Provision #608: Empathy Needs

Laser Provision

Our first experience of community, mother and child, is given not chosen. As time goes on, however, we have many opportunities to associate with others and to meet our needs for interdependence. No one goes it alone, even those who think of themselves as “self-made”. That’s always a misnomer. We depend upon others from the cradle to the grave. There are many different strategies for meeting community needs, but no one can deny those needs exist. If you’re looking for new strategies, this Provision might just give you a few new ideas. Enjoy!

LifeTrek Provision


This past week I had the opportunity to read the story of a real-life horse whisperer, Monty Roberts. His autobiography, The Man Who Listens to Horses, has sold more than five million copies, has been translated into fourteen languages, and was on The New York Times bestseller list for fifty-eight weeks after it was first published in 1997. I can understand why. The book has a marvelous, whimsical quality that engages the reader with its honest and, at times, unbelievable stories of triumph and tragedy. I particularly enjoyed his colorful descriptions as well as his appreciative tone. He draws deeply from the well of life.

My reason for reading the book was to learn more about the presence and work of whisperers, who are known for their ability to connect in transformational ways with animals, humans, and spirits. On the surface it seems as though these people are just born with a special gift. “I see dead people” was how Cole, the child star in the 1999 movie, The Sixth Sense, described his predicament. He couldn’t explain how that happened. He certainly didn’t ask for or strive to cultivate that ability. It just came upon him and, as it turned out, caused him no end of trouble and grief.

It’s tempting to think of whisperers in much the same way. Some people are just born that way. But it becomes fast apparent that Monty Roberts, with a mix of Cherokee and European backgrounds, developed his whispering skills through a combination of mindfulness, empathy, and dogged determination. He was around horses from birth, and he knew all too well the suffering they endured while they were being “broken” by cowboys and other trainers to accept their first saddle and rider. It was a process that could take six weeks, as the spirit of the horse was slowly extinguished at the hands of their more powerful and often cruel masters.

Being abused himself as a child, Monty decided that he wanted no part of that, either for humans or horses. So he set about the task of learning how horses communicated and behaved in the wild. Through many seasons of careful observations and experimentation, Roberts ultimately became able to understand and connect with horses in their own silent language. As a result, he is typically able to “start” horses • note the difference in metaphor • in 30 minutes or less. In this way, and over the course of his lifetime, he has therefore been able to start some 15,000 horses and he has shifted the way the entire world goes about the process.

That’s the power of empathy. It is a universal need, transcending human beings to include virtually all species. Unless one has an understanding and appreciation of the other, then life will suffer just as surely as if it were being “broken” by a cowboy. With understanding and appreciation, however, life is more fun and wonderful for one and all. Listen to some of Roberts’ reflections on the things he has learned about connecting with horses. See if you don’t notice some wisdom here when it comes to connecting with humans!

“I wanted to stop and simply observe the (wild) horses. There was something compelling about seeing them as a family…. It made me want to melt into the background and see what could be seen, without subjecting them to our interference. It was almost as if I wanted to be a horse myself, so thoroughly had I taken their side. These horses were (my) brothers and sisters…. I wanted to understand them, and I was more than ever certain that I knew less than I thought I did.” (p. 9)

“(Later) it occurred to me that I could (perhaps) use the same silent system of communication myself. If I understood how to do it, I could effectively cross over the boundary between human (the ultimate fight animal) and horse (the flight animal). Using their language, their system of communication, I could create a strong bond of trust. I would achieve cross-species communication.” (p. 24)

“Once flight is no longer a clear option, the horse’s best defense if not to run but to turn into the onslaught and kick…. This explains a phenomenon recognized by all good trainers: poke a forefinger into a horse’s side and he will move against the pressure rather than away from it. It is perhaps the single most important thing to remember in training horses. Horses are into pressure animals.” (p. 25)

My goal is not to make the horse submit. “I want to gain his confidence and make him happy to follow the bit and bridle • as he’ll be doing for the rest of his working life. I want to make it a happy experience for him.” (p. 33)

I don’t want horses to work out of fear, but out of willingness. “To destroy the willingness in a horse is a crazy, unforgiveable act. Inherent generosity is among the dominant characteristics of the horse, and if nurtured can grow into the most rewarding aspect of their working lives. Of the horses I have been close to in my life, I have marveled most at their willingness to try for me, over and over again.” (p. 40)

“By observing the horse’s action and reactions, I developed an inner ear. I believed the horses were telling me something and, most important, I learned, with rare exceptions, never to believe the people connected with the horse. The rider was not lying, simply not listening. Over the years this came to be the cornerstone of my thinking, so much so that it became like a mantra, and one proven by experience to be true: A good trainer can hear a horse speak to him. A great trainer can hear him whisper.” (p. 46)

“I learned a great deal that day. My way of thinking about horses was enriched by this critical idea: a rider or trainer should never say to a horse, “You must.” Instead, the horse should be invited to perform because, “I would like to.” Taking that a step further • to ask a horse to perform is not as clever as causing him to want to perform. Horses naturally want to run, and if they are trained correctly we can harness their willingness to do just that, to race to their potential.”… There is no need for whips “if training procedures take advantage of a well-bred horse’s overpowering desire to run.” (p. 65)

Because we travelled on the horse circuit when I was a child, I had a tutor who travelled with us in our railroad car. “She understood me better than my parents did and sympathized with my problems. She gave me lessons I value now: she taught me how to communicate with people; she encouraged me to relax; and she made me understand that if I was to pursue a career as a horseman with such single-minded dedication and from such a young age, I would have to pace myself • or burn out.” (pp. 72-73)

When I did show up at school, “it consisted mostly of turning up on examination days to prove that I was up to standard.”… I will always remember a statement made by my most influential teacher, namely, “that there is no such thing as teaching • only learning. She believed that no teacher could ever teach anyone anything. Her task as a teacher was to create an environment in which the student can learn. Knowledge, she told us,…needs to be pulled into the brain by the student, not pushed into it by the teacher. Knowledge is not to be forced on anyone. The brain has to be receptive, malleable, and most important, hungry for that knowledge. I apply that same philosophy to training horses.” (pp. 87-88)

(When) “I registered for the military draft…their medical examination confirmed that I was completely color-blind…. Many years later, when I was sixty-one, I went to a specialist in Britain who gave me contract lenses that offered a taste of what it is like to see color. The vibration of energy that resulted cause me enormous agitation. If this is what normally sighted people have to put up with, I thought to myself, small wonder they are so distracted and nervous. It was a revelation that left me certain: I could not have done what I have in my life had I seen in color.” (p. 105)

“During the many hours I rode Fancy Heels, that old adage: You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” took on new life for me. In fact, you can teach an old dog new tricks, but all in due time. I had been so keen to get to work on Fancy Heels that I thought I could force rapid changes on him. I pressed for a standard of excellence without taking the horse’s feelings into account. It did not work. Given the chance to work with Fancy Heels again, I would not set a time frame for making changes and demand that he stick to it. That horse taught me to respect horses and not to demand immediate perfection.” (pp. 146-147)

When young people come to our farm and ride for us, we say to the riders, “Leave the horse alone. Let him go on, let him explore a little and then correct him. He’ll be all right. Let him go in the direction he wants for a few steps, and then bend him more toward what you want. Don’t hammer him.” (p. 151)

The understanding between me and one of my favorite horses “is mature and well-founded. I have not so much trained him as created an environment in which he has wanted to learn. I have never pulled at his mouth, ever; in fact, I could use cotton thread instead of leather reins.” To get to this point has taken a lot of “patience and hard work from both of us. However, … I have taken care not to dull his appetite for work by repetition or excess; it has been essential to our progress together that he remain fresh and keen.” (p. 158)

“The ‘crazy horse’ is almost never born, but made. And it pains me to hear the term. If we could somehow see for ourselves all the events in a horse’s life that together account for his malicious behavior, we would be astonished. Some horses will take so much, than finally take no more. Few people still think humans are born crazy; but in the world of horses the ‘bad seed’ myth endures. ‘His sire was that way, too,’ trainers will say of a troubled horse, and they have been saying that for 6,000 years. They are wrong: maybe two percent of horses are born bad; the rest are put on that path by (how) people (handle them).” (p. 158)

(What I call) “join-up is always the most thrilling part of the process. Not because I ever doubt it will happen, but simply because it proves the possibility of communication between human and horse. A flight animal giving her trust to a fight animal, human and horse spanning the gap between them, always strikes me as miraculous. The moment it occurs is always fresh, always satisfying.” (p. 169)

I started working with deer to learn more about working with horses. “The flight mechanism of a deer is many times more sensitive than that of a horse. When I made a mistake in one of my movements, I would pay, sometimes for weeks or even months.” “With Grandma, as I called her, I worked every day using the concepts of Advance and Retreat. Whenever she acted as though she preferred to be with me, I would deliberately push her away and walk behind her for up to three miles. When I saw her circle and show me her flanks, thinking about renegotiating with me, I would turn and walk in the opposite direction.” (It took several years before) “I realized my dream of join-up with a deer. She trusted me. The warm sun seemed to bless that moment: the deer chewing her cud, the man with the grin, the eagle overhead catch the updrafts from the valley floor.” (p. 181)

Grandma taught me the fine points of horse language. “In the round pen (with horses, I started)…experimenting with the speed with which I moved my eyes. I also tried different ways of reading the image of the horse out of the corner of my eye without actually looking at the horse. By moving my eyes more slowly, I found I could temper the flight impulse. As soon as I understood that, Grandma was much easier to work with.” (p. 182)

(When joining up with a mustang in the wild, with no pen and no ropes), “it was necessary for all of us to keep uppermost in our minds a sense of calmness, an utter lack of urgency. These horses need patience. If you act like you’ve only got fifteen minutes, it’ll take all day. If you act like you’ve got all day, it’ll take fifteen minutes.” (p. 240).

“The absence of communication between human and horse has led to a disastrous history of cruelty and abuse. As a result, we did not gain the willing cooperation of the horse nearly as much as we might have done. Our loss has been considerable • the emotional connection with the horse has been diminished, but so has the performance and work we might have gained. It is a balance I have tried to redress during a lifetime’s work with horses. Happily, that work continues.” (p. 229)

Although he never uses the word, Monty Roberts is, in my estimation, an empathy master. It is his intention: to connect with and understand horses rather than to correct and control horses. It is his presence: to be a compassionate and fun-loving friend rather than a fearsome and hard-driving master. It is his orientation: to give every horse the benefit of the doubt and the opportunity to realize his or her full potential. And it is his technique: to communicate in their language, on their terms, at their pace, with their sensitivities, and in their environment so as to foster learning and growth.

Would that we might approach human beings with such intentions, presence, orientation, and techniques! It would make a huge difference in meeting our needs for empathy and in realizing the full potential of us all.

Coaching Inquiries: How would you describe your intentions, presence, orientation, and techniques? Do they facilitate or interfere with learning and growth? How could you become more sensitive to the needs and feelings of others? How could you approach others with the desire to connect more than to correct?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation. To learn more about LifeTrek Coaching programs, Click Here.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob..


It was real interesting to read your thoughts on the various types of community. Especially interesting was your mentions of your time in Chicago. My wife and I shared some of that time with you and we continue to find that experience so unique and special. Hardly anyone we encounter has ever experienced anything so life-changing as those experiences. Our connections to people from Covenant Community continue to shape our lives and response to life and God. 

I also laughed when you mentioned ‘virtual community.’ My wife talks about that often as she describes the students she encounters here at the university. And the funny thing, the students more or less agree. The really troubling thing about it is that they see nothing wrong with it. Thanks for continuing to send me your e-mail letters. And continued blessings on your work. 



May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching Internationalwww.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformationwww.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coachingwww.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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