Interview with Dave Harris, speaker, coach and EGLD expert
Dave and Sharon Harris are internationally acclaimed experts in the fascinating and ground-breaking field of Equine Guided Development. For 17 years they have worked with teams and leaders from a range of multinational companies in different industries to help them become more effective, more cohesive and – crucially – more conscious and courageous.
Global Warriors has been lucky enough to work alongside them as partners and co warriors since 2013. The unique experiences they create have become some of the most memorable and impactful elements of our Courageous Leader programmes. We sat down with Dave to speak with him about his journey from dissatisfaction in the corporate world to fulfilment in people development, and what it has taught him about humans, animals, and wisdom.
At the end of one of his incredible development days, Dave Harris likes to read an extract from the poem ‘Return to Love’ by Marianne Williamson. It begins: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”
One of the biggest things that leaders take away from their work with him and his stable of equine teachers, he says, is a sense that they are actually totally OK – OK as people. “And I think this is hard for people – really hard – to know that they are not broken, and they don’t need fixing. They might do some stuff that is getting in their way, but when people realise they can move that stuff out of the way and get back to the purity of who they are – with their faults, with their foibles, with their idiosyncrasies…if they can embrace that, there is no problem.”
He speaks with the certainty of someone who knows this – who has learnt through experience that embracing yourself for all of who you are is the only way to fulfilment, and the key to really powerful leadership.
Having started out as a computer programmer his natural talent and capacity for solving problems saw him progressing through the businesses he worked for at such a rate that almost by accident he found himself running his own software company. But, his heart was not in the work. “It almost felt like events were overtaking me” says Dave.
Despite the money, the status, and what seemed to the outside world as tremendous ‘success’, Dave was miserable. He knew something had to change. He just wasn’t sure what.
A horse called JohnJo
A trip to Ireland to buy a horse for his daughter, who was a keen equestrian and showjumper, changed his life forever. He found himself drawn to a stallion named JohnJo. JohnJo was completely unsuitable – wild, undisciplined, and no good at jumping. So, Dave bought him, and they began working together.
“Why had I bought this horse when everybody told me not to? (At first) it was an ineffective, bad relationship. Then I read a book called ‘The Man Who Listened to Horses’ by Monty Roberts, who said that if you focus on task at the expense of relationship you’ve got a problem.”
Dave decided to stop trying to ‘train’ JohnJo and get him to do as he was told, and to simply focus on building a relationship with him. “It was magical. I thought ‘Wow, what is this horse teaching me?’ From that point on I don’t think I ever felt like the teacher”. It was the beginning of a journey that completely transformed Dave’s understanding of life, leadership, and what it is to be human.
When people show up for a day of leadership development on a farm, surrounded by horses, there can be a level of scepticism and even resistance. This is not what they expect to experience as training. But Dave is very clear that what he offers is not ‘training’.
“In leadership one approach is to give people stacks and stacks of ‘tools’ to lead with. But you and I both know that you can have all the tools in the world, but if you are not centred enough or comfortable enough in your own skin, you’ll never implement them. Or if you do implement them, you’ll do it in a way that people won’t respond to. The problem can appear to be a lack of leadership skills…often the real problem is a lack of identity, a lack of confidence in the self.”
So how does spending time with horses help leaders find that confidence, that sense of self, that understanding that ‘I am OK’?
A large part of it, says Dave, is simply that the horses offer feedback – immediate, unconditional, ego-free feedback about how you are showing up. Horses, he says, don’t respond to what we know or what our job title is – they respond to energy.
When a participant stands next to a horse feeling full of anxiety and doubt, but trying to project toughness and confidence, the horse will be unnerved. They won’t want to be near you. They sense the discrepancy, they sense that something is being hidden or held back, and it makes them nervous. As prey animals in a world of predators they need to know – to sense – that any creature near them can be trusted.
But a small shift in that person’s inner state, a small adjustment to their intention and their energy can motivate that horse to approach and even follow that same person around like a puppy dog a few moments later.
“People don’t realise the power of their energy. They don’t realise that when you pretend to be feeling one way but you are actually feeling another way, everyone is else is thinking – well, they’re not thinking, they are feeling – ‘something is not right here’.
In this way, the horse is signalling something to us about our own emotional state that we may not even be aware of – a vital part of ourselves we have become somewhat distant from….
We are animals too!
That connection – or often disconnection – between our thinking selves and our feeling selves, between our human selves and our ‘animal’ selves, lies at the heart of Dave’s work. Humans, he says, tend to get very caught up with what we know – or what we think we know.
And we forget that we are animals too! We have these highly developed neo-cortexes that allow us to perform amazing feats of planning and creativity but sitting behind that is a part of the brain that operates in us just as it does in any other creature.
Horses, he says, respond quickly, predictably, and instinctively to threats in their environment, usually potential predators. Most humans don’t realise it, but we are just the same – except, in our ever-accelerating 21st century world, the threats we face are less physical and more emotional.
“Part of our defence mechanism is that if something “feels” dangerous – we haven’t got time for the information to come in via the visual cortex, be processed, and passed onto the neo-cortex because by the time we’ve made sense of it, a tiger could have jumped out at us. So, the system does an ‘amygdala hijack’, the information passes straight into the limbic part of the brain (where emotions are processed) and we just react.”
The horses are great teachers because they connect with us via the emotions – via the limbic brain. Dave talks about ‘limbic resonance’ – the phenomenon of the nervous systems of mammals in the same environment to come into alignment with each other.
“I think sometimes people just stand near horses and something is happening there that we don’t know or understand that brings them into presence, that brings them into quite a natural state.”
As humans we seem to want to distance ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom, to place ourselves above the other creatures that don’t have cerebral cortexes quite as big or developed as ours.
Embracing our animal selves
From Dave’s perspective the key to effective leadership and personal fulfilment is to embrace this fact: we are animals like any other. We can embrace the gifts of that very human capacity to plan, strategize, and reflect – and we can embrace the part of us that is emotional and instinctive. His wish for us is not that we disregard the thinking mind, but harness it to our intuition, our spirit, our deeper sense of knowing that goes beyond what our minds can tell us.
Because not only are we animals, we are herd animals – we influence one another profoundly, for better or worse. That’s why Dave has chosen to work closely with leaders, often in the corporate world.
As human beings we have access to a number of incredible sources of wisdom – the wisdom of our minds, and also the wisdom of our senses, our emotions, our intuition. Somehow, over time, we have come to value mind wisdom above all else, and lost connection to our animal selves.
Great leadership is about tuning into all of these sources of wisdom – and using them in service of all people – using them to bring safety, security and abundance to the whole ‘herd’.
When COVID hit Dave and Sharon had to get creative about how to bring the experience of working with the horses to people who couldn’t physically be in the same space as them. Happily, they have devised a new virtual programme full of beauty, wisdom, and – most of all – connection.
Because if there is one theme that shines through from my conversation with Dave it is the importance of connection. His life was changed when he connected with a horse called JohnJo all those years ago. Sadly, in September of this year JohnJo died, but his legacy lives on in the amazing work of Dave and Sharon and all those leaders whose lives he has touched.