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Equine Equanimity

Australian-based Kiwi Sue Spence has won several awards—with more likely on the way—including Gold Coast Business Woman of the Year for Community Dedication through her pioneering licensed programme, Horses Helping Humans, and its charitable affiliate, the Horse Whispering Youth Program. 


This most inspirational lady is also an author and public speaker who recently debuted her first New Zealand Horses Helping Humans workshop, with her latest licensee Kimberly McIntyre, at the McIntyre family estate, Makoura Lodge, Apiti, last month. 


Another licensee will begin in Taranaki later this year with hopefully many more to follow (the workshops are licensed throughout Australia, also). The purpose of the workshops is to identify personality types and improve people’s relationships with others by tweaking their body language via skills learnt through horsemanship, or ‘horse whispering’. Working in conjunction with businesses, psychologists, schools and community groups, the philosophy has benefited everyone from troubled and disadvantaged youths through to CEOs of international organisations. I ask Sue, who has a 40 years’ equestrian experience, including competitive show-jumping, if the program was a hard sell when she decided to hone in on horse whispering a decade ago.


“No, I’ve never even had to advertise! I have a background in health education, so it started when I was doing a workshop for a small group of women regarding self-esteem, body image and boundaries. I took my horse along, and all of these nicely dressed women in heels were wondering what was going on! I told them that before we start, I need to show them something.”


Sue then adopted her “Wonder Woman pose”, rocking back on her heels with relaxed shoulders and imaging she was wearing a big shiny belt buckle. She continues: “I just put one finger up and asked my horse, very respectfully to back up, and he was just backing and backing and backing. I turned to the women, and, holding that same body language, said that this is what ‘no’ looks like. ‘No’ is not a word, but a projection of your self-respect. Some of the women started to cry because they’d been told over and over that they’ve got to learn to say ‘no’ but didn’t know what it looked like.”


A lady in the audience worked for a youth program and it all snowballed from there. Now Sue’s story has appeared in press the world over and Virgin Australia will, for a month, be showing a mini-documentary about her work on their planes.


“To open New Zealand licenced centres is just so overwhelming,” beams Sue. “My dream was always to have Horses Helping Humans here because in my book, my whole story is about my struggles growing up in Christchurch, so being able to take that back to New Zealand to help others was really emotional (Kimberly McIntyre contacted Sue after reading her book, Horses Who Heal).”



Sue has ADHD, an unknown condition back in the 1960s that led to her “sitting at the front of the class with a dunce hat on” and bouts of anxiety. A later breast cancer diagnosis led to a double mastectomy. “My message is that no matter what you go through in life, you can still get ahead and achieve something,” she says. “I encourage everyone to be open about anxiety and mental illness. It needs to be normalised, so that people can be honest about the way they are feeling and admit to waking up with depression or anxiety in the same way you’d admit to a headache.” 


Sue stresses that Horses Helping Humans is not equine therapy, and there is no riding—rather everything is done on the ground. “We are sharing the skill of professional horsemanship,” she says, “which is about trust and respect. When you work at that level of expertise, you must be conscious of your adrenaline levels and body language. Sometimes a work team might come to me about a bullying allegation—which is serious nowadays—and I will look at them and say, ‘Actually, you just have a really strong personality who is not aware of their body language and energy is incredibly intimidating to other personality types.’ Usually when I start working with that person they are quite horrified that they are making others feel nervous.”


This negative energy is picked up immediately by the steeds. Some may even attempt to run away because their handler’s “energy is too high and their body language predatory”. “Horsemanship ground skills are a lot like dog agility,” says Sue. “People learn to back the horse up or ask them to circle with just a simple move of the body. People must portray what I call ‘tai chi energy’ as opposed to ‘chip chop karate energy’! They must learn to breathe out before they speak, to soften their shoulders and relax the belly. We get them to get the horse from a trot to a walk then back up to a trot using just their energy, no voice or hand signals. The horses act as a perfect mirror for them to know how they make others feel when they walk into a room—that others are galloping on the inside.”


These are skills that can then applied to the home, a classroom or a boardroom.


“It is such a powerful tool that has gotten outcomes incredibly quickly with things like getting young people to reengage with studying, or problematic personality clashes at work,” says Sue. “It’s so important that those in the corporate world especially are aware of personality profiling and body language because business is all about relationships. If you don’t have a strong team that understand each other then that’s when holes begin to appear.”


Following the youth workshops, the group do a full agility show, with trophies handed out at the end. “These are people that have struggled with things like anxiety, frustration and ADHD, and it’s incredible to see them take on these new skills and apply them to everyday life,” says Sue. “My passion now is to get this into schools. To normalise and educate about emotional health and mental illness. It’s about conscious communication, there’s a huge lack of that in life now. People are pushed and so stressed and speaking out of reactive mode, they don’t have the skills to drop down into a responsive mode. That’s the power of Horses Helping Humans, and it’s the only programme like it anywhere.” 


Do the horses get a kick out of it all?

“They do! I think my horses are very lucky because they’re not racehorses, they’re not up at 4am, but they’re teaching people how to relax. That’s another thing that many very highly driven people don’t understand is that you can be highly productive while being conscious of being relaxed at the same time. When you learn how to control your stress levels, productivity rises.”


I ask Sue what she has learnt from her horses over the years and the answer is a very simple—and beautiful—one: “stillness”. “You need that to get results. My whole career was show jumping and eventing, everything was fast, fast, fast. Natural horsemanship changes the equation and you become very conscious of how your energy is affecting another being.”