Meet and Lead

Loose horse

Loose horse

Drawing on her experiences as an NLP practitioner Laira Gold explains how horses are no different to humans in their need to be understood before being asked to try a new behaviour.

Horses are always asking ‘who is leading now?’ From the horse’s point of view we are unable to lead unless our sensory channels are fully open, aware of every little rustle in the bush and movement in the shadows. Within the herd this is a matter of survival. It is the lead mare’s job to take the herd away from danger to safety.

If we were to ask a horse to do something unfamiliar, such as putting on the first saddle of their life, before acknowledging their natural flight instincts, we are much less likely to have a willing partner that is happy to stand still while we carry out our work. By creating a training environment where the horse can be encouraged to explore their flight instincts safely, the trainer (or therapist) can stand back and feel at ease no matter what the horse does.

Most training is made up of this delicate art of accepting what ‘is’ and then stretching the horse’s ability sufficiently. It is when we get this balance right that we create an optimum learning environment. Too much accepting of what ‘is’ can create boredom and a stagnation in learning for the horse and us. On the other hand too much leading, pushing or stretching on our part can create stress not only for the horse but for the trainer too.

In Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) we explore the relationships between how we think and how we communicate. The therapist monitors patterns of behaviour and emotion and works with their client to transform the way they think and act. It is said that an NLP practitioner cannot lead before they have paced. This means that we first need to acknowledge the client’s current experience (pace), do it again (pace), and then lead with a thought or suggestion of our own. Hypnotherapists use this all the time. It’s what is sometimes called a hypnotic suggestion.

Part of my job as a psychotherapist is to meet and work with the client’s experience in the current moment. In the psychotherapy culture I come from, great emphasis in placed on working with the client’s ever-changing somatic (body) experience, perhaps more so than on past analysis or etiology (the cause of the problem). This only really happens if we are truly present, gaining rapport through observing and responding to all the non-verbal information happening within the client in that moment.

When I break rapport with a client, it is often because I have mismatched that client or tried to lead them without acknowledging their current experience of reality first. I recently worked with a high achieving professional from the advertising world. She came to me in a state of distress because her marriage was in ruins. She had been rewarded for most of her life by thinking analytically, even around extremely painful issues such as death. She presented well thought through arguments to each possible pathway that she felt she had available to her. She was operating at a cognitive level. I knew that the type of thinking required to solve this kind of problem was very different to the one she had been used to  throughout the rest of her working life.

Part of our work together was to enable her to access intelligence of a more somatic nature (the ability to sense and appreciate one’s own body and to relate to the needs of others). However I needed to lead her into this way of thinking gently. It was only once I was able to acknowledge and respect her existing way of coping that I was able to lead with any suggestions of my own.  Studying the parallels between successfully working with humans and horses is an area I find fascinating. Once we can understand the psychology of the horse and work with his energy rather than against it, we soon realise there is very little reason to get upset. It’s the same for psychotherapy work. Maintaining an attitude where there is no such thing as a resistant client, only a resistant therapist, can be a very helpful and humbling.


In these series of images you can see me working with young Icelandic that, until this point, had very little leading experience. In the still you can see her going through a dilemma stay true to her natural instincts and stay away away from predators, or should she take a chance on me? The reason she goes against her instincts and accepts my invitation to ‘join-up’ with me is because I first acknowledged (or paced) her natural flight instinct. In other words, I met her in the moment and then I led with a suggestion of my own.

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