Joanna Wane on using horsepower to break down barriers without words.
After two years away, Hayley Ryan was at the end of a long trip home from Ireland and at the end of her tether when she finally cleared Covid quarantine and arrived at her mother's place in North Canterbury.
Exhausted after what had been a "hugely stressful" few months, she headed out to the back paddock to see the horses. Quietly, they gathered around her, close enough to feel the warm huff of their breath.
"Horses have this incredible ability to just be with you," she says. "They don't crowd you and there are no words, but it makes you completely melt. They just stood around me and I let it all out. It was pretty emotional."
The ability of horses to emotionally interplay with humans has been the subject of much research alongside the rise of "equine-assisted therapy", not only as a tool to treat trauma but also for personal development, corporate leadership and team-building programmes.
Horses and humans have developed a "third language" to communicate with one another, says Keri Brandt Off, a professor of sociology at Fort Lewis College in Colorado, who has published an academic paper on the subject.
"There is a kind of intimacy created through this sort of embodied communication. When it comes to creativity, analysis and self-reflection, people tend to give a lot of weight to words and thoughts. Horses can help humans develop a different kind of knowledge, one rooted in the body."
Deirdre Ryan, Hayley's mother, learnt that instinctively at a young age. Raised in Kaiapoi, she didn't grow up on a farm but has always experienced a strong connection with horses. "Something about them helped me," she says. "I just felt understood. They got me, and I kind of got them."
A trained executive coach, Ryan has worked in leadership roles for the past 30 years, most recently as part of the Christchurch City Council's earthquake response and recovery team and in her current position as CEO of the Community Wellbeing North Canterbury Trust. It's challenging but rewarding work, supporting some of the most disadvantaged pockets of the Waimakariri and Hurunui districts.
"I love leading in uncertainty, which is kind of odd, isn't it, because it's such a hard place to be," says Deirdre , whose calm, warm presence immediately puts you at ease. "It's something about being able to support people and navigate forward when you just don't know what's going to happen."
That's a skill I see her put into practice, in a very different environment, when I spend the morning at Eyrewell Forest, a half-hour drive north of Christchurch, where she runs Salta Horses in the paddocks out back of her house.
There are about 16 horses in shared care on the property, an old Landcorp farm that was subdivided and sold off. Deirdre and two friends each bought a plot in 2011, living together as a loose community in a tranquil environment that's a world away from the stresses of city life.
"I've got a leadership role and I know what it's like to be under pressure all the time, having to make quick decisions and keep all the plates spinning — and making sure they're spinning in the right direction. I wanted to make this a place where you can come and spend some time reflecting."
Deirdre works four days at the trust, dedicating her Fridays and the occasional weekend to Salta Horses, where Hayley is among her support staff. The herd includes several miniature ponies and former racehorses, some of whom have been abandoned or mistreated. "We don't buy them, they find their way here." Only those with the right temperament directly engage with clients "and we don't work the horses if they're not feeling up to it. They're not commodities for us, they're family."
The hands-on, interactive sessions encourage people to be open about exploring new possibilities and allowing themselves to be vulnerable, says Deirdre, who uses metaphors to relate the experience to everyday life. The name for Salta Horses comes from the Spanish for leap. "Lining up for a leap and making a change is one thing, but it's the strides you take after a leap that are really important as well." That's strictly symbolic, though. No actual horse riding is involved.
Certificated in "equine-assisted learning", Deirdre is studying Equusoma, a Canadian-based model of horse-human trauma recovery. Many of the clients referred to her are teenagers or children facing personal challenges, from trauma to social isolation. For those sessions, a mental health professional is also involved.
The main thrust of her work, however, is facilitating team development and leadership programmes, where interaction with the horses is used as a creative way to overcome workplace challenges and to encourage team bonding. A surprisingly varied clientele has ranged from the military and local government to law firms, aviation and the gold-mining industry.
For corporate groups, the half-day or full-day workshops are a great leveller, says Deirdre. "Horses just break through all that stuff. They don't care what your job is, what gender you are or what car you drive. They respond to how you make them feel. And that helps people connect with their own feelings and become more self-aware. You can't fake it with horses."
Like humans, horses are herd animals with an innate drive to connect. Often, Deirdre sees them move to stand by someone who's feeling vulnerable or upset. As prey animals, they also have a heightened instinct for self-preservation, which is where insights around self-awareness and "reading the room" might come in.
For example, people are encouraged to notice how they feel approaching a horse — how close they can get before it becomes uncomfortable (either for them or for the horse), when to move forward, when to hold back. Horses don't always want to be touched, either.
She recalls one session where a circle was formed but the horses in the enclosure remained aloof and wouldn't engage with the group. Eventually, they decided to widen the circle, moving out to encompass the horses instead.
"Think of people at a workplace who are out to the side, set apart from everyone. What helps them feel that they're part of something? Instead of saying, 'Come and be like us,' it was, 'We'll broaden and bring you in.' It was quite a moment."
A few years ago, CEO Michelle Sharp booked a workshop for her new team, a group of diverse personalities who'd come together at a challenging time. None of them knew what she had planned.
One woman who wasn't the adventurous type made it clear there was no way she'd jump out of a plane — a position she reaffirmed with some urgency when they drove past a small private airfield on the way out. She wasn't impressed when they pulled up at the stables, either. "Michelle, I don't ride horses," she told Sharp. "Yet she was the one the horses really took to and who had the most incredible experience. And Sam, who I didn't know used to ride, just came out of herself that day."
Michelle rates "high empathy" as a key quality in modern leadership. "If, as a leader, you can't embrace vulnerability, you can never create that environment of high trust," she says.
The experience transformed the team dynamics. "It brought out the best in all of us. By the end, we understood each other so much better and really saw each other for who we are."
On the day Canvas visited, she'd returned for a private session with her husband Jason, the CEO of a telecommunications company, to work through a major challenge facing their family.
Their 13-year-old son, Louis, is New Zealand's most successful age-group kart racer and has his sights set on Formula One. Not only are there enormous financial costs involved, but that would involve him moving to England long-term at the age of 15. They also have a daughter to consider, Isabella, who's three years older.
Deirdre begins the session by bringing them into the enclosure with two of her horses, Ben and Peggy Sue. Then, as they sit on the grass taking in their surroundings, she runs through a simple breathing exercise to help regulate the nervous system and "bring us down into our bodies and out of our heads".
Using poles, hoops and cones, the couple lay out a "racetrack" as a metaphor for their son's career path, from his early karting success to the steps required to make it all the way to Formula One. One hula hoop they have to "jump through" marks where Louis is now, in his first season transitioning from karts to cars; a handy pile of Peggy Sue's poo is incorporated too, representing the s*** the family dealt with in the past, when rivalries and politics within the sport created tension.
Deirdre draws their attention to Peggy Sue, who's wandered over to stand at the mark representing the present and remains there, refusing to move. "Maybe that's about not losing sight of today and really embracing that," says Michelle. "There's time." Later, they look over and see Ben already at the finishing line.
Hayley, who's watching from the sidelines, says interacting with the horses creates a shift in perspective that encourages people to explore problems from a different angle. For a busy professional couple like the Sharps, it's also about making time to fully engage with each other without pressure or expectations in a quiet space.
"I had no idea what we were in for," says Jason, when they're done. "I was a wee bit shy of the horses initially but they quickly put you at ease, don't they? Then that process we went through … my word. It stirred up some memories."
For Michelle, too, it was an emotional experience. Breaking down the different stages of what lies ahead for their son made the enormity of it less overwhelming, she says. "And I like the fact that we both started with the end goal and worked backwards," she says to Jason. "You and I think very similarly from a business perspective."
Deirdre makes gentle suggestions but doesn't try to interpret what happens in a session, leaving people to draw their own insights. "We saw a horse walk along and stand beside a hula hoop. Who knows what that was about. But for Michelle and Jason, it was a moment for them."
She describes the horses as her touchstones, and the routine of caring for them bookends her day. At 6.30am, she heads to the paddock to feed out and have "a bit of a talk" with the horses. And even if she's buggered at the end of a tough day, she has to pull on her jeans and gumboots to go out and feed them again.
"Sometimes it's hard to take time out and sit in nature when you're busy," she says. "I know being with the horses helps with my own resilience and ability to cope. I can't imagine not having them in my life."