“You do not work with that horse”, the horse wrangler said. He’s “stupid and flighty”. She then moved her hand quickly to prove her point. The horse’s head flew back with his eyes wide but he didn’t back away. He just kept his head and neck suspended high with the whites of his eyes prominent.
Sedona wasn’t stupid and he wasn’t flighty. He was a high-sensitive horse and shared the characteristics of a highly-sensitive person. Highly sensitive people comprise as much of 15-20% of the population according to Wikipedia. They process sensory data more deeply due to the biological nature of their nervous systems. Their proclivity is to be overstimulated, have emotional reactivity, empathy and sensitivity to stimuli around them.
Despite his sensitivity, Sedona had something to contribute and he knew it. In his own way, he coached us through how to connect with people who share similar traits.
Sedona had a slight build with a clay color similar to the red rocks of Sedona. He was part of a herd totaling 160 horses. Each had various backgrounds and were well cared for as they awaited the next trail ride, roping or cutting demonstration. Our attendance at the ranch was out of the ordinary. We were there for a conference to use horses in Equine Facilitated Learning demonstrations. We entered the large arena to choose the horses we’d be using during a 2 day period. It wasn’t long before several horses joined us followed by several more. Before we knew it we had 10 horses collected around us. Sedona was one of them.
Often Left Out
One-by-one we picked out horses based upon their personalities. Safe, calm, friendly, ability to get along with other horses, were among the characteristics we looked for, using the horse handler’s deep knowledge of the herd to guide us. And yet, Sedona didn’t make the cut. For my workshop where multiple people might be around a horse at the same time, I was concerned it would be too much for Sedona to tolerate so I directed my attention elsewhere.
With more than 16 horses selected, our group of workshop presenters and helpers walked towards the gate to leave, confident we had a good mix of horses. As if signaling us that he wanted to be included, Sedona continued to follow us. In our work, we find that sometimes horses self-select to participate. We allow our instincts and the horses’ behavior to guide decisions. Sedona clearly wanted to be counted in. Our heart strings felt pulled as he stood and waited.
Cody Sims spoke up first – “I’d really like to include him in my session. He wants to participate. I can work with him.” I felt a sense of relief knowing that Sedona would be in good hands and become part of our conference herd. I knew that in his own special way, he had something to offer.
Adjusting Ourselves to High Sensitives
Throughout the next 2 days, Sedona was used in Cody’s workshop and elsewhere. He wasn’t stupid and flighty, as described, just misunderstood as a high sensitive. Similar to people, horses like this feel intensely. How they show-up to others can be misinterpreted as insecure or unsocial.
What Sedona offered during the program was unique and he contributed in an important way. In response to signals his body language gave off, he offered an opportunity for participants who were high energy to tone it down. For others used to ‘having an agenda’ where they worked quickly, Sedona taught them to connect at a different level. By being mindful of his response to quick actions or loud voices, people learned to breathe more deeply to manage their energy. They understood that to honor his delicate bubble, moving more cautiously and quietly around him was needed. Through everyone’s collective intent, Sedona seamed to settle in and became more receptive to his surroundings. By the end of the two days, his confidence in his temporary surroundings seemed to increase.
Like people, highly sensitive horses can be misunderstood. But there are steps we can take as leaders or individual contributors. By taking a step back and viewing the individual with a different set of lenses we can see their distinction as well as their unique gifts. By paying attention to what their body language is signaling, we can allow them the space they need while discerning where our own energy is. In being empathetic towards them we can ask what they need or how they would like to contribute.
Much like a horse, a highly-sensitive person is cooperative by nature. They’re often overlooked in the workplace because they’re not competitive, loud or aggressive. Instead of force-fitting them into a role that doesn’t benefit anyone, perhaps we can ask the ways in which they can best contribute.
Like Sedona, high sensitive people have much to offer. If we take the time to stop, observe, step out of judgement, then connect and relate from a different place, we gain the wisdom and potential that highly sensitive people offer today’s workplace.