 2, 2018 2:30am

Inspiration. Thank you.

Erin Glassman Aug 1, 2018 7:50pm

The greatest thing about being around horses is that they are a mirror of what is going on inside of you. They do respond to leaders and to effectively work with them you have to build that leader in yourself. They show you when your'e being kind, they show you when your outside emotions are not letting you be present with them. Great article, Waylon Lewis

Marilyn Regan Aug 1, 2018 4:24pm

I enjoyed your article. Sounds like you are not only a servant, but a teacher and rescuer as seen in the fifth exercise with Leela. Thank you for sharing.

Seán Murphy Aug 1, 2018 1:46pm

Nice article, brother. Just what I needed to hear right now. Perfect.