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How Do I Become More Assertive? or Is this the Right Question?

As you make your way up the corporate ladder, you may be told that you need to become ‘more assertive’ as a leader. Or, perhaps you need to become more assertive in a personal relationship to get your own needs met. Or, perhaps you have a strong-willed child who fights you every time you ask them to do something. Googling ‘How to become more assertive’ brings up an overwhelming amount of information. But reading about how to become more assertive won’t necessarily translate into the ability to become more assertive. What is much more effective is to practice being assertive. This is another area where equine facilitated learning can be so very effective. Practicing being assertive with a 1000+ pound horse, safely, with an experienced facilitator, can allow you to connect into your body in a new and effective way in order to get your needs met. And – the horse will show you the difference between being assertive and being aggressive!

In the Eponaquest Instructor training, we were taught something called The Assertiveness Formula:

It starts with a commitment to specific outcome. The energy used to ask is ramped up (crescendo, in music, means getting louder) and, as soon as you get the result you need, you give immediate positive feedback and take some of the pressure off.

The exercise used to demonstrate this is called Embodying the Goal and involves free-lunging a horse in a round pen. We begin with time spent showing the client how to properly use a lunge whip, visualize the exercise, and facilitating the client to connect into their body. Then they are given directions of what to do in the round pen in order to move the horse.

This is one of the most directive exercises that we use with clients, with the intent of helping the client find their ‘power center’, in the area of the solar plexus, and learning how to modulate the amount of energy required to get the horse to move. For some clients, it is very difficult to get the horse to move beyond a walk, or perhaps at all. For others, their energy is so big that the horse runs away from them. The first type of client can’t easily find an assertive energy, the second type uses a more aggressive energy.

I had occasion to revisit these concepts lately in my own riding and training. I was having difficulty getting Faraona, my 8 year old dressage horse, to move off my right leg, and I was struggling to add ‘crescendo’ by tap-tapping her on her hip with the dressage whip. I didn’t like how that felt for me, and it was ineffective in getting her more responsive to my leg. It felt aggressive to me, but I knew that what I was doing was an accepted training method. Was I being assertive or aggressive? I didn’t know, so I sent out a WhatsApp message to my Eponaquest colleagues asking the question - Do you think one can be a good judge of whether they are being assertive or aggressive? I explained what I was trying to achieve with Faraona, to get her to move away from my right leg. As I was writing the WhatsApp message, I paused to recall the feeling that I had in my ride. As I reconnected with that feeling and felt where it was in my body, what came to me was a sense of dread, and then a flashback memory of being hit by my father, a frequent occurrence growing up. I realized that I was connecting the tap-tap of the dressage whip with my own memories of being hit and strapped as a child. Clearly, my ability to sense assertiveness was clouded by my childhood experiences. Sometimes, even the EFL facilitator needs to reach out for help and guidance!

My colleague Gail Boone, who is an International Coaching Federation-certified coach in addition to an Eponaquest Instructor, quickly replied with her usual brilliant insight:

My thought ….. It takes a high level of social and emotional intelligence for both the sender and the receiver to determine the difference between assertion and aggression.

What’s the least amount of effort to communicate the message and invite a response?

Aggression comes from a win-lose perspective. Assertion comes from win-win and can also be accommodating.

I took that into my riding lesson the next day. My riding coach and I had a very stimulating discussion of assertiveness versus aggressiveness in riding. She doesn’t think you can be a good rider, let alone a trainer, if you can’t be assertive. She also recognizes that there are some days (the not good days) when she can be more aggressive than she wants to be. So, I asked her to watch and tell me if she thought I was being assertive or aggressive in my riding, explaining that I didn’t think I had a good internal gauge for that.

As she watched my riding, she noted that I was keeping Faraona very straight between the reins, something that we had been working on to keep her from always leaning on her left shoulder. I now had too much straightness, in a rigid way, which wasn’t allowing Faraona to reach underneath herself with her right hind leg. She literally couldn’t move away from my right leg because of how I was holding her up. My coach explained how to flex her head a bit more to the inside with the right rein, while using a soft give-and-take on the left, outside, rein. As I began to get the feeling of this more nuanced connection to the bit, Faraona’s neck became softer, she connected more over her back - AND – she easily moved away from my right leg!

I wasn’t being assertive or aggressive. I was finding the connection in my own body and my hands to have an ‘alive’ connection through the reins to the bit. This allowed me to connect to my horse in a much more effective way. Once I got out of her way, she could do this thing that I asked of her.

What my coach showed me was that there can be a Third Way, a way that doesn’t make me impose my wishes on my horse either by assertiveness or aggressiveness. By helping me feel in my body what was needed to connect to the horse, I could then take responsibility for my own half of the partnership and, when I got it, the horse did what I wanted. It was, as Gail wrote, a win-win that was accommodating.

When I got home from my riding lesson, there was another message on WhatsApp, from Sarah Barnes, professional horsewoman, coach, and Eponaquest Instructor:

From a horse training perspective, have you asked the question why Faraona is not as responsive to your leg as you’d like for her to be? Is anything in your body giving her a mixed signal? (i.e. seat, hips, thighs, shoulders, hands, breath). Check to be sure you’re not driving with the parking brake on. Iberians tend to be especially aware of thigh pressure as a brake. Second, have you thought about a small spur, assuming your lower leg is quiet? This may feel less ‘aggressive’ to both of you. Above all, breathe — exhale— when you make a request. Softly, softly, softly.

What Sarah was getting at was what my coach had shown me. I needed to be aware of what was happening in my own body first, before I assumed that I needed to get more assertive with my horse. It is wonderful to have a coach who can enlighten me in these fundamental nuances of dressage riding. It made me wonder – What if we could have a coach help us in the other areas of our lives, when we are not getting the response we desire, so are attempting to be assertive, or perhaps just going straight to aggressive?

Woah – I just described Equine Facilitated Learning! The core of what we do with clients and our horses is to reconnect the client with their own body so that they gain awareness – of themselves and of their connection to others. And, as much learning and practice that I have had in this, I had occasion to learn it all over again last week! However, all my previous work made this week’s riding lesson very successful, because I could build on everything I have learned and felt thus far in my own journey to connection. The learning never ends!

Look how that right hind can reach under when the rider gets it right in her own body!

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