Written by Sue Wasserman Tuesday, May 22 2012
It’s impossible to ignore the message when a 1,500 pound horse turns and walks away. Perhaps you’ve never considered the possibility, but Karen Head relies on this premise to craft programs at Equinection, the organization she founded to help people remember their inner strength, insight and wisdom through engaging with the incredible spirit of the horse.
She fell in love with horses as a 5-year-old when she was given her first pony. It became Head’s responsibility to take guests riding at her family’s conference center.
She explains, “I grew close to many of the conferees who ranged from doctors and politicians to members of the Department of Defense and the NAACP. It didn’t seem odd to me that a child and an amazing group of professionals could become friends because the connection came from the heart and our horses.”
Like most teens, she had her share of struggles but always regained her balance with her horses. “The social structure in junior and senior high school was daunting and often demeaning, but from the back of the horse I was beautiful, talented and in tune with the world. I always felt successful with horses no matter what endeavor I chose.”
Over the years, Head earned a master’s degree focused on experiential arts education, worked on a cattle ranch, served as a theater director, earned an Emmy for her work on a documentary film and raised a family. When she learned about Equine Facilitated Learning (EFL), she knew she had found her calling and began her studies at the Epona Center in Arizona, which offers educational programs that employ horses in teaching people skills such as leadership and personal empowerment. After becoming an advanced facilitator and earning national certification, Head shifted her focus toward learning the art of teaching and facilitation at Nierika Sol, an organization committed to helping individuals heighten their awareness and move well beyond self-limiting obstacles in all areas of life.
To Head, EFL made all the sense in the world. “Horses are prey animals,” she notes. “They’re extremely sensitive to things like body language, intention, emotions. Because they are herd animals, it is also their nature to establish strong relationships and boundaries. That’s how they survive. It’s this duality that helps people understand all that they bring in their communication – a horse will walk away if a person is incongruent or inauthentic.”
Head knows that whatever people are thinking or feeling that keeps them from being fully present affects a horse’s willingness to be with them. “As you become more self-aware, the horse will trust you more,” she notes. “In essence, all of the programs help people be more authentic with themselves and others. In creating Equinection, I felt like my life had come full circle. I could connect with peoples’ hearts as I did as a child, through the grace offered in the form of a horse.”
Located on 112 gently sloping acres in rural Green Mountain, N.C., Equinection enables Head to bring her deep passion for horses and experiential learning to life. She honors the horses, the environment and program participants here. Her 11 horses are free to roam the picturesque grounds that afford walking trails, gardens, spring-fed streams and a peaceful silhouette of the mountains that lovingly encircle the region. “Because they’re free to roam and are treated with respect,” she says, “they respond to people freely, without fear or hesitation.”
Her care and upkeep for the horses mirror the awareness and compassion Head brings to her work with people. Her goal is to honor individual strengths and help people bring those strengths forward.
During the program, a participant might be asked to open the gate and just let the horse loose. “The lesson here is that we each have within us the ability to open our own gate, and be free to live from our highest natures.”
Because of her love for this land, Head keeps her footprint as small as possible, using local, recycled and sustainable materials whenever possible. She designed the facility to be as much a part of the program as the interaction with horses. “This farm serves as a teacher, too,” she offers. “The intentionality of the compound supports the intentionality of our work.
Current workshops include “Awakening for Women,” “The Heart of Leadership,” “The Anatomy of Touch” and “One Day at a Time.” The latter two are designed specifically for helping professionals and for individuals that have been in recovery from addictions for more than five years. She emphasizes that riding is not part of her programs.
Head readily admits she doesn’t help participants develop awareness; she helps them expand into awareness. “I’ve watched so many well-meaning and talented people walk up to a horse, thinking they’ve got the right clothes, the right tone of voice and the proper commands, and yet the horse ignores them or walks away.
The lesson is to look within. “Authenticity isn’t derived from appearances or external referencing,” she says. “It’s about learning to be in the fullness of the moment, aware of both your inner and outer landscape.” Essentially, the horse provides feedback that opens a channel from the person’s heart to their mind. “This work widens one’s perspective and reduces the stresses caused by an external search for approval.”
How does her work make a difference? “When you understand yourself, you have a better understanding of how you impact others and how they’re impacting you. These programs give participants a visceral awareness of their authentic selves, which makes it possible to bring more of their true selves forward in their lives.”
It is that personal transformation that moves Head ever forward. “The horses continue to teach me on a daily basis,” she says. She wants little more than to be able to continue learning and share her wisdom with others. “There’s one thing of which I’m certain,” she says. “Not everyone will see the beauty in the horses as I see it, but through this experience they will find beauty in themselves.”
More ways to improve your leadership skills:
Former Planned Parenthood CEO Gloria Feldt provides 4 simple suggestions for ensuring that your voice is heard.
Brigid Moynahan, who has excelled as an executive coach for 24 years, believes a little confidence can go a long way - it might even take you to the next level of your career.
While there is no singular leadership style that is most effective, here are 5 basic things that you should be doing as a good leader.
Sue Wasserman is a freelance writer, publicist and nature photographer living near Asheville, N.C. Her passion is writing about people who are passionate about what they do. Most recently, she was the public relations manager for Heery International, a large architectural/engineering firm headquartered in Atlanta, Ga. Her freelance articles have appeared in Southern Living, The New York Times, American Style, Mountain Living, Atlanta Journal Constitution, the Atlanta Business Chronicle and more.