Self-management, aka keeping your “stuff” separate from your participant’s “stuff”, is a key part of being a good facilitator. Being aware of and managing your own “triggers and hooks” and staying focused on the needs of participants rather than your own are two skills that turn a bunch of activities to a therapeutic encounter.
“Triggers and hooks” are reactions that are triggered by something that has happened in the workshop that causes an emotional response that may be out of proportion to what has actually happened. For example, if a facilitator cared for her mother with dementia and had difficulty when her mother repeated the same story over and over, that facilitator may be triggered with a flood of emotion and responses when a person starts repeating a story. The facilitator should acknowledge those feelings and then put them aside and continue facilitating. Trying to stay as neutral as possible allows you to hold the space for the experience versus controlling it.
If you don’t know where your “hooks” or “triggers” are, you’ll soon find out! To be an effective facilitator, you need to explore the personal needs and issues that might get in the way of being present for others. That’s why the journal exercises in each module are so important. They will help you pinpoint issues and areas that could present as triggers and hooks during a workshop. Without this self-awareness, you can unconsciously push participants towards outcomes you believe are right for them. But the outcomes you choose are not as profound or healing as the ones they discover for themselves. The Connected Horse program is designed to facilitate that discovery.
Self-management is separating your needs from your participant’s needs. Even when you are not hooked or triggered, this is an ongoing concern when creating a therapeutic environment. Shall I intervene now? Is this unsafe? Can it wait? Am I responding to my needs or theirs? When in doubt, wait (unless it’s a safety issue). Then don’t do anything. When you make a mistake, learn to be delighted by it.
To facilitate a Connected Horse program, you do not have to be an expert on human behavior, systems theory, dementia, or horses. You have to be able to be in the present moment without attempting to alter it to fit your picture of “better.” Chances are this need to make things better is simply you over-functioning.
A common trap for facilitators is to try to push an outcome. In one workshop, a facilitator was trying to push a care partner to lead a horse away from her husband. When we discussed her directed request, she realized that her objective was to make sure the care partner had her own experience away from her husband. She was pushing her own agenda and trying to make it happen.
In another workshop, a participant told us that she always shied away from things when they got hard. Sticking with figuring out how to lift and clean out the horse’s hoof was one of the first times in a long time that she stayed with something hard. What would have happened if the facilitator came over and showed her how to do it “better”?
You have to learn to trust the process. Sometimes the most profound learning comes from the struggle and allowing the participant to figure out a plan of action.
Facilitators, horse handlers and volunteers all have the tricky balancing act of being watchful to keep people safe while being mindful not to interfere in the process or try to create an outcome. It takes time and experience to get comfortable with the art and discipline of staying neutral so people can focus on their experiences and the horses can focus on the participants.
The best results come from the least intervention. This is the discipline that is facilitation. Christine Stevens, a music therapist who facilitates drum circles all over the world, says “Teaching is when they follow you. Facilitating is when you follow them. Magic is when they follow each other.”
Finally, be sure to stay rigorously, but not rigidly, in the present moment. Participants will ask you questions that you may know the answers to. “Why is the horse doing that?” “How old is that horse?” “Is that a male or female horse?” Although answering may seem harmless, each answered question helps them form a story in their mind about what is happening rather than simply being in the experience. Try telling them you won’t answer their question because you want them to stay in their five senses and out of their mind. Or say that your answer would just be the story you currently believe and encourage them to make up their own stories and test them against their experience. And rarely, you can simply answer the question.
Do whatever helps keep people in the moment and in the experience they are having. Whatever it is you think you are there to do or be or make happen, write that down and toss it in the nearest garbage can. You are there to be in the present moment and to help participants be in the present moment as well.
Each morning of a Connected Horse workshop begins with an exercise that grounds both facilitators and participants so they can be present with this group, this day, this moment. The exercises will change slightly each morning but always aim at inviting everyone in. As you lead the exercise, you should feel your breathing deepen just below the belly button, a sense of calm, relaxed shoulders and feet that are planted into the ground. If you focus on grounding yourself, your participants will benefit. Facilitators and horse handlers who are authentically grounded can produce a deep calm and willingness to experience the moment for participants. So, anything that produces that is the right thing to do!
Start by saying that you want to prepare participants to be with the horses by experiencing the world as horses do: fully in the present moment and experiencing the world through their senses (add this for people who are mildly impaired: rather than through the stories in their heads).
Then ask participants to close their eyes and breathe to a rhythm which you count out for several breaths (in for 4 counts and out for 4 counts). As they are doing that, ask them to notice what they are smelling (pause), feeling (pause), and hearing (pause).
Next ask them to bring their awareness to the spot an inch below their belly button, which is our center of gravity. While breathing into that spot, ask them to feel their feet on the ground and notice how they now feel rooted. You can stamp your feet to get the point across (pause). Tell them that they can access this grounding at any time during our time together, including when a horse does something that startles them. (So can Facilitators and Horse Handlers when a horse or participant startles them.)
Ask them to open their eyes while still focusing on their breathing (you might count the breathing again—in for 4, out for 5) and once again pay attention to their senses. What do they see, feel, hear and smell as they begin the sensory walk (which usually follows this grounding exercise).
There are several ways to vary this grounding exercise. If you notice tension in your own shoulders or elsewhere in your body, remark on this and invite people to find and release their own tension as you stretch out yours. Anything you do in this vein will help participants relax and that will help them “arrive” in the present moment. You can add yawning by suggesting that people yawn several times in an exaggerated way to release the tension in their jaw and neck. Add or substitute what works for you and it will work for the participants. However, remember that participants may have limited mobility or balance, so don’t go crazy with the stretches.