A Conversation With Sara Sherman, Equine Assisted Coach: Part II

We’re continuing our feature interview with Sara Sherman, an equine assisted coach through the Equine Gestalt Coaching Method. Today, we’re exploring more of the day-to-day activities in Sara’s career.

Yesterday, we introduced you to Sara Sherman of Discovery Horse and talked about her role as an equine assisted coach as well as the details of the Equine Gestalt Coaching Method. Today, we’re discussing the “family tree” of equine-assisted therapies and exploring the day-to-day details of the career of equine assisted coaching.

While I’m sure there’s no such thing as a “typical” day, can you describe a sample “day in the life” for us?

Matt and I have one son who is in seventh grade! Dandelion Farm is an incredible 15-acre property. The home is almost 5000 square feet with a mother-in-law suite that is now the office of Discovery Horse. Our family lives on the main level while the business takes up the basement. We work with a lot of people and have a lot of visitors, so maintaining our privacy is very important.

We have seven horses that call this home. Two are my mother’s, one belongs to a woman who wants the best for her horse and the rest call me their “person.” The horses, six geldings and one mare, live together in a big pasture and have round bales out 24/7. I want the horses to live as naturally as possible, which isn’t easy and something we work towards everyday. We built a heated indoor arena on the property so we can operate year-round.

My schedule is very erratic. There isn’t much consistency as it changes from day to day. So after I feed in the morning I come in and get a picture of what my day holds. I often have a group of some sort and a few individual sessions. Then I get ready for sessions. Often with groups I will have up to four horse handlers that assist me during big sessions. They will arrive early. I give them a rundown of the day, which horses we will be working with and then we check in. This can be intense work and I like to know how the handlers are doing coming into a session so I can support them and so I can best pair them with a horse for the day. After a session we take care of the horses and debrief as a team. Often times things can trigger us and those things need to be dealt with.

During the evening I will grain the horses again for those who need it and move inside for some quite family time. We have two dogs and three cats and a snake as well and they are as much a part of the family as the horses.

Throughout the week I will also spend time in the arena playing with the horses individually and in small groups. I don’t want all their interactions with me to be solely focused on work. Lance is working on some tricks and others are working on different skills and play techniques. My son Oliver is learning to ride and he is also learning how to “be” with the horses. It is beautiful.

Part of Dandelion Farm, this red barn was built in 1938 and it still standing strong. Photo by Sara Sherman.

Part of Dandelion Farm, this red barn was built in 1938 and it still standing strong. Photo by Sara Sherman.

I don’t want to over-generalize, but within the “umbrella” so to speak of equine-assisted therapies, there are a lot of smaller sub-fields. Can you help classify where the Equine Gestalt Coaching Method lies within the “family tree?”

The “family tree” as you call it is very confusing … even for those of us in it.

Within the industry there are roughly 3 main factions:

  • Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP)
  • Equine Assisted Coaching (EAC)
  • Equine Assisted Learning (EAL)

That terminology and those acronyms are a drop in the bucket. There are too many to mention but we will use those here for the sake of simplicity.

I am an equine assisted coach that utilizes the Equine Gestalt Coaching Method (EGCM).

The difference between coaching and therapy is that in therapy there is generally a diagnosis, it can often involve suggestions/advice and works on the premise something is wrong or broken about the client … or at the very least, that something needs to be fixed.

EAL is a non-therapeutic approach that can often provide transformational outcomes. This model is not to be underestimated. I use EAL with many of my youth clients as they are not developmentally prepared to deal with the depth and introspection often required of a pure EGCM session. During my EAL work I focus on social and emotional learning skills. I also provide team-based retreats for intact teams that want to develop further. During those workshops I bring in both EAC and EAL.

When someone is investigating equine assisted “whatever,” I recommend they do their homework and look into the practitioner’s training. Some will get training over a couple of weekends while others will spend a couple of years learning the trade. It is also important to look at other training, experience or licenses that the practitioner has that will compliment the equine specific training they have had.

In coaching we believe that the client has all the answers within. In EGCM we are co-active coaches. That means we involve the client in the coaching process, we ask a lot of questions invoking contemplation and awareness around clients’ situations, lives and/or relationships. It is a very holistic approach that views the human as a whole. When we experience imbalance somewhere it affects the whole. During an EGCM session we look to identify what is causing a person to stay stuck in imbalance. These stuck places often come from a situation, trauma, or wound that was acquired earlier in life.

Often an individual will continue through life reacting rather than responding. They are reacting based on life experiences that quite often are not even relevant anymore; this is often unconscious but destructive nonetheless. I focus on creating space for people to start responding to life consciously.

Nambe, a Holsteiner, during a mother-daughter retreat.

Nambe, a Holsteiner, during a mother-daughter retreat. Photo by Bourn Photography.

As EGCM coaches we are trained to trust our somatic (body) responses to others and to situations, much like a horse. This requires us to do a lot of our own personal work — another reason I was drawn to this method. During our training process we are coaching fellow students and we are being coached. This provides the opportunity to coach safely and with feedback as well as for us to do our own personal work. In doing the work we become cleaner in a sense. We start responding rather than reacting. We are able to let go of limiting beliefs and stories that no longer serves us. This allows us to sit with our clients in objectivity.

When a practitioner/coach/therapist doesn’t engage in their own personal work, there is a a huge possibility that the professional will get their own “stuff” interwoven with their clients. We call this confluence. Now, don’t get me wrong — our personal work is never done; however, every step we take to clean up our “own side of the street” is one more step to being an effective and safe coach.

Can you describe a sample session to us?

My sessions are NEVER the same. I will outline the basics of an individual session.

Most sessions are two hours in length. I recommend a minimum of two sessions. I also offer one- to four- day retreats that can be done individually or in a group setting. I put out a few pre-set retreats each year and will also customize retreats when requested.

The property that we acquired in 2015 is a spectacular retreat location. We now have lodging for intense one-on-one retreats. I am very excited about this opportunity. A person, couple or family could come for multiple days: spend time reflecting, being in nature outside, journalism, walking and spending time with the farms animals … as well as a whole host of other very cool options! There would also be a pre-determined amount of EGCM sessions throughout.

Back to the session:

When a person books the session I ask very few questions. People often feel compelled to tell me why they want to come and I let that happen. The truth is that in Gestalt we focus on the present moment. You will be in a different space when you arrive for your session, thus potentially shifting the focus.

I hold most of my sessions in my indoor arena. I will sometimes have a round pen set up which simply holds the horse, it is not used for traditional round pen exercises. Before we begin I provide basic safety guidelines. Then the client and I will sit face to face outside the pen. A key element to the EGC method is contact: contact is an amazing experience and one that we as humans, especially in this day and age, don’t experience much. Contact is being in the present moment with another being and feeling completely seen and heard without judgement. Horses offer this as a rule. My training has allowed me to sit with others and offer them this contact as well.

As the client and I sit in our chairs I sit in contact with them and invite them to be present with me (not always an easy task). I then start asking questions and inviting my client to be in the moment, noticing what’s happening in their bodies, in their minds and in their hearts. From there the work begins and is different each and every time. As the coach the horse is partnering with me. I take cues from the horse and their interaction or reaction to the client. Eventually the client will enter the pen with the horse.

Sara and Luca preparing for a session. Photo by Ann Sherman.

Sara and Luca preparing for a session. Photo by Ann Sherman.

Here is a session I recently had: a woman came to me, we will call her “Cindy.”

My partner Luca was in the pen. He is a beautiful 10-year-old Thoroughbred.

Cindy and I sat down together outside the pen. I asked her some questions and drew her attention to the present moment. At the time Cindy wasn’t exactly clear about what she needed to work on but she knew it was important. She felt conflicted and was concerned she wasn’t living the life of value that she so desperately wanted.

What we came to realize was that Cindy attempted to have a lot of control in her life. She attempted to believe her way was the right way. She wasn’t quick to trust others to do things well (including her husband) and this was becoming exhausting. As Cindy and I talked Luca would come to our side of the pen every once in awhile. I paid close attention to “when” he came over, what Cindy was saying — or not saying — and what her body language was demonstrating. I was also paying attention to my own somatic responses to Cindy.

Eventually we realized there was a bit of split within her. The split, or polarity, was that part of her craved control while another part of her, albeit the smaller part, wanted to trust more, to take risks. Upon this realization I invited Cindy to go into the pen with Luca.

I put a rope on the ground that represented the split. Once side of the rope was her control side and the other was trust. I should note however that the “trust” side was so lost within her that she struggled to even identify it.

I then encouraged Cindy to start allowing a conversation to being between the two parts. As the conversation transpired, Luca would walk towards her and stand with her, or simply walk by. Cindy would volunteer her thoughts on his presence. I would take Luca’s visits as times when Cindy was speaking her truth, regardless of which side she was on.

At one point Luca was walking a circle on the edge of the pen. Circling … circling … circling. It was very repetitive. Cindy realized that Luca was truly demonstrating the chaos or endless circles that her controlling side brought on within her. It demonstrated what she felt: that attempting to be in control was endless, it literally kept her in circles and stuck. It was also exhausting. When she had this realization, Luca stopped, and he joined her in the middle of the pen.

Cindy eventually realized that surrender was a better word than trust. Luca supported her by standing by her when she would cross to the surrender side. We talked about ways that she could find that support within and outside herself. She realized that there was value to both sides and that “hating” on one side was essentially hating herself. She worked to create a bit more balance within herself. It was beautiful.

Thank you so much for your time, Sara!

For more information about Sara and Discovery Horse, please visit the Discovery Horse website and “like” the program on Facebook. If you are interested in more information about the Equine Gestalt Coaching Method, please visit the EGCM website.

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