Horses Build Confidence and Teach Us the Art of Negotiation

Horses are truly amazing creatures. What started as a riding lesson with Smartie gone wrong that late summer's day, turned into one of the most powerful learning moments for me… here’s how!

(Image Courtesy- Callipso-Shutterstock)

I was at The Best You Expo at London Olympia -- an exposition for all things ‘self development’. I was there to support my dear friend Wendy Price – also my equine therapist/teacher, spiritual guide and riding instructor.

Wendy was hosting a talk on ‘The Secret to Having Your Needs Met – Straight From The Horse's Mouth’.

At the end of her talk, she invited me to join her at the end to share my story with the audience. I had offered her earlier to use me as a ‘live testimonial’ of her amazing work at the expo.

If this had happened one year ago, I would probably have been extremely awkward, rambled some corporate jargon on stage -- through a blagging mask (which the previous year had taught me was a ‘useful strength to have’), and finally would have left the stage with relief that it’s over. Instead, today, I felt deep gratitude, honour and a sense of service to others whilst sharing my story.

This confidence to tell an unscripted story to an unknown audience impromptu has only become possible for me today because I have learned how to have my highest needs for love, truth, creativity and freedom met today. Having my highest needs met makes me confident in who I am, as I am living nothing but my truth.

How did I get here in a year’s time? I would say – a good kick up my backside from life, and horses!

Horses teach us how to recognise our needs, respect them and have them met. Not only does make us confident as we live our truths, but it also trains our negotiation skills.

My Guru in this space has been ‘Smartie – one of Wendy’s herds of 25ish beautiful horses. I work with Smartie both for therapy, as well as bareback riding lessons.


My first bareback riding lesson with Smartie was in late summer 2017 – just a few months after I had started equine therapy. My anxiety and panic episodes were still very fresh, I was on medication, and I felt like an electric wire buzzing with chaos most of the time.

That particular day, I needed to have a ridden session. Little did I know that Smartie was a horse who had a past where his basic needs were never met. So when he moved to Wendy’s, where his needs were respected for the first time, he had begun to find his voice – and he had learnt to make it heard if his needs were not being met. Be it food, water, a toilet break or distance from stressful energy.

That morning, I had barely entered the riding school on Smartie’s back, when he planted himself firmly in one place and simply would not budge. I tried everything I could to get him to move forward, but the most I got out of him was a tiny step sideways before he’d plant himself firmly again. I quickly started getting impatient. I needed to ride him that day. I needed to feel like I could achieve something again. The year before that had broken my confidence completely. And this day I expected to have it back – by riding Smartie bareback. He was supposed to deliver that to me that day. And here he was, lodged firmly like a rock in the ground, refusing to move forward. My impatience was starting to soar. And you can only imagine what that was doing to my nerves and energy levels sat on a horse’s back! But I was already too angry to be aware of any of that.

After a frustrating attempt at all my newly learned cues on his bare back, I used my legs to kick him hard for the first time. I could almost feel anger flow down through my legs through the heels of my boots as they landed hard on his sides. He jerked forward a few strides in an anxious pace. “Yes,” I thought, “he is finally moving!” And before I knew it, I suddenly found my backside raised in the air, my head facing the ground beneath his mouth, as he bucked his hind up in what felt like a teenager’s tantrum.

I must admit, I was scared. I was however more obsessed by achieving that day’s task than listening to my instincts and continued the fight with him. Again, he moved a few paces, and this time reared up kicking his front two legs like a child throws its hands up in the air when it has had enough.

At this point, Wendy came up to us to check if I was OK. Physically, I was ‘fine’, I reported (I somehow didn’t find it necessary to talk about my pounding heart, fierce breath and busy nerves). Emotionally (she could tell), I was a wreck. She asked me to pause whatever I was doing and invited me to reflect. She asked me what Smartie’s state was representing in my own state that day. I thought, and then shared with her -- he was angry because his needs were not being heard. Not only were they being overlooked, but he was being pushed forward to perform in order for me to achieve my goals. She then asked me where this had shown up in my own life. Before the first word could leave my lips, I broke down.

Smartie was the perfect mirror for me that day. He helped me see so much in me.

Like Smartie, I had needs over the previous couple of years which I had not had met. But unlike Smartie I had not yet found my voice. I had failed to make sure I had my needs respected or at times even acknowledged, let alone met. I had allowed others to meet their own needs at the cost of mine.

Upon reflection, I realised three things I had to learn how to integrate better.

First, for twelve years of my corporate career, I never had to negotiate much for my needs. I was blessed to have people who would listen to them and meet them. That worked out great for most of my career since I have never liked to negotiate. Until life decided it was time for me to learn something new about needs.

Second, I have always been used to achieving a very high standard and to be a high performer and perceived to have high potential. The pressure to live up to this expectation to others and myself, drove me blind to my needs. The fire in my belly which had led me to success for the first ten years of my career, starting burning me at some point and I did not notice.

The third bit is that I don’t like upsetting people. The fear of being rejected made me compromise my needs subconsciously. This became a dangerous trend, especially when surrounded by people who knew how to have their needs met, sometimes even if at the cost of others’.

That day with Smartie, I recognised a plethora of my truths in a few moments. The biggest ones being: I know what my needs are, and I must respect them if I want others to respect them. Making them clearly known, and equally respected as I respect others’ needs – is my accountability. Blame is a coping mechanism we use when responsibility becomes too heavy to carry. Blame allows us to shift the weight of the goods. But once shifted, the goods no longer remain ours to influence. Along with blame, we give away our power over our goods – our needs.

Over recent years I had given away my power and allowed others to encroach upon my goods. Not only had my higher needs of freedom, creativity, truth and love been unmet. But simple needs like normal working hours, healthy relationships, enough sleep and health had all been badly affected. And when it all got too much for my subconscious to ignore anymore, my mind and body went on strike.

Horses are amazing. They know when you are operating from a state of an unmet need. Because your body and your energy will show it. And they hold you accountable to your truth. Until you acknowledge it and respect it -- they don’t respect you, or your requests. Similarly, they make sure their needs are heard and met (or will be met). They truly draw you into a win-win space of negotiation.

What started as a riding lesson with Smartie gone wrong that late summer's day, turned into one of the most powerful learning moments for me. As I collected myself and articulated my learnings to Wendy, she asked me what I needed at that very moment. I just needed to be still. After a few moments of stillness, I felt Smartie starting to take a small, slow and steady step forward. I smiled and acknowledged his step. I then gave him what he needed – calm composure and clarity about what we were about to do. I also promised him that I would let him have a little nibble of the grass he had kept tugging me towards earlier when we had entered the school

We rode together through the course I had envisioned with him. After we finished, I got off and allowed him to have a nibble. It was important for me to keep my contract with him. He had given me what I needed after I had heard his needs. And so I needed to honour his next need and my word.

He had taught me the art of negotiation that day.

Previously I loathed any negotiation as I saw it as a situation where there was always a winner and a loser. I disliked the idea of being the cause for somebody’s loss. I would rather lose myself – even before the fight. But now, negotiation has become a healthy conversation where two equal partners co-create a way forward to meet their mutual needs.

Smartie has smartened me up! :-) 

I wish more confidence and negotiation power to all!

Riddhima Kowley

Riddhima Kowley

Jeevoka member since Sep 2019

A trained HorseDream Licensed Partner and a member of the International Association of Horse Assisted Education – the largest worldwide community of horse assisted educators, I am Coach, Consultant and Facilitator at Nirsara. Born and brought up in Pune (India), I now live in London (UK). I left India to study abroad in 2002 and have ever since garnered a deep understanding of various cultures. This understanding, in combination with a strength-based approach anchored in positive psychology, has helped me create highly inclusive spaces for diverse individuals and teams across various sectors, especially corporate, to learn and develop.