Find Mediators Near You:

From The Horses Mouth: On The Nature Of Equine And Human Negotiations

This is a version of an article edited for publication in the ACR Family Section’s Mediation News Newsletter, due to be published in Fall, 2004

Fair warning: if you are among those who have no interest, fascination or appreciation of horses, and can not fathom what possible relevance these beasts might have to a better understanding of negotiation, read no further; this column is not for you. If on the other hand, whether from near or afar, the power, grace and downright beauty of these animals holds your gaze and fascination, then you might be drawn to consider what is to be gleaned from studying not only their physical presence but their nature as well. We humans have more in common with horses than we might think.

While not closely related in the evolutionary order, both horses and humans have strongly ingrained experience as prey animals. In the earliest times, both species were obligated to drink at the same watering holes as predators lurked nearby. Ours and their survival was directly linked to an ever constant vigilance to possible threats. Horses have remained purely prey animals and humans still seem to remember. Despite the intervening eons of time and the human capacity for reasoning, those deep seated, ingrained fears seem only muted at best and still have a firm grip on the human psyche. That is nowhere more clear than in our frequent regressions into tribal behaviors. Fears of outsiders, sometimes real and often imagined, remain common in both local neighborhood and global politics. Especially in the midst of conflict, be it a divorce, workplace, business, or policy matter, humans exhibit the same nervous demeanor of a horse exposed in an open field. In our own way, we approximate that head tossing, nose to the wind, quick glancing behavior that suggests a state of constant alert to all possible plots to take advantage of us. We close ranks with those we think we can trust, and hire professionals to protect us from being played for fools in an ever increasingly complex and threatening world.

Human hubris and the Enlightenment has allowed some to be presumptuous enough to believe that humans can trump their emotional fears with reason alone. Ironically, suggest neuroscientists, the initial ‘feeling’ response of most humans to a dispute or conflict, which have been traced in brain scans to the amygdala at the base of our brain, often encourages fight or flight and the corresponding emotions. Despite our determination to be rational and reasonable beings, we often continue to respond as any horse might to a perceived threat. Rational thought processes of the neo-cortex can eventually be brought to bear on our initial feelings and fears, but not initially or immediately. As Antonio Damasio observed in his book, Descartes’ Error (1994), in the face of conflict there is no such thing as a “cool-headed reasoner”. People in conflict situations feel and act like prey animals; they have a natural, psycho-biological discomfort and unease about being in foreign terrain and in a circumstance over which they do not have complete control. At worst, they have abject fear of being compromised or injured. Thus, there are close parallels between approaching and training a horse and mediating with people embroiled in a dispute. Training is little more than a form of negotiation and much can be learned and from that interaction.

Still part of our Western folklore is the conventional wisdom about how to train, or more bluntly, break a horse. Still practiced in some quarters, in negotiation terms it is a form of ultimatum—“you will do as I demand, or else”—the beast needs to be ‘broken’ and bent to the will of the trainer. As herd animals, so the theory goes, they must be forced to regard the human with the complete deference given to a dominant stallion. John Huston’s 1960 film, The Misfits, aptly depicts a cringing scene of the wild mustang staked down with feet hobbled in the middle of a ring and then ridden till they drop— until the last ounce of resistance was driven out of them.

Unfortunately, there are similarities between this traditional form of horse training and the practice of some professionals—lawyers, doctors and even some mediators— who feel compelled to be in control of their clients or patients. By giving clients rules of behavior, asserting their superior knowledge of the situation and intimidating them with their years of experience and education, some professionals demand respect. The theory is that people in conflict are prone to be unpredictable, emotional and so likely to bolt in every direction that they must be reigned in with heavy doses of reality. Although not clear if the implicit (sometimes explicit) ultimatum more serves the comfort level of the professional or the client, it is nonetheless clear enough: “do it my way or get out… .” The professional asserts his authority, as an objective, rational and pragmatic agent of reality with statements such as, ‘this is the way it is’, said with a firmness that defies contradiction or argument. The client understands clearly that he or she is to relent or leave. Ironically, while less acceptable in the evolving conflict management field, which professes a dedication to a heightened awareness of client self-determination, some mediators continue to practice varieties of this ‘take charge-I know best’ approach.

Not surprisingly, humans have tended to approach their negotiations with each other much the same way they train their horses and dogs. They have assumed that control requires dominance and power, and that logic and rational argument are the best techniques to manage fears and conflict. Those techniques failing, then the assertion of ultimatums, threats and sanctions are justified. Ironically, as experienced conflict managers have learned, logic is the least effective way to convince anyone of anything—and it doesn’t work particularly well with horses either. That does not, however, seem to have deterred the vast majority of practitioners from continuing to use logic as their primary method of conflict management.

In recent years, more sophisticated horse people and trainers have learned to use the animals nature to their advantage. Instead of trying to ‘break’ their spirit, they have found ways to ‘gentle’ it. Monty Roberts, famous for his book and the basis for the Robert Redford move, The Man Who Listens to Horses, (1997), and other well-regarded trainers, such as, John Lyons in his video series, Horse Training The Natural Way (1997). Horse ‘whispering,’ as it is sometimes known, is not nearly so mysterious or magical as some might think. At core, it is about carefully observing the natural fears, rhythms and behaviors of an animal who is typically frightened and on unfamiliar ground, and to use that sense to develop a rapport and trust. To be sure, there is a structure to the ‘magic,’ that bears close resemblance in theory to the neuro-linquistic techniques suggested by Richard Bandler and John Grinder in their book The Structure of Magic (1975). This approach also fits with the more sophisticated appreciation of the culture of horses observed by Steven Budiansky who has noted in his book on The Nature of Horses, (1997), that while pecking order is a factor, it is not nearly as important as many suppose. Leadership is not merely the biggest and strongest forcing compliance on the lessers, but a form of negotiation. As do humans, horses use many subtle techniques to communicate with and influence each other.

As a close aside, dog training has also evolved along similar lines, based on the positive reinforcement of her natural tendencies. The traditional approach to “housebreaking” a puppy, based on human logic, involved grabbing him by the scruff of the neck and sticking his nose in the spot soiled, swatting his rear end while saying ‘no—bad dog’, then putting him outside. The puppy seldom got the point and made no connection between his behavior and his human’s response. The more effective strategy is observing the dogs’ natural rhythm of relieving himself, making sure he is outside ten minutes before hand, and then praising him for holding to his schedule.

The strategy and techniques of gentling a horse—or housetraining a dog— are useful to managing people in conflict. Using the natural energy of their emotion gives the mediator access to their fears and apprehensions and offers a way to relax them sufficiently to alter their behavior. However, the theory and practice requires a fundamental rethinking of many of the underlying assumptions and beliefs of our techno-rational culture that continues to have a deep and abiding faith in the power of reason and rational argument. We believe we can talk people out of their fears and change their emotional responses with logic. Instead of talking at them—trying to suppress or contain their emotions with rules of behavior, which are as likely as not to intensify their fears—accepting their fears as normal, natural and expected, paradoxically gives people the permission they need to relax that telling them to ‘relax’ or ‘calm down’ never can.

This alternative gentling approach strategically uses their emotional energy constructively. A comment such as, “This has got to be difficult for you and I know you are doing what you can to make sense of things”, acknowledges the difficulty and giving support to their own efforts to manage themselves. A parties’ self imposed restraint is worth 100 admonitions by a mediator.

Managing the natural energy of the conflict, not unlike horse whispering, requires the use of strategic empathy—entering the reality of the prey horse or fearful party—and shifting that energy to trust. My chapter, “Managing the Natural Energy of Conflict: Tricksters, Mediators and the Constructive Uses of Deception,” in Bringing Peace Into the Room (Bowling, D. and Hoffman, D. eds. 2003), elaborates on this approach.

While clarity and focus are important ingredients, logic and rules cannot counter fear or give the essential sense of safety required for a prey animal to relax their resistance. The fear of being played for a fool precludes any ability to hear and consider new information and shift perspective. In horse terms, if a saddle is suddenly thrown on without warning, he will balk or bolt. In human terms, being encouraged to negotiate or mediate because it is the rational thing to do, “you’ll save time and money”, is as foreign to person afraid of being taken advantage of, as a saddle is to a horse that has never been ridden.

Anyone who has been around horses knows how quickly they can sense a rider’s fear. Interestingly, some professional training programs have begun to use that equine sensitivity to their advantage. A trip to the horse paddock has been made part of the medical school curriculum in Arizona. The students are asked to work with the horses and in so doing, glean immediate feedback about their manner of communication—ultimately, their ‘bedside manner.’ Negotiators and mediators might be well advised to take the same class. Contrary to conventional wisdom, managing conflict may be less about words, rational analysis and the use of logical argument, than it is about sensing and using the natural instincts and responses of the parties’ constructively.

When we find ourselves trying hard to analyze and explain ourselves, it might be worthwhile to consider if that approach would work with a horse. If not, it probably won’t work particularly well with anxious people caught in the middle of conflict either. Mediation practice is about human ‘whispering’.


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

Featured Members

View all

Read these next


“Private Caucusing” In Civil Pretrial Mediations

This June we had the pleasure of attending a week-long program on “Mediating Disputes” offered by the Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation.  The program included an ongoing dialogue between...

By Jeffrey Makoff, Jessica Grynberg

5 Reasons It’s Hard for Mediators to Support Self-Determination

Many mediators practice consistently with our intention to support party self-determination throughout the process. These mediations tend to be very meaningful to the parties and tend to lead to profound...

By Dan Simon

Lawyers Benefit from Transformative Mediation – Video

Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation by Dan SimonWhy hasn’t transformative mediation swept the world of litigated disputes with represented parties? A new video reveals that there’s no good...

By Dan Simon