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Q&A with Rosie Withey, Equine Facilitated Learning Instructor

What is Equine Facilitated Learning? We caught up with Rosie Withey, an EFL instructor based in the UK, to learn more about this facet of the equestrian world and what it has to offer.

All photos courtesy of Rosie Withey.

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Rosie Withey is a modern renaissance woman within the equestrian industry: she’s run her own equestrian center, coached the British pentathlon team (including an individual gold medalist) and most recently become an Eponaquest Equine Facilitated Learning instructor. We caught up with Rosie to learn more about Equine Facilitated Learning and what it has to offer everyone, both within and outside of the equine world.

Can you define Equine Facilitated Learning for us?

As you will probably realize if you Google this topic, there are many different interpretations of EFL and indeed many different ways of expressing what is essentially “learning with and from horses and their wisdom”.  I like to use the words “Equine Facilitated Learning” because facilitate originates from the French word facile which means “easy to do”.  So my initial and literal explanation of EFL is that horses make learning easy!

I define EFL as a combination of activities with horses, coaching and discussion, combined with creative activities in a peaceful setting and unique environment in which to nurture and learn. I also believe that horses are great levelers or balancers: they help bring our mental, physical, emotional and spiritual selves into balance.

Horses make learning easy because they are present, they respond in the moment, they are authentic, they use their emotions as information and they will not cooperate easily (unless they are conditioned or controlled into doing so) with someone who is not in line with their intentions. Horses do not judge, they simply respond, giving humans honest and valuable feedback.

However, the uniqueness of the work that I offer is not all about the horses. What is also essential for real learning and growth to happen is an environment in which it is safe to speak one’s truth and safe to be vulnerable without being shamed. The first time that I felt truly safe to by myself and start on my own process was on my EFL training.

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Who can benefit from EFL?

Anyone! That’s the truth. I am consistently asked this question.Often people have heard of riding for the disabled or equine learning/therapy for addictions and similar programs.

The reality is that anyone can benefit from EFL because the horses have so much to teach and it all boils down to relationship skills — good relationships are at the root of our society, whether it’s at home with family and friends, at work with colleagues, managers and bosses or in our communities.

So, it’s really a matter of who each EFL professional chooses to work with. I choose to work with anyone who is interested in developing their own personal awareness to improve communication and relationship-building skills. I work with people who are stuck or going through a time of change and seek clarity and direction and the confidence to move forward. I work with riders to develop their partnership with their horse and this evolves into training.

At the core of my coaching and my EFL practice is my belief that authenticity is the key. When we can access our true and authentic self we can make choices and decisions that best serve us. We can develop healthy relationships, we know what we want and can develop the skills to achieve it.

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How did your career path lead you to specializing in EFL?

Good question. Well, I didn’t go looking for it, it found me! I didn’t even know it existed when I came across it! So, in hindsight I can see that my life path was preparing me for the work that I’m now blessed to be able to do.

Growing up on ponies and then retraining horses as a teenager, I developed relationships with horses and some with
challenges. I built two businesses from scratch: in my Dad’s business I was co-leading the company, and then I ran my own equestrian centre, developing communication and leadership skills. Through my business I developed relationships between horses and humans and also developed many teenagers to become instructors, many of whom now run successful businesses of their own.

In 1999 I was invited to train the Modern Pentathlon team in show jumping and I accepted. I was a part of the coaching team that trained and supported Steph Cook to gold in the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

During these 13 years and through training students, horses and athletes I became acutely aware of the horse/human relationship. I was always more focused on developing the relationship and less interested in the goals; however, success was often the by-product of developing a great relationship with a horse! I was also blessed with several horses with physical and emotional challenges during this time and this led me to explore Reiki, radionics (distant healing), spiritual healing and life coaching.

And then the most important bit came last: I learned through my amazing horse Jack and the Eponaquest approach to connect to my true and authentic self. In 2003, burnt out and ready for something different, I sold my business and continued as a freelance riding coach. I moved home and for the first time in my life I bought my own horse. As a child my mum had bought my horses, as a teenager I bought horses with a view to sell them and make some pocket money, as a riding school proprietor I bought horses for my business: so Jack was the first horse that I had bought for myself (and actually also for my daughter to share).

Then the journey began! Even though I had chosen healthy, robust, easy and calm horses for my business, here I was buying a horse with challenges to “fix” it.  Little did I know that it was me that was going to get “fixed”!

Jack was nervous being in a new environment, he was in poor condition and he was very unfit. But I fell in love with him and bought him. After 6 months of Rosie’s TLC, good feeding and training he looked a picture of health and was much more fit — so much so that one day he spooked in the field and bucked my daughter off. She vowed never to ride him again. I had to cope with the fact that I was also shocked by the sight and felt quite nervous getting on him after that. I wanted to be as brave as my mum and I couldn’t tell anyone that I was frightened, I had a reputation at stake. Least of all I couldn’t own up to Jack: and therein lay the problem!

The next part is a long story, so to cut it short I started trying to “fix” Jack through healing, cranial osteopathy, herbs, groundwork training — you name it, I tried it. Along the way I had a reading with animal communicator Holly Davis, who told me about Linda Kohanov. I wrote down the name but didn’t do anything with it.

Six months later, after winning our first six dressage competitions and still feeling quite stressed at times, Jack spooked at some cows and shot sideways and we both fell on the road. We were both severely shaken and I broke my collar bone. However, as soon as I hit the ground I knew that something had to change! I looked through my notes, found Linda Kohanov’s name, went on to
her website and found an Eponaquest instructor in the UK.

I went for a two-hour private session on two consecutive days and it was life changing. A month later I attended a group workshop and then I knew that this work was my path.

Three months later I was in Arizona starting on my Eponaquest journey. I attended the EASE program, an intensive personal development program of EFL, between February and May of 2009. This program was life changing: I realized how much of my life I had spent trying to be someone else and seeking approval outside of myself! In September I started training to become an instructor. In March 2010 I qualified and since then I’ve facilitated in Eponaquest apprenticeships and in 2013 became an Advanced Instructor.

My passion is to teach as many people as is possible in my lifetime to connect to their true and authentic self with and through the amazing nature and wisdom of horses.

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While in the interests of confidentiality you probably can’t describe an individual success story, can you generalize what might happen with a client through EFL?

People come to EFL when something isn’t working out: a relationship, job, or lifestyle. Some people have come to a time of change: kids leaving home, redundancy, divorce, a new job, and it’s a time to re-evaluate their lives and what is truly meaningful for them. My work is all about helping clients to access their true or authentic self: not the person they have become to fit in. They may feel anxious or stressed, they may be lacking confidence or not sure how to move forward.

Most people have had some connection with horses in their past and are curious to find out how it works. Some people say that they have been drawn to experience with the horses and they have no idea why.

An introductory one-on-one session is two hours. After that, sessions can be two hours, a half day (three hours) or a whole day. As with any form of personal development, although significant changes can sometimes be obtained from one-off experiences, the real benefit is from a series of sessions. I don’t tie people into a program but I offer it as a
recommendation (four to six sessions and then a review).

In the introductory session I introduce my approach to Equine Facilitated Learning, which is based upon the Eponaquest approach created by Linda Kohanov. I then take the client through a short mindfulness process to assess what they would like to gain from the session. I teach a body awareness exercise and I then introduce the client to the horses, which is an exercise done in silence for the client to connect with their non-verbal communication skills. This is a very powerful process because it’s so unusual: as humans we are so conditioned to just “getting on with it”. This allows the client to calm down; we are all vulnerable in a new environment, whether we admit it or not!

I then teach the concept of emotions as information and some of the Emotional Message Chart, detailed in Linda Kohanov’s recent book The Power of the Herd. This is followed by some experiential work to discover how much personal space the client requires to feel safe and how to set clear boundaries, and then a demonstration with the horses. It is only then that the client is ready to have their first interaction with the horses, which is an exploration of mutual respect.

Future sessions depend on the nature of the problem that the client presented with. From my experience these can include:

  • developing confidence to set boundaries
  • acknowledge uncomfortable emotions and understanding their messages
  • responding to emotions and taking responsibility for the self
  • understanding what feelings are relevant to the present experience with the horse and which are being triggered from past experiences, and being supported to work through them
  • acknowledging vulnerability, recognizing the limiting beliefs and having the opportunity to work through them with the horses as guides

It’s very common for clients to feel rejected when a horse walks away and believe that the horse doesn’t like them. In a human/human relationship this might set up a future difficult encounter. With a horse, the person can simply recognize that this belief is limiting and approach the horse again to connect.

A typical client might be lacking clarity, direction, self confidence, self esteem or self-empowerment and is interested to know how the connection with horses can help them become more aware of themselves and highlight areas where they are struggling. They
want to get in touch with their intuition and true self. They want to find clear direction and ways to move forward.

They may want to overcome negative behavioral patterns and to find healthier ways to set boundaries, to overcome the things that are blocking them and to gain confidence and self-esteem.

EFL is a coaching process and most sessions include an element of the following:

  • teaching some theory about the Eponaquest approach, mindfulness,
    emotional intelligence, the mind/body connection, vulnerability, horse
    handling and horsemanship
  • human:human role play
  • experiential experiences and activities with the horses

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Tell us a little bit more about the day-to-day workings of your services.

I offer Equine Facilitated Learning one-on-one sessions, workshops and tailored workshop programs. I work with mostly women, but some men. I work with professionals, individuals, teenagers, and corporates.

I also offer riding lessons to people on their own horses in my area of the UK.

I am open to running workshops in other countries and have so far run three-day riding workshops in France, Germany and Sweden. These riding workshops cover personal development and relationship skills between the rider and the horse, groundwork and ridden training.

To learn more about Rosie and her Equine Facilitated Learning “Horses as Teachers” program offerings, we encourage readers to check out her website. You can also “like” her Horses as Teachers page on Facebook for updates! Go riding!

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