Divine Equine uses horses to help people find their way
You can learn a lot about yourself when you're down on all fours in the dirt, trying to get a largely disinterested horse to follow you over a jump.
Exactly what you learn is up to you. For one person, it is a revelation about doing a better job standing up for themselves. For others, it's about setting goals, or bringing more customers into a business.
Wherever you need to go, it's Heather Kantrud's job to get you there, and the horse is a big part of the process.
Crawling in the dirt is optional.
Since the summer of 2009, Kantrud has operated Divine Equine Services, a coaching business that uses horses as a key part a process that helps people set goals, learn about leadership or tap into their own ambitions. It's a business Kantrud sees as her calling, a natural combination of a lifetime spent with horses and years of study that went into earning a master's degree in social work. She works with individuals and with groups, with people looking to clarify things in their own life or with business owners looking for ways to attract customers.
It's a group of business owners she was working with on a recent Friday afternoon. In metal arena near New Trier, the wind howling outside, she had the group of three men try to lead a horse named Vinnie over a low jump. The only rules are, they can't talk to each other and they can't touch the horse. Break a rule, and they have to do 10 pushups, a punishment they chose themselves.
Before they start, each person comes up with a business or leadership goal to hold in his mind.
The exercise does not go well. Before long, Vinnie is charging around the arena. He makes it over the jump once, but that seems to be as much by random chance as anything. Kantrud watches silently from the edge of the arena, and when the time is up she talks with the men about what they got from the experience. They talk about adapting their strategies, about not getting stuck with the first thing they try.
When the conversation is done, they repeat the exercise, this time conferring with each other ahead of time to set a goal. This time things go better. They keep the horse calm, and they lead him slowly over the jump once, then twice, then three and four times.
Afterward, it is clear the experience has had an impact. Where previously the group had stood to one side of Vinnie, now they gather around him, stroking his neck and talking to him.
"I was just deeply pleased," said Michael Palosaari, who owns a coaching business. "I have huge goosebumps all over the place."
The conversation after the second exercise is different, too. Going through the process got the men thinking about whether they make it hard for their customers to connect with them. It clarified their own thinking about how to do things better.
Others might go through the same exercise and come away with a very different revelation. It all depends on the goal they set, and their frame of mind. In some ways, the horse functions as a large, four-footed ink-blot test. Participants see what they need to see. Kantrud is there to ask the right questions to help get them there.
Vinnie, who Kantrud bought two years ago, is an able assistant. He is calm and accepts the attention of strangers readily. It's easy to look into his big brown eyes and see whatever you want to see.
That, Kantrud said, is part of the point.
"Horses are ... disarming," Kantrud said. "They kind of take the focus off of the people and can help facilitate questions and conversations that wouldn't ordinarily happen. They become a vessel for learning."
It's something Kantrud has wanted to do since she first saw a demonstration more than a decade ago. The timing wasn't right then, but Kantrud knew she would get back to it eventually.
Kantrud walked away from social work five years ago and started a housekeeping business. She says now she needed the break before she could get into coaching.
Now, though, she is full speed ahead. She works with clients from all walks of life, and on a wide variety of issues. Her background in social work allows her to adapt similar exercises to different purposes.
For some, it just takes one visit. Others come several times in a row. Some might stay away for months at a time, then come back for a refresher. However people approach it, Kantrud likes the feeling of being there when people come to whatever realization they are trying to reach.
"I struggle to find words," she said. "It's encouraging and reinforcing that what I do is unique and important and valuable and how quickly it moves people to do things differently or be better at what they do.
"I am constantly fascinated and amazed and humbled that I get to live my purpose and calling."