Tami Simon: Welcome to Insights at the Edge produced by Sounds True. My name’s Tami Simon. I’m the founder of Sounds True. And I’d love to take a moment to introduce you to the new Sounds True Foundation. The Sounds True Foundation is dedicated to creating a wiser and kinder world by making transformational education widely available. We want everyone to have access to transformational tools, such as mindfulness, emotional awareness, and self-compassion regardless of financial, social, or physical challenges.
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You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Kelly Wendorf. Kelly is an executive and personal development certified master coach, educator, spiritual mentor, and socially responsible entrepreneur. She is the founding partner of EQUUS, a leadership development organization based in New Mexico that focused on creating conditions for breakthrough, transformative learning with high performing individuals, groups, and thought leaders by bringing them into connection with horses. With Sounds True, Kelly has written a new book called Flying Lead Change: 56 Million Years of Wisdom for Leading and Living.
In this conversation with Kelly, I learned a lot about our shared evolutionary history with horses, and Kelly’s view that we could even see ourselves as evolutionary partners. And specifically I learned a lot about what horses can teach us about leadership and how it’s not the one who is the mightiest or most domineering who becomes the leader, but the one who cares the most. Here’s my conversation with Kelly Wendorf.
To begin with, Kelly, I’d love our listeners to know a bit more about you and how you came, whatever that winding journey was for you, to lead Equine-Assisted Learning experiences for organizational leaders and their teams, how you came to do that work.
Kelly Wendorf: Thank you. Thanks, Tami. I think the work came to me. I didn’t really come to it. I was very reluctant in the beginning when it first peered over the horizon as a possibility. In my 20s, I was an equestrian. I was in the show world, a trainer, dressage trainer of horses, had a riding school when I was really young. And I didn’t like the equestrian world. It didn’t resonate with a lot of my values, but at the same time, I really loved horses and I was that horse girl. So horses were very, very much a part of my life. There was that temporary stage where I was with them in that really conventional way of, the horse is there for my youth and for my enjoyment a kind of as an “it” in a way. I wouldn’t have said it that way then, but certainly that’s the way it was.
But prior to that, when I was small and I talk about this in the book, but my father was an archeologist. He worked with Leakey. He was quite a celebrated archeologist, and spent a lot of time out in the field with him. The parenting in that day was sort of benign neglect. You were just like out wherever you were, and for me, I was out a lot in the field with my father in Egypt and Ethiopia, Northern New Mexico. It was a compass setting for me, around the influences that were infusing my body, mind, and spirit of these ancient worlds that have since long gone. And I spent so much of my childhood imagining what these worlds were like, and literally playing inside ancient kivas that had collapsed in, and looking at arrowheads and pottery.
And when I was in second grade, my father took us to Ethiopia, and I had a powerful encounter with an Oromo warrior who had been hired by my father to take care of us, my brother and I, while he was out in the field. Kabata was his name would watch over us all day to make sure… I think to make sure we didn’t get kidnapped was one of their concerns but also to keep us safe from baboons. But I had an experience with this man, absent words, sort of heart-to-heart, where his deep love and care for me collided with what I have been taught as a child in America. What I had been taught as a child in America was, “You’re a girl. Girls do this. You have white skin. White-skinned people are like that. This is what life is about.” And my time with Kabata was a completely different narrative. It was one of connection and our belonging to the multiplicity of things.
I would say that that moment with him set a compass setting for me that was about, “Wow, how can I be of service in that way?” To help people see that these socialized narratives that come our way that we try to try on and wear as people, we don’t have to do that. We don’t have to be a part of that. We don’t have to listen to those narratives and enslave ourselves to those narratives.
So I became a magazine editor, wanting to bring content that pushed people towards those questions and maybe provided some answers. That led me to neuroscience and attachment theory and the science of how we transform and grow, learn new habit patterns. I became a coach, and all the way along were my horses, running along next to me as companions, as teachers.
And about ten years ago, it occurred to me that horses had a capacity, given the right conditions, that when people put themselves in physical proximity with horses, they got a download very similar to the one that I received when I was young. And that one hour with a horse, again with the right conditions, would open up possibilities for people where they begin to say things like, “Wow. There’s no this or that. There’s a complimentary. It is not a polarity,” or, “I feel such deep peace, and that deep peace is me,” or, “It’s really powerful to be sensitive. It’s not scary.” Things like this. I mean, there’s a lot to it.
So I officially put horses with people in a coaching context, in a facilitated, transformative learning context, and started to see that really amazing things were happening for people. They would leave a session with the horses, and leave the toxic relationship, or write that book that they never really had the courage to do until then, or completely change the culture of their organization. So I said a lot, but that’s kind of it in a nutshell.
TS: Yes. Now in your book Flying Lead Change, you describe the human/horse as an evolutionary pair, and I thought that was very interesting. Can you explain that? How are we an evolutionary pair, a pairing that perhaps most of us don’t pay that much attention to?
KW: Exactly. We think about maybe humans and apes, or human and chimpanzees, but when you look back into the paleontological records, you start to see that we share the same what’s called a stem animal. And as we’ve evolved over time, we still share the same metatarsals and fibulas and tibias. We’re genetically more similar than it might appear. If you look at our skeletal system, there are a lot of similarities. I think it was a Scientific American that put on the cover of their magazine a skeleton of a horse rearing and a human standing to show this pairing.
But what’s also interesting is in indigenous cosmologies, we’re told exactly the same thing. We’re told across many, many different cosmologies that we didn’t go and find the horse and domesticate them. The horse came to us as a sacred partner, as a spiritual sibling, to partner with us in ways that were important and meaningful to humanity. Now what we did, is we stuck them in front of a plow and put them in battlefields. But I’m not sure if that’s what was necessarily intended, especially based on what I see when people and horses come together in these transformational contexts.
So as siblings, we have a, I would say a shared language that if you’re quiet enough, you can hear. And I believe that that shared language will allow us, as humans, to tap into some of these sensibilities that many of us yearn for. Sensibilities of connection, and being a part of the whole, and a deep sense of existential belonging.
TS: Yes. Now it’s interesting for you to refer to us as siblings. Often I’ll hear people talk about human beings as being some type of apex of mammalian evolution, and whenever I hear that, something in me feels a little questioning, awkward, maybe, and even further, confrontational. Like, “Really? Are you sure? If this is the apex, I have some serious questions.”
TS: So what would that mean, even just to really take in that view that we’re siblings, and that perhaps we have as much to learn from the horse in this partnership, versus this idea of pulling the horse forward to fit our needs?
KW: Right. Yes, that’s a wonderful question. Well, once we flatten the hierarchy and think about it more from a sibling point of view, again, we’re now speaking in terms of what many indigenous cosmologies talk about, that we are a shared community. That we have as much to learn from, and not just from horses. We can just open this all broadly to the natural world.
We are not observers of the natural world. And that apex creates a mindset where we do set ourselves apart, even if we really love being in nature and hiking, and being with birds or whatever. We’re still subtly holding ourselves a little separate, and thinking of ourselves as observers, and almost metaphorically engaging with nature rather than, “They have a language.” The tree has a language. The bird has a language. It’s subtle. But if you slow down and you’re listening, there is a language.
And there is a mutualism that is available that is mutually beneficial, which is also a little piece in there, Tami, is that we’re taught what a virus humanity is upon the world. This apex thing does that as well. It says, “Oh, look at how terribly hard is nature, and therefore the Earth will be better off without us.”
But I would argue, and it has been my experience and also with one of my teachers, Uncle Bob Randall, saying the same, that nature misses us. Nature benefits as much from our presence as we benefit from nature’s presence. And nature’s sort of sitting there going, “Wow. You’re not even part of the conversation, and yet we want you with us. We want you here dialoguing with us.”
And how I know this to be true, is because when clients are coming in and working with our horses, the horses are as benefited by that mutualism, by that shared conversation, as the people are through the horses. So everybody benefits when you flatten the hierarchy, actually. That’s a larger conversation of course, but everybody benefits.
TS: Yes. Now towards the beginning of your new book Flying Lead Change, you write, “Horses have been our partner in successfully navigating change for thousands of years.” How have horses helped us navigate change successfully?
KW: As soon as humans found a way to partner with horses, they were able to… Agriculture, plowing fields, not all of it is a pretty story, of course. Conquering land, discovering new lands. They leveraged a capacity to do… Well, horsepower comes from that, of course, to increase our industrialism. Horses were a major part of that. So they have been alongside us at every juncture, participating in our betterment, our evolution, and here we are now, kind of at the end of the internet, so to speak. So now what’s their partnership about? Is it about-
TS: That’s a good question, Kelly. What is the answer to that question?
KW: I believe that it’s that new frontier of the human heart that they’re… When we take them to horse shows, and we use them to rope cows and put pretty blue ribbons them, we’re only accessing a teeny tiny margin of what they’re really capable of assisting us with. Horses are very, very relational. And they’re relational in a different way than, say, dogs or cats or really any other animal, in that they will partner with you in a deep relationship. But there’s one part of them that always a little bit wedded to the wild. You can leave a horse for a month somewhere and he’s back to the wild. Whereas a dog could be stray for a month and he wants to come back home.
So when you’re partnering with a horse, you’re partnering with this beautiful conduit into that realm of wildness, undomesticity, the natural world, and they’re there as a translator. So I think that this is where there’s an opportunity for us to listen to the natural world to gain insight about how we’re going to get through all of this right now. 3.8 billion years of natural wisdom awaits us for our insight. 56 million years for horses awaits us, and they’ve been doing it with tectonic shifts and climate changes and swings, and heat and ice, and plagues and wars. And the horse remains 56 million years later. So they know something about how to navigate extreme changes.
TS: Now it’s interesting that when I put you on the spot and I said, “How are they going to help us at this juncture of human evolution?” you pointed directly to the new frontier of the human heart. And I’d like to hear more about that, and as someone who loves horses and works with horses, how horses are going to help us with this frontier.
KW: Well, when we look at everything that is happening right now, the dissolution of our institutions, the crisis in government and politics, I mean, not one institution is untouched. The Black Lives Matter and the fires that are happening around the world, just everything. When we look at all of that, we are being, as humans, called forth in a way that I don’t think we ever have before.
What is it going to require the collective human heart so that we are not just an experiment? And I believe it’ll take not just a transition but a real, real shift in the human heart, towards… Well, let’s face it. What has it been, 12,000 years of oppression that humanity’s carried around. And even those of us that don’t realize that we’re part of the whole oppressive paradigm, when we just are, because we were raised in that soup and that’s just the deal. So I would call it a shift from the oppressive paradigm into whatever the non-oppressive paradigm is, and how the human heart would hold that.
So we’re looking at openness and oneness versus separation, power with rather than power over, emotion as celebrated and honored and listened to as opposed to just logic and reason, presence and slowness over urgency. These are the shifts that I think are upon us. Intuition and a real understanding that—and not just a philosophical understanding, but a visceral, somatic, embodied understanding that—we are a part of the whole. Once we get that, then our thoughts, our actions, our mindsets are going to shift. That’s what I personally think that we’re upon. Yes.
TS: Yes. Now your new book is called Flying Lead Change: 56 Million Years of Wisdom for Leading and Living. For people who are completely unfamiliar with this intriguing notion of flying lead change, I’d love to know… Kelly, you’re going to follow me here. I’d love to know what it means for a horse to engage in a flying lead change, and then an individual human, and then all of us here at this time that we’re in, all three-
KW: The collective. Okay. Woo. I’m going to break into a sweat now. So the horse has four legs, and when a horse—or really any four-legged animal, but a horse does it with the most grace—when they are at one of their most quickest gaits, we’ll call it a gallop or a canter, they have their body divided into two sides—left side, right side. When they’re running, they’re going to lead with, let’s say, their right side. What that means is that their right leg, their right front leg and their right hind leg are leading. It holds them in balance, because they might be leaning a little to the right. Imagine a motorcycle. So I’m going to way over-simplify here.
If the topography changes, they have to do this gymnastic move—and imagine the math. We’re talking between 1200 and 1700 pounds—where they spring off the ground and in midair, shift their balances and change their legs. Which is an extraordinary feat given the gravity, the math, all of it. And it’s from a very simple shift of topography in order to do that. It keeps them balanced, so that in that shift of topography, they literally don’t crash.
They stay balanced. But this gymnastic move is, in its finest form, incredibly elegant. The horse has to be present, very grounded, and understanding of a shift of balance, whether that’s intuitive or in their brain, I’m not sure. Athletic enough to spring into midair, and be in that emptiness of midair, so there’s all these wonderful metaphors showing up here.
So I wanted to play on that gymnastic move as a similar place for us as humans, that our heart has to do a flying lead change. We’re not just going to change our minds. We’re not just going to recycle better. We’re not just going to maybe come up with a better widget, or a better classroom style, or a new elected leader. No. If we’re going to get through all this, we’re going to need a similar physics-defined maneuver where we spring off of where we’ve been and radically change our balance into a new way forward, because the topography has changed. It will never go back to the way it was.
So that’s individually and then collectively to do that. How are we going to do that? is the big question. I’m a big believer that when we create conditions, the right conditions, that humans can do the right thing. So I think for us as individuals and as a collective, it’s around creating conditions. So what are those conditions?
Again, going back to the horse, the horse culture—and this isn’t widely known—most people talk in terms of equine behavioral sciences. But I’m talking about equine culture. The equine culture is centered upon five values: safety, connection, peace, joy, freedom. And the lead horse keeps those conditions intact through their care and their presence. So it’s been my experience in my own life, and the experience I’ve had with people I’ve worked with, that if conditions of safety, connection, peace, joy, and freedom through care and presence, are there, then transformative things arise. So this is what our work is about here, is creating those conditions as much as we can, as consistently as we can.
Yes. So you may look in your own life, Tami, that when you feel safe, when you’re in an environment of care and presence—my guess is that you naturally create those in your organization and with your family because they’re values that are aligned with just the natural world of how things work. So those conditions allow for transformative books that you publish, that your staff and your faculty are in the business of transformation, because those conditions are probably very much naturally at play.
TS: Yes. So as a leader and somebody who wants to learn from my sibling lead horse, I want to learn from the lead horse in the herd, talk to me more about what the lead horse is doing to express care and presence? What does that look like? What can I learn? What are the leadership lessons I can learn from organizational life?
KW: Excellent. Well, first of all, we’ve been taught that the lead horse is the stallion. It’s not the stallion. The lead horse tends to be a mare in wild herds, and a mare in domesticated herds unless there are no mares around, in which case it’ll go to one of the geldings, the castrated horses. But let’s say you’re in a herd with an alpha mare, the alpha lead horse is usually the smallest. She’ll be the least fancy, showy, gregarious. She’ll be the quietest. She will move the least, because conservation of energy is really important.
We only have so much energy that we have each day in our lives, in our weeks and months, and if we expend that energy unnecessarily, then when the lion comes to get the proverbial horse, we don’t have energy to get away. So energy is very key to a lead horse. Conserving energy is very key. So you would learn, probably just by the way she was modeling, about conservation of energy and economy of energy. Every phone call takes energy. Every lunch with a colleague takes energy. Every decision takes energy. So how to become more economical in your energy expenditure.
You would also notice that it’s not so much what they do, but how they be, to use really bad English. So that state of being in presence, in however you want to call it—in force, in presence —is a state of being that is incredibly powerful for a lead horse because how she is, her state of being, naturally influences all the others.
So you know how it is when you walk into a board meeting or something and somebody’s like really agitated. They may not look it. They may have a flat affect, but there’s something going on inside. You feel it. And it can affect the whole room.
Similarly, as leader, you would learn to put way more emphasis on how you be, your state of being, over what you do. Because your nervous system is going to influence and tune with all the nervous systems of the people that work for you. And it will do it either positively or negatively. And so just you and your state of presence and your way of staying grounded in the present moment is going to leverage a lot more possibility for you and your organization, than necessarily dotting all those I’s and crossing all those T’s. Yes.
TS: One of the things that always gets my attention is when the scientific community begins to research the benefits of a particular spiritual practice. This is the case now with the Wim Hof Method, an approach to health and spiritual wellbeing that combines cold immersion, deep breathing, and shifts in mindset, an approach that is now being studied at dozens of universities. You can learn more about Wim Hof and his revolutionary method at FindYourCold.com.
So an executive comes to Thunderbird Ridge, your training ranch, and they’re burned out. They’re super burned out. And they hear you describing, or maybe they don’t hear you describing it, but somehow they get the experience of what the lead horse is doing. How does that person then change their behavior? Help me understand the actual process. I mean, it’s one thing to understand it in an abstract way.
KW: Right, right. Yes.
TS: There’s a lot I’m going to have to go through to go from being a burned-out executive to being someone who knows how to conserve my energy intelligently and yet still feel like I’m having a big impact.
KW: Yes. Yes. That’s an excellent question. So it’s actually not as a big a gap as you might imagine, and here’s how it works. So let’s take that burned-out executive, and he or she goes or they go into the arena with the horses, and instantly their nervous system is going to feel a completely different felt sense of the organizational nature of the herd. Their body will feel it. A lot of our works focused on the neuroscience of why that is and how we can turn that felt, to use Rick Hansen’s words, that felt “state into a trait.”
So we spend a lot of time helping people tap into, notice, and experience—and deliberately experience—the felt sense of being a member of that herd, and how different that is to their daily life. And it’s so profound that what’s happening inside this person are all these neural centers are—I’m going to way over simplify—are lighting up. New neural receptors are lighting up instantly, that are oriented towards that state of presence.
After a mere couple of hours of consciously letting them feel, deliberately inhabit and embody, then we will have them practice that as a practice—two minutes, five times a day. Sit and be in that felt sense of peace and calm and beingness, as opposed to urgency and stress and anxiety and doing this. If they do that work, they shift their neural pathways. When their neural pathways shift, different outcomes happen in their life, different experiences come to their life. So it all kind of works in this really wonderful, I would call it almost “neural biological alchemistry.” It just shifts because it’s happening on a somatic level.
So he can have all kinds of intellectual understandings about how— he or she or they—can have intellectual understandings about, “Yeah, I need to conserve some energy,” and all that is good, but the real change happens because their body is getting a actual experience of what that’s like. And before they have the encounter with the horses, they’re not getting that anywhere. That’s not happening anywhere in their life. So until it lights up in his nervous system, it’s not going to change in their life. Yes.
TS: Yes. That’s very helpful. Now I want to say something, maybe this is pulling out the obvious, but I’d like to hear you comment on it, which is I read a statistic a while ago that there was a study done that showed that only 4% of businesses have female CEOs as the lead. And here you are describing that in a horse community, a mare would be given the lead role. So what is it about our current business world that clearly is not aligning with our sibling horse intelligence?
KW: Okay. I’m going to say a few things. It’s about women, and it’s also about the feminine, right? So there’s those qualities in men and women, everybody in between. Part of it is a lot of people with the strengths of an alpha mare, care and presence, don’t align with the leadership mindset that is in corporate America. It’s not there. They don’t want to lead in that way. So part of it is there’s a mismatch.
People who would be the most powerful leader tend to be like the alpha mare in the herd, quieter, less gregarious, and they lead by care and presence. And when they, then, put themselves up against, say, a large Fortune 500 company and the way that those companies are led, they don’t even want to go there. So there’s a mismatch. If that culture of leadership shifted, I think that would bridge the gap. Because people who had those strengths and skills would go, “Oh, I want to make a living like that. That feels good to me.” So that’s part of it.
At the same time as well, where did we get our models of leadership? Where did they come from? Who taught them to us? Mostly we inherited them from military structures. And again through the oppressive paradigm that we’ve found ourselves in for 12,000 years, where leadership is supposed to be winner-take-all, about competition, power over. And all of these values and practices and principles that actually aren’t leadership at all, at least not according to the natural world. Everywhere you see species who lead differently. I mean, Hollywood makes it look like it’s the silverback gorilla, and it’s the stallion, and it’s the beating up, and the gladiator, but that’s not leadership at all.
Leadership ensures safety, connection, peace, joy, freedom. What would that be like if our leaders were selected based on their ability to be caring and present? What would our institutions, our governments, our world be like if we focused our values on safety, connection, peace, joy, and freedom, and we elected people who were profoundly present and profoundly caring? That’d be a whole different… So there’s a mismatch, and I know a lot of very amazing people who never thought of themselves as leaders because they’re quieter, they’re more intuitive, their sensibilities are much more feminine in nature. Just call it that way. So I wouldn’t want to get a bunch of women into leadership positions, and not want the leadership mindset to shift to meet all that feminine power. Right?
TS: Yes. Now one thing I learned about the lead horse that I didn’t know, that I thought was really interesting in reading Flying Lead Change, I learned a lot about horses. As someone who’s not that familiar with horses, is that the lead horse leads from behind.
TS: So help me understand as a human what I can learn from that.
KW: Part of it is physics. She’s much more able to leverage the movement of lots of horses out in front of her, but part of it has to do with just again the collective intelligence that’s at work in the natural world. So how a horse leads is that the younger horses, the horses that are a kind of coming of age, they’ll be out front. To be out front, you have to build your confidence because you’re going to be the first one that’s in danger or encountering danger. To be out front, you have to be trustworthy. So all these things have to happen to the horses out front.
As a human leader, this very minute… Well, I’ll just say who the great example of leading from behind is Sounds True, because your business model takes books and puts them out into the world. It’s not at all about Sounds True. Sounds True serves by putting them out front. That’s leading from behind. You’re pushing them out front. So leading from behind has to do with inspiring others to be as great as they can be, and that you are creating conditions, to use that term again, where people have to be stronger, more confident, more bold, more brave, all those things so that they step into their greatness.
You know you’re a leader from behind when people in your care, in your charge, start to take credit for things without even realizing that you were behind them, helping to make that happen. The more you disappear and the more your people are out front, then that’s going to create a more resilient organization. Because you’re also building legacy. You’re fostering strength so that you’ve got many, many possible leaders that are now out front, that can eventually take the role back behind. So does that answer the question?
TS: That does. That’s good.
TS: Yes. I think one of the things that comes up for me as a potential pitfall whenever someone’s talking about lessons we learn from an animal species, is the notion that we could be projecting. We could be taking metaphors and making something up. And the other potential pitfall, I think, is some kind of romanticization, romanticizing the species. And I wonder what your thoughts are about that, and how in your own work you’ve reflected to not fall into those potential pitfalls.
KW: Yes, anthropomorphizing, romanticizing… It’s an ongoing challenge not to do that. And it’s also not helpful. So we’re never going to be a horse. We’re not meant to be a horse. But the more that we can open our minds and hearts to natural systems that are pervasive across the natural world, that aren’t just ,only show up with mushrooms but don’t show up over here with the daisy. The more we’re open to the physics of how things work, then we will find our own particular way of doing that with that helpful information.
It’s not helpful either to romanticize what life might’ve been like 12,000 years ago. It was brutal. And even Uncle Bob said that… I think he said something around, “Trading women could keep wars from happening with different clans.” So it was never a Shangri-la, ever. We’re growing and learning and opening ourselves to not being on that apex. And being a humble learner from the entire natural world and looking at it from as evidence-based as possible. What’s really happening here?
Do horses really lead from behind or do they lead all kinds of other ways? Generally they lead from behind, unless one is just running off and then the others will follow. But day-to-day they’re leading from behind. So it’s important. It’s important not to anthropomorphize them. That’s just, again, our apex lens at work. Like, we’re better and we know how to interpret it.
TS: Here’s another quote from Flying Lead Change. You write that, “Horses are master teachers of vulnerability.” And I wanted to understand more about that. How does a horse teach a human about vulnerability?
KW: Well, I define vulnerability as being open to everything as is. Pema Chödrön have this really amazing chapter in one of her books called Weather and the Four Noble Truths about experiencing emotion as a weather pattern, and just letting it be as is and coming through. Horses are 100% doing that, being open to what is, experiencing things as is, and they’re incredibly congruent with things as they come through. They have to be. They’re animals of prey. If they numbed out a particular experience or a particular cue, then they would be lunch. They would be somebody’s lunch. So for them, they are naturally expressive. There is no kind of right, wrong, good, bad. This is a good feeling to have, this is a bad feeling to have. They’re just 100% aligned with the present moment as is.
To me, that’s the ultimate vulnerability. It’s allowing oneself to be that porous, that things can come through. And we open ourselves up to being that, and that way we avail ourselves to more information that’s in our field. May not be comfortable information, as Pema would say. It can be a hurricane sometimes. But in allowing that, we access way more possibility of life force. Yes.
TS: Yes. And there’s another sentence from the book that I pulled out. “Of all the lessons the horses have taught me, the concept of space is perhaps the most fascinating.”
TS: And I thought, “I want to hear more about that.”
KW: Yes. Yes. I continue to learn about space from the horses because it’s a good lesson for me. So let’s see. The author, his name escapes me right now, but he wrote a book called The Spaces That We Live Inside. And he shows how we all have a electromagnetic field around us. This is just science. They call it a “flight zone” in some circles. When you’re a kid and you wanted to catch like a lizard or something, and you could get just so close, and then at this certain point, they would flee and run away.
So that flight zone is actually a real bubble of space that is around all beings. Horses have it. Dogs have it. People have it. We’re not taught to see it. But that space is around us. It’s why we can sense something coming near to us when we may not see it. So it’s basically using our peripersonal neurons to sense where we are in space, in time.
That space with horses is actually, it’s not a separator. Often, in our human minds we think space separates. For horses, space connects, because space gives each horse a zone of safety. And when I talk about this, we can think about it in terms of as it translates to humans, we’re talking psychic space, physical space, emotional space, spiritual space, mental space. Do we give ourselves enough space? What does it feel like when we let people into our space who may not treat us so well, or may not resonate with our values? What happens when we collapse our space in order to accommodate another? Why do we not ask for more space? Is it because we’re afraid someone will leave us?
And when you’re with horses, you get to see that space is this beautiful conduit where everyone has their own agency, everybody has their own sovereignty within their dominion, and that it’s really those space bubbles that are connecting and navigating around each other instead of allowing those spaces to compress and collide with one another. Physically, it means they can get away easier from the hunter, but when you see a quiet herd in action, they’re always moving around each other’s space, respecting each other’s space, asking permission if they can come to one another’s space. So I’d love to open up that permission to all of us. That we actually have that flight zone around us. Some people have small bubbles around themselves. Some people have big ones. But to start to think of our existential embodiment that way, and, “What do I do with that space”? and “How do I claim that space?” So it opens up a lot of questions for us.
Interestingly, people who are very confident tend to have smaller space bubbles. People who are more shy, or more introverted, or less confident will have very big space bubbles. They did studies where President Kennedy would walk down a hall, and he would just seemingly part the seas of people. So people originally thought, “Well, Kennedy has a big space bubble around him.” But actually because people felt intimidated by Kennedy, they made big space bubbles around themselves. So it’s just very interesting to play with this notion of the space that really does exist around us, and how do we ignore it, or bypass it, or worry that creating space is actually going to create disconnection? When quite the opposite can happen when done well.
TS: Yes. Well, let me ask you a very direct question about this. I notice when people stand too close to me, or I experience it as too close, like really in my… I have the heebie-jeebies.
TS: And it’s very difficult for me, and if I step back and if they continue to step forward and close to me, I’m kind of like, “Shields up.”
TS: “Shields up. This is not a safe situation. This person is way too… They’re in my bubble.”
TS: What could I learn from a horse about what to do in that kind of situation?
KW: You would learn (A) that that’s real. That’s not a strange thing. You’re probably very sensitive, therefore you want a slightly bigger space bubble around you. You would learn that it’s worth honoring. You might learn what it’s cost you not to honor that, or to in some way… I don’t know, play it down or whatever. You might learn ways to set boundaries around that space that don’t cut you off from others. Because oftentimes when we set boundaries, we do it with a closed heart. I’m guilty of that, too, that by the time I’ve had enough and I set a boundary, I’m like, “Grr. Get out of my space.”
So you would learn to do that with more grace and dignity so that the person you’re engaging on this with would… You would create an alliance with them around it. But not always. Humans are complicated, so they may give you pushback. But it doesn’t matter. It’s your space, and there’s a reason why your body is responding in that way, because anytime our bodies feel… Our bodies are such great navigators of truth. Any time we’re out of alignment with our integrity, our body’s like, “Whoop, whoop. Nope. Uh-uh.” So it’s instant feedback.
TS: Yes. Now, Kelly, there maybe some people listening who are like, “I have to go to EQUUS,” which is the name of your training facility down in New Mexico. I’ve got to go. But probably a large portion of people are thinking, especially here in the middle of the pandemic, “I’m not going to EQUUS.” But they might be thinking, “I know of a horse, somewhere, that I could go and connect with.” Maybe not ride or anything, but just to talk to, or observe or be with. This conversation about Flying Lead Change is so inspiring. So if somebody wanted to do that, maybe just go and observe, what would you recommend? What would they be sitting with and looking for?
KW: Yes. I love that question. I would first encourage them to go anywhere in nature, absent that apex that we first spoke about. To go in nature, knowing, even if you have to imagine it, that you belong, that you are a sibling to the rocks and the trees and the animals and everything, the insects. And feel what that’s like to be an active participant and not an observer of. And feel it in your body. These lessons come to us viscerally. That’s where all the intelligence in our body lights up. So that would be first.
It’s oftentimes much more obvious with a horse, but if a horse isn’t around somewhere, then get yourself into nature, and feel what your body feels. And if your imagination comes online, and you think you’re getting messages, or you’re getting felt senses that are important, just go with it. If it doesn’t work for you, you can leave it. If you’re cynical in some way, that’s fine. You can leave it.
But I would encourage anyone to just go and be in that open space, and feel what they feel. They’ll already be benefited. They don’t have to intellectually understand what they’re getting. Just immersing themselves in that is going to shift them. If they’re lucky enough to have to have horses somewhere, I would strongly advise that they do it in the most natural setting as possible. Horses in stalls, in barns, not allowed to be out on pasture—there’s other things going on there for them because it’s the stress of that environment.
So you’re better off grabbing a folding chair and sitting out in a field somewhere—on the other side of the fence, of course—and just being and watching and feeling what you feel. And if you’re lucky enough to see several horses working together, they often model this way of being, by how they are acting. And the modeling is a beautiful teaching as well, so be observant. So that’s what I would do. And journal. Journaling’s always good.
TS: Now circling back to the beginning of our conversation, we talked about this notion that the horse and the human might be an evolutionary pair of some kind, in an evolutionary partnership. And in the beginning of Flying Lead Change, you write about a mythology, if you will, of a promise that potentially the horses have made to us, to us humans. And I’m curious how you see the promise that potentially horses have made to us, and what you think our promise to horses might be as the other part of that pair.
KW: Yes. Well, the mythology, very quickly, just says that horses came to us, and that we were siblings. And that when humans started to deviate from being in alignment with the greater whole, the horses and many creatures left and fled away, and it started a dark time. And that their return back to America was a signaling that that time of darkness was about to be over. However, there was a threshold moment called “the great out-waiting” where it’s a moment of, “What’s humanity going to choose? Are they going to choose fear and separation, or are they going to choose love and connection?” And we’re in that moment right now. We’re literally in that moment.
The promise is that the horses said, “We will help you get through that threshold and choose love and connection.” There’s not a lot of people listening, though. And it requires that we not see horses as just something that horse-crazy girls play with, but that we do have a sibling who’s available to us. In the natural world, we have an emissary, an ambassador who’s here to assist us. So I think our part of the promise is that we listen. That’s it. It’s just that simple. That we listen.
TS: You used this term “the great out-waiting,” and I’ve never heard that before. Where does that come from, and what does it mean?
KW: It comes from, there’s a couple of stories of the Pueblo people were that shows up, and it’s not in every story. But it just means, how I interpret it—I’ll put it that way—is waiting for the choice. What choice are we going to make? So we have to sit and wait and see. But it’s not a quick, from darkness to light. That there’s a waiting period. That’s how I interpret it.
TS: Yes. Kelly, towards the end of Flying Lead Change, you write about joy. And you write that none of the transformational work that you’re committed to, you believe can happen if there’s not a context of joy, invitation to joy. And I’d love to hear more about that. I think especially in these times that are so trying for so many people, and of course we want to be joyful. But we also don’t want to fake it. So how are we joyful, and how does our care and activism express itself with genuineness in the midst of all of our grief? How do we do that?
KW: Well, first, I have a slight reframe on joy, what joy is. I think that a lot of the greeting card sense of mentality of joy implies that joy is just a better happiness, more optimal happiness. To me, joy though, and it maybe the same in your experience too, Tami, but joy is this really rarefied felt state where everything’s there at once. I notice that the joy surfaces in my life when I’m holding hard things. Like grief is in there, and somberness, and curiousness, and heartbreak all show up in joy. Joy happens because I’m, to use that word, vulnerable because I’m being vulnerable to all that is. And oddly enough, if I’m open to grief, heartbreak, despair, rage, all of these darker, what we call darker experiences, and open to gratitude, happiness. If I’m open to the whole spectrum of human emotion as it shows up, joy surfaces. And it has this really interesting quality where it’s out-of-body amazing, but it’s not absent the groundedness of the reality that we are currently in.
So that’s the first point, is that real joy can’t be disrespectful or dismissive of what’s really going on. And so I would argue that these times are giving us lots of opportunity to feel really big things, therefore lots of opportunity to stand in joy. Joy, it has a revolutionary feel to it. What was it, Audre Lorde talking about that “Our joy is a radical act,” and it translates… Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in spite of everything, she was never hopeless; always that fortitude, that dignity. To me, that’s an expression of joy. Her love of humanity, that’s an expression of joy. That we dare to say in spite of it all, “We hope. We will hold hope. We will hold our dignity. We will continue to do everything we can, and celebrate humanity in spite of it all.” That is joy.
TS: One final question, Kelly. You put a lot into the writing of Flying Lead Change: 56 Million Years of Wisdom For Leading and Living. You poured your heart into the book. What do you hope will come from this?
KW: This is the hardest question you’re asking me now, of all the questions. I’d like the book to find its way into the right hands. That’s what I want for it. That it find its way into the right hands, and that from there, those right hands find their way to do the work that they were meant to do. I think that’s what I want.
TS: You’ve been listening to Kelly Wendorf. She’s the author of the new book Flying Lead Change: 56 Million Years of Wisdom For Leading and Living. And I want to thank you so much, Kelly. You introduced me to so many new leadership lessons and really, life lessons from our evolutionary partner, our sibling, the horses. Thank you so much.
KW: Thank you, Tami. Thanks so much.
TS: Thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at SoundsTrue.com/podcast. And if you’re interested, hit the Subscribe button in your podcast app. And also, if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I love getting your feedback, being in connection with you, and learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. Working together, I believe we can create a kinder and wiser world. SoundsTrue.com, waking up the world.