In memory of Walker

I feel tired. I feel this way quite a lot of the time right now and it has become a world-weary feeling in recent weeks.

A summer of watching awful bushfires tear through fragile countryside, primed and crisped by years of drought, has depleted my emotional reserves; my anxiety has been amped relentlessly by drama-TV with its endless images of the burnt, the homeless and the devastated.

Yet somehow, we receive the blessing of some summer rain, and the ground is unseasonably green again. As I focus warily on 7th February 2020, the 11th anniversary of the Black Saturday bushfires, I wonder what to expect. Last year was the biggie, the 10-year anniversary, and I spent much of my time and effort working on a documentary for the ABC exploring how survivors had rebuilt their lives in the 10 years since the fires. So 11 years on are we all done now? Should we all officially be “over it”?

Those of us who have experienced a deadly bushfire doubt that will ever be true. We know that it tends to keep its grip on us in various ways and that it will never quite go away and leave us in peace. In fact, if this summer is anything to go by, it returns vengefully and lives vicariously through every new bushfire, finding new ways to torment us through other people’s trauma.

Anniversaries can be difficult events and over the years, I have spent them in different ways: sometimes solo, sometimes in company, other times working or interstate. This year I just feel grateful and choose to spend some time with my horse Walker, my rock, my companion and my best friend of 22 years, Black Saturday survivor and my last link to life before the fire.

Relaxed and friendly we hang together; I hug him and thank him. I crouch between his front legs and he stands over me, protectively. When I finally stand up, he wraps his head around my legs and pulls me in towards him. Our bond is beyond words; the understanding between us is simple, unspoken and powerful. We belong to each other in unbreakable ways.

Which is why his sudden illness and death some 5 hours later is like a punch to the gut, followed by a swift uppercut. I am dazed. I reel around, floundering, numb from shock. Much later, I feel frightened, not knowing how I will manage without his constant reassuring presence in my life. Why? I ask the universe. Why now and on this day?

There is no concrete answer, just suspicions hovering on the edge of my conscious mind. He leaves this life exactly 11 years after surviving Black Saturday and as I search for meaning, I find this too eerie to be coincidental.

Death reminds us to be grateful for what we have, for love and for life. As it rocks the foundations of my sense of security, it also reminds me to honour the legacy of the one I have lost. Walker was my anchor in what could sometimes be very choppy waters. His constancy held me up and cheered me on whenever I felt down, dispirited or exhausted. A hug, his smell and a touch of velvet muzzle were his encouragement that my world would re-balance, whatever winds were currently blowing me around.

And so, as the tiredness of events settles in and threatens to drag me down with it, I realise I must seek and find my balance once again. Walker urges me to help, to return some of the support and understanding I have received over the years. I have been nursing an idea for some time now and Walker’s death has finally released it. I wish he was here to see it with me but I have no doubt he will be here in spirit:

Saturday April 4th, 2020

Finding your Balance in Adversity

A workshop for all those who have endured this tough summer, have somehow managed their experience and difficult memories of similar events and who would value some space to reflect, take stock and find their balance once again. Come spend a peaceful day with the horses at Amaroo, Gisborne. No horse experience necessary. Check our workshop page for more details and remember – Walker will have your back, as he has always had mine.

Is your Playbook shrinking your life?

If I asked you to describe your personal Playbook, what would you say?

You’d probably start by asking exactly what I meant. Perhaps you’d consult Wikipedia or maybe Google, which, after a little digging would offer you the following pragmatic description from

Think of a playbook like a detailed reference guide stored and accessed in your unconscious brain. When you get new information, become confused, run into trouble, or try to achieve a goal, you turn to your playbook to tell you what to do. Actual playbooks are common in sports, where coaches will document their plans for a game. When a new situation presents itself, the coach turns to the playbook to figure out what to do.

So, what’s in your Playbook? And do you think it’s serving you well? And specifically, do you operate from a Playbook based on fear or one grounded in love?

If self-awareness is your thing, the chances are you might try some answers to those questions, but for many, their Playbook functions mostly on autopilot. Like breathing, it operates without their conscious intervention, offering up familiar choices and responses time after time.

When you get to know someone well, you can sometimes glimpse the nature of their personal Playbook. You can start to predict their reactions to situations and challenges with a degree of certainty and make observations about the level of fear or love that seems to drive their choices. Often a someone else’s Playbook is much easier to read than our own.

While we are often told that fear is a bad thing it’s not always true. Fear can keep you alive – it’s natures survival mechanism designed to alert you in life-threatening situations. We should be glad it’s there so we can get the Hell Out of Dodge When Shit Happens. The problems start when we allow fear to dominate our Playbook strategies. Because while fear can protect you, too much fear can shrink your life.

If you are considering the nature of your own Playbook, it might help you to look at your life objectively. Is it where you hoped it would be? Has your life evolved or become more limited in nature? Have your decisions and choices reflected a desire to grow and expand or to avoid risk, err on the side of caution and maintain the status quo? Too much fear will act as a brake on your choices instead of taking a chance, accepting a new opportunity or allowing yourself to pursue your dreams, fear will counsel avoidance, tell you to opt for safety, urge you to stick to what you know and always ask for permission.

While we all experience fear to some degree, it will always be a more limiting theme in our Playbook than love. Love represents opportunity and connection. It inspires, generates curiosity and gratitude in life and represents all that it possible. It urges you to think outside the box, to embrace compassion, tolerance and curiosity.

If you think you might need to change your Playbook, you will need to examine its contents and edit out what’s not working for you. While this is often the task of a lifetime, even small changes can liberate you from frustration and begin to open new pathways. A colleague of mine recently changed the way she approached difficult conversations with others. Instead of mentally preparing her defences with the perfect rebuttal, she chose instead to listen carefully to what the other person was saying until they finished. Instead of instantly disagreeing with that persons view, she decided that curiosity might be a more productive path and simply asked why they felt that way? Her reward for changing her unconscious response has been fewer arguments and much speedier compromises. Changing her Playbook is paying off in terms of improved relationships and less stress.

Improving self-awareness is an important part of re-creating the contents of your Playbook and there are many ways to develop this essential capability from mindfulness through to the more traditional-needs based or preference-based personality models. As a corporate consultant and change coach, I’ve worked with a number of toolsets over the years to help people understand themselves and change the way they communicate, lead and manage others.

These days, I also partner with horses to help people develop the kind of rapid self-awareness that seems unlikely unless you have experienced it for yourself. While theoretical models can help people understand what drives their choices and behaviours, and so what may provide the foundations for their personal Playbook, a horse gives us immediate insight into the in-the-moment consequences of our Playbook strategies.

But whatever your chosen pathway, just remember that while you may not be able to change the direction of the wind, you can adjust your sails and still reach your destination. Life will always present challenges and opportunities but only you can adapt and evolve your Playbook to ensure that you thrive.

If you’d like to change your Playbook and explore how horses can help you deepen your self awareness and make change, please email or check out our upcoming workshops.

Curbing the need to over-control

136When we are in the grip of one of life’s transitions, when someone is pushing our buttons or when something unexpected turns up, it’s tempting to grab control and try to force an outcome to fit our own agenda. After all, sitting with vulnerability, anger, frustration, disappointment and a myriad of other emotions can be deeply uncomfortable. And it’s important to be in control, right? It’s important to be moving the chess pieces in our own universe rather than let events hold the upper hand?

But there can be problems with this approach:

  • We often cannot see the big picture and so have little idea of what the outcome could be if we allowed it to unfold by itself. By trying to control the situation too soon, we block its inherent potential and could lose the opportunity to transform ourselves and our circumstances.
  • When we are motivated by fear, vulnerability and anxiety, we’re not really thinking straight. We’re consumed by our flight instinct and a need to feel safe at all costs. If you’re being pursued by a tiger, then get the hell out of Dodge (or wherever your tiger might be). But if you are trying to over-control one of life’s many changes because you just cannot bear the discomfort of uncertainty, you may be stuck in your safe zone and miss the chance to transform your life for the better. Fear is not a positive start point for inspired action.
  • It’s almost impossible to control everything that happens to you or other people’s behaviour. You will exhaust yourself trying and quickly feel rather like a hamster in a wheel, as more troublesome events and challenging people present themselves to you continuously.

If you are a planner or list-maker by nature, you will be even more tempted to put structure, timeframes and boundaries into whatever uncertainty is around you. And while planning is essential at times, it’s can be counter-productive when used as an initial knee-jerk reaction to feeling vulnerable.

So, what can you do when you feel out of control of events and people? How should you handle those sometimes deeply unsettling feelings of uncertainty?

1)   Cultivate your curiosity. Consider how your life might change for the better if you allowed a change or event to unfold a little before you try to force it into a certain shape. Is it possible that this change might bring you more opportunities or options if you allowed some time for it to develop? In what way could you explore the possibilities of this change, transition or event to better understand its positive potential for you?

2)   Engage active distraction. Your emotions provide you with great guidance – they indicate when you are happy and peaceful and when you are feeling anxious and vulnerable. Instead of leaping to try to control the unknown, how could you distract yourself? What circuit breakers can you employ to allow things to progress a little before you decide to leap into action? For some people this might be exercise or meditation or the movies, for others it might be a chat with a good friend, a walk in the countryside or cooking creatively. The idea is to choose something which lifts you out of the urgent need to control or fix a situation. Choose something which either requires you to focus or which provides plenty of stimulation. You need to shift your attention away from what is and see the broader world around you.  The rule of thumb is to move into action only when you are feeling good, rather than from a position of anxiety.

3)   Accept what is. This is a hard one for many of us but acceptance can provide a clear pathway to feeling peaceful. When you step back and look at a situation from a broader perspective, you may quickly realise that there is little you can do to control it anyway. Accepting things as they are allows you to more easily consider what might be possible, rather than spending endless time worrying or feeling frustrated or angry. Imagine all the time and effort you spend swimming against a strong tide, when it’s likely that the tide will sweep you towards the beach anyway. It’s simpler just to surf the waves into shore.

4)   Trust your intuition. It knows when you should allow events to unfold and when you really need to act. Your intuition is your inner guidance that normally makes suggestions seconds before your brain gets in the way to try to run the show. It may often contradict your brain but its guidance shouldn’t be dismissed instantly. It has our best interests at heart, while our brain can sometimes be serving our frightened ego.

5)   Remember the well-worn advice – you cannot control how others behave, you can only control your own response to them. While it’s not always easy to change how you feel or your own practiced behaviours, it is possible and more likely if you have a real desire to experience your life differently.  If you are consumed by the outrageous or offensive behaviour of someone at home or work, try focussing on something that is working in your life. It could be your fabulous garden, or your footy team or simply the joy of being around your children and animals. Explore all the positives and enjoy the feeling of relief that there are good things in your life as well as frustrations. Wallow in the good feelings before you turn your mind back to resolving more challenging issues. It will allow you to step back enough to look relationships with more perspective. It will also allow you the emotional space to engage your intuition and increase the likelihood of finding different solutions to seemingly deadlocked situations.

6)   Choose to be happy rather than to be right. Can you let go of the need to be right, to control the beginning the middle and the end? If you had the choice between being right or being happy, what would you choose? What has happened to you in the past when you have chosen the need to be right, to have the last word, over the need to be happy?

Managing your urge to control every unfolding situation can be life-changing. It can also provide emotional relief when anxiety and worry has left you feeling frazzled. This isn’t about advocating inaction – far from it. It’s about planning and acting from a place of considered perspective, from informed choice and from thoughtfulness. It’s about knowing that you haven’t acted out of fear or frustration but from feelings of inspiration and hopefulness.

Limiting beliefs – roadblocks to successful change


Karen as a teenager with Ben

It’s often only when we want to make deliberate changes in our lives, that we begin to understand the true impact of limiting beliefs on our life experience. And while it’s logically quite obvious that what you believe will have some effect on what happens to you, this fact frequently manages to fly under the radar.

When we make changes, we’re often so focussed on the doing part, that we don’t pay much attention to the subconscious programs that determine how we think and ultimately feel about what’s happening. And yet it’s our beliefs that drive our perspective, our thoughts, our feelings and what we end up doing and experiencing in our lives. They can also drive behaviour patterns that sabotage our best intentions and ultimately determine whether we succeed at making deliberate changes or not.

Let me explain this more clearly by telling you about a belief that has driven my behaviour for a large part of my life. It’s also one of the more unhelpful and damaging beliefs I could continue to hold right now.

When I was around fourteen years old, like many girls of my age, my waking world revolved around horses. They were my grand passion – I read horsey books, I had horsey figurines and dolls, my bedroom walls were covered in posters of horses, I watched horsey movies and dreamt of a future filled with my four-legged friends – riding, competing and working with horses. Since I had been riding since about the age of six and was lucky enough to have my own horse at the time, all this seemed pretty natural from my youthful and innocent standpoint. Honestly, I just couldn’t see a future without horses. It all made sense and it’s fair to say that I had little idea of the conflict my particular passion would cause in our family and the associated limiting belief I would then take on for a lifetime.

When the time came for me to select subjects at school in preparation for future qualifications, the discussion at home turned to what I planned to do after school. It was good to talk about what I was drawn to and I eagerly shared my dreams and plans. Once exams were done I wanted to leave school and start working directly with horses. In my mind this meant starting as a working pupil at a riding school, learning to teach and then hopefully getting some riding and teaching qualifications in a few years’ time. It all seemed obvious and perfect to me but I had no idea just how much my parents would disagree.

In their minds, horses were a hobby, not a route to financial stability. They could not see a stable future for me in the horse world, one where I would be able to be independent and support myself financially. Both my parents were teachers and so in their world, school was followed by university to get a degree and hopefully a good job, not into a poorly paid apprenticeship at a local riding school.

The resulting clash of desires shocked me to the core, most especially because I had imagined that what I wanted for my life mattered the most. It felt very debilitating at the time and I was ill equipped to deal with this major difference of opinion. When I tried to discuss what I really wanted and how it might be possible, I was told I would get little family support if I took that path. My parents made it clear that the only acceptable choice was to go to university and that I needed to choose school subjects that would line up with that choice. I felt deeply unhappy. I also felt completely squashed.

Eventually the tense atmosphere at home combined with the prospect of losing my family’s support were too much for me and I gave in, choosing suitable school subjects that would take me through my various school examinations and into a Bachelor of Science degree at a good university.

With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that my parents were simply trying to do the right thing for me from their perspective. They wanted me to be able to care for myself and make enough money to chart my way in life, once they were not around to help. From their life experience and the perspective of their generation, they genuinely believed that getting a degree would give me a head start and provide me with opportunities that I could not comprehend at the time. They firmly believed that none of this would be possible if I chose to move straight into working with horses.

They were right in some ways. Had I not accepted the path they wanted for me all those years ago, I may well not have acquired the skills I have now, travelled as much or benefitted from the wealth and abundance I was then able to generate. I might not have been in the position I am in now to make consciously different choices about my life. So I do fully recognise and appreciate their guidance in many ways.

On the other hand, perhaps all those things would also have been possible from a start working with horses. Perhaps, with a different perspective – one that acknowledged the drive and energy and creativity that following a passion brings to the table – all those things would eventually have been possible for me. Unfortunately, that kind of a perspective would have required my parents to hold a quite different belief to the one they held at the time.

And so at the age of fourteen I took on an enduring and especially limiting belief that goes something like this – “Working with horses will never support me financially. I can’t get a good well-paying job working with horses. My love of horses has to remain a hobby only”. I took on this belief and have continued to believe it despite plenty of evidence to the contrary both in my local horse industry and internationally. It has stopped me from exploring working more closely with horses for many, many years – too many. It has held me back and continues to eat away at the foundations of my new pathway.

And this is precisely how limiting beliefs control our lives – they sit in our subconscious minds and operate on autopilot, under the surface, controlling our thoughts, feelings and behaviours on a daily basis. Because they are subconscious, they can remain largely in the dark and unchallenged through much of our lives. They are the programs that operate without our deliberate thought and unless they are replaced with healthier, more life-affirming beliefs, will continue to shrink our experience of life for as long as we maintain them.

Our limiting beliefs can arise from many sources but we acquire a number of them in our childhood and adolescence from family, friends and those close to us and the remainder from the fruits of our own experience. They are more powerful than a thought because we have, in some way, repeatedly accepted them to be true. They have become a guideline we live by and rarely challenge, even when they aren’t borne out to be true when shown the light of day. Becoming aware of those beliefs which are not helping us would seem to be the first part of the process of changing them. But once we are aware of an unhelpful belief, how do we change it for something more life-affirming? Is it even possible and how will you know you’ve succeeded?

At this point in my life, I’m choosing to replace my limiting beliefs. Since there are quite a few that I’ve acquired over the years, this could be something of a process! But I’ll start with the one I used as an example – my limiting belief about working with horses. Now that I’m aware that it continues to sabotage my thinking and commitment, I need to find a new, more life-affirming belief to replace it. What’s more, I need to find a way to believe my new belief more than the old one, even when it seems as if the evidence hasn’t fully shown up in my personal experience just yet.

In his 2008 book The Spontaneous Healing of Belief: Shattering the Paradigm of False Limits, Gregg Braden writes “We tend to experience in life what we identify with in our beliefs”. He also suggests that to create change and new experiences in our lives we need to start living with the outcome in mind “The prime rule of reality is that we must become in our lives what we choose to experience in the world”. It’s clear then, that before I create my new belief, I need to focus on the outcome I’m looking for from my new belief – what do I want to think, feel and experience as a result of my new belief operating daily and consistently, firstly in my conscious, and then in my subconscious mind?

Well, I’d like to feel optimistic when I think about my work with horses. I’d like to feel excited at the potential to learn with and from horses. I also want to feel a daily sense of anticipation and enjoyment about the learning I can offer to others by working with horses as my partners. I want to feel that my life can be perfectly financially abundant working with horses and that there are no limits to the opportunity for this to manifest.

I want to feel all these things but in the wanting of them, it does suggest a lack – that I don’t yet feel them to be true. In order for this to be more than just aspirational, I’m going to have to find a way to frame my new belief which suggests I am living with the outcome in mind but which also feels believable.

After some moments, I pick up a blue felt tip pen and write “Horses bring emotional, spiritual and financial abundance into my life”. I then circle the whole phrase in red and cut it out. I immediately pin it to my cork board where I can see it daily when I use my laptop. For me, this newly-phrased belief is general enough that I can both remember it and start the process of feeling it to be true. Now that I can see it, the work of transforming the written statement into a real belief begins. So how do I make this happen?

In the past, when I have created goals or plans, I have always chosen to make them visible. I usually write them down and pin them up where I can see them and it’s been amazing to witness how much impact this simple act has then had on the realisation of those goals. When I review my progress some months after pinning up the goals or activities, it’s common for me to find that the majority of items have been completed without much conscious attention on my part. There seems to be something about the process of committing them to paper and making them visible that helps me retain a focus without much effort.

If a belief is “only a thought that you keep thinking” (Abraham Hicks, The Vortex) then I need plenty of opportunities to keep thinking about my new belief and this is one of the best ways I know. However, I do need this thought to be more than just an affirmation created in the hope that things might change. An affirmation is not a belief. A belief is something I feel, in my heart, to be true and which will guide my thoughts, feelings and actions both consciously and sub-consciously. If I am constantly looking at my new belief statement and not really believing it’s true, then the statement remains aspirational and won’t change anything.

To feel that it’s true, I’m going to have to look for some evidence to support it. And this is why I’ve created a new belief statement that’s meets two key criteria – 1) it’s general enough for me to be able to easily find something to support it and 2) it feels good when I think about it. If I’m serious about making this change, I’m going to have to find something, however small, in support of my new belief on a regular basis. For me, there’s no point creating a new belief which constantly feels out of reach because it will ultimately change nothing.

So here I am, embarking on the process of creating of a new belief to replace my old, limiting view of this aspect of my life.  How will I know if it’s worked? Gregg Braden comments that “We tend to experience in life what we identify with in our beliefs”.  Applying simple logic, if am successful at changing my belief to something more life-affirming, and I allow myself to feel good about that belief regularly, then the evidence should start turning up in my reality – emotional, spiritual and financial abundance through my horses should become my predominant life experience.

And now that I am aware of my previous limiting belief and fully conscious of the new belief I have created, I will more easily be able to catch myself thinking any thoughts that might not line up with my new belief before they chronically undermine what I’ve set out to do.

When it’s time to practice my new belief in action, I need only look to my herd of horses for help. Walking out into the paddock one Spring morning, I stop and decide just to hang out with them all for a while. It’s nice to be around them without any expectation.

The first to come and say hello is Chex, the newest member of the herd and a such a friendly soul. He quickly puts his nose to my ear, breathes out, moves onto lick my face and then begins to nibble my hair. This quiet inspection continues for a while until he playfully grabs the hood of my coats and pulls it up smartly. Laughing I wave him away and wander over to check in with Ed.

Ed spends a good five minutes yawning until I catch the yawning bug and join in. When we’re done, he softly chews my sleeve, holds my hand between his lips and generally plays with my hands and clothes. I’m rather touched by his careful attention and stand with him serenely until he’s had enough and moves off for a sleep.

All this time Walker has been watching us out of the corner of his eye while supervising Chex. He has less desire for me to make a fuss of him this morning and so I scratch the underside of his neck. Once he’s had enough, he licks my hand a couple of time, rubs his itchy face against my jacket and wanders off to move George away from the water trough.

As George moves off for a few steps, I notice that he still has something of a sore foot for which he is receiving treatment, and so I go to sympathise. He seems to appreciate the gesture and nickers at me softly. I scratch his nose and wait for him to check my face out in return. George is very tactile and loves to puts his nose close to my face and into my hair, chew my sleeves and receive the occasional kiss on the nose in return.

It’s so peaceful to just relax with them all and enjoy the moment. I feel content, relaxed and able to be myself. And it’s a perfect way to start to feel good and grateful for many things I enjoy in my life. I remind myself of my new “horses bring abundance” belief and find that there is little effort needed to find supporting evidence this morning – it’s right here around me.

This is how I start to feel myself into my new belief – I allow it to be experienced in my body so that it can lodge itself in my heart and eventually inform my thoughts and actions without so much conscious effort. I’m not sure how long this will take but I know that the more I feel my new belief to be true by looking for examples in my life, the quicker my life will present me with experiences that validate my new belief.

Changing a limiting belief for something more life affirming may be one of the most challenging tasks we can take on, since that limiting belief has often been running in our subconscious with little supervision for a long time. Looking at our lives and at the quality of our life experiences gives us many clues to the types of beliefs we may have adopted and some idea of which need the most urgent change. Looking at the things we find difficult or avoid also provides us with other clues. Leaving a limiting belief to continue its negative influence on your thoughts, feelings and actions will almost certainly hamper your chances of making successful changes; becoming aware of and addressing them may be one of the most important steps on the pathway of successful deliberate change.

White Mare Wisdom – the power of effective boundary setting


When people ask what they can learn from horses, it’s often from the standpoint of a human looking critically at an animal which would seem to be so very far below them in both intellect and consciousness.

Which is why the following piece of horse wisdom is so compelling and helps explain why we really should pay more attention to our equine partners.

Our white Andalusian mare Katarina was such a paradox. Her beautiful face with its huge liquid brown eyes was framed with an abundant mane which fell wildly over her neck and eyes and seemed to scream out to be touched. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what she did not want. Most people found this out the hard way – as they reached out to stroke her nose or touch her neck, her normal reaction set in like permafrost. Flattening her ears and pulling back abruptly, she indicated clearly that your invasion of her personal space was uninvited and unwelcome. If you missed the hint, she swiftly reinforced her wishes with a sharp nip or even bared teeth if you were especially slow.

When Katarina first came to live with us she was quite difficult to catch and get close to and so I fed her outside while continually trying to handle and groom her a little more each day. I didn’t try to catch her at first and so each time she would walk away once she had had enough of me, often leaving the remains of her food uneaten.

Emotionally, it was tough stuff – I felt frustrated, disappointed and re-buffed. I just wanted to connect with her so that I could look after her. I was being sympathetic and welcoming so why couldn’t she see this?  Katarina, on the other hand, seemed completely unconcerned with my feelings.

This process continued for some weeks until I decided that a new approach was needed and resolved to coax her into the stables to eat her dinner. If I could get her into a stable, I reasoned, then I could catch her, groom her properly and attend to her feet. This turned out to be good decision as she wasn’t keen to be on her own and so followed Walker happily into the barn and into her stable. It was from this point onwards that I began to understand Katarina a little better, even though I can see now that she was always quite clear on who she was from the moment she arrived.

Contrary to my plans, trying to do anything much with Katarina when she was eating in her stable also turned out to be a bad idea. After a day at work and four horses to look after, all I wanted to do in my evenings was get everyone fed, groomed and rugged ready for the night so that I could collapse onto the sofa with my dinner. I needed Katarina to do things my way and straightaway. But after months of dodging her teeth and her bad temper, I finally realised that my way wasn’t working for either of us.

Katarina basically hated her skin being touched and especially disliked it when I wasn’t present enough to go slowly and take my time. Even then, it was only just about bearable and rarely pleasurable for her. After consultations with vets and therapists, we concluded that she was in some considerable pain from a foot she had partially twisted as a foal. Thankfully, this was something I could help with and so after experimenting, we found that a mixture of main stream painkillers, herbal medicine and corrective shoeing helped to make her more comfortable.

Once she seemed to be in less pain, I assumed that her attitude to contact might also improve. But while she seemed happier in herself, she became even clearer in her desire to keep people at a manageable distance. Sitting companionably with her in the paddock one morning some two years after she first arrived to live with us, something about the truth of Katarina finally dawned on me. As I pondered her sometimes aloof, grumpy and unfriendly attitude, I began to see that I was actually missing the underlying message.

In her determination to interact with people on her terms, she was actually delivering a masterclass in effective boundary setting. What’s more she was delivering it repeatedly and consistently to anyone who didn’t properly respect her physical and emotional boundaries. Funnily enough, these were often the very people who struggled to set them in their own lives. By doing what needed to be done for her own comfort and peace of mind, she was showing me exactly what needed to be done in my own life. How frustrating it must have been for her as she kept repeating the lesson and patiently waited for me to catch on.

When I finally started to appreciate her fearless talent for boundary setting, we got on much more effectively and I began to see how important it was in creating not just emotional and physical space but also in allowing her to be exactly who she was. She was able to be authentic every day precisely because she maintained her boundaries. She never apologised for needing her space and claiming it. She was always consistent in what she needed and did not primarily care about how others felt about this – that was their problem not hers. For Katarina, the result of this effective boundary setting was peace, calm, comfort and the ability to influence when and how people interacted with her.

Lots of us need more physical and emotional space than we’re given or ask for, simply to make sense of our competing priorities. But most of us get used to operating without that space and so struggle to make much headway. If we are initiating a deliberate change, being unable to set boundaries effectively can completely derail what we are trying to do. The continual lack of space takes a toll on us which can eventually show up as unresolved feelings of anger and sometimes apathy. As we strive to make overdue changes, we can feel stifled by the people and circumstances that surround us.

Our world applauds self-sacrifice and putting others first and so it’s quite hard to find a clear way forward through the conflicting demands of self and others. Often we end up lost in the frustration and guilt of meeting neither requirement very well. This is where Katarina’s wisdom steps in and directs us to take care of our own needs first so that by achieving a sense of balance and calm within ourselves, we can more effectively fit the jigsaw pieces of our life together.

This might mean saying “no thank you” or “not now” or “not this week” or setting a physical boundary of “here and no further”. It may mean taking time and space for yourself or refusing to let others tell you who you are, how to be or what to do.

This might be hard initially if you have normally put your needs after those of others; they may struggle to accept this change in approach by someone who is normally so accommodating. But once you’ve taken the first step of stating your needs and politely asking for those needs to be respected, it’s important to hold your ground. Empathise if you must, but be consistent and firm and in time people will adapt and come to respect you as someone who states what they need and follows through.

Katarina passed away just over a year ago now. She is greatly missed by all of us but her wisdom endures powerfully. Our horses continue to teach Katarina’s boundary setting wisdom in all our workshops since it has proven to be such an important skill to create space for creativity, authenticity and change.