Along for the Ride – Focus Work or Empathy Work?

by Robyn Schiller

Robyn is the wife of horse (and people) trainer Warwick Schiller. She invites you to join her as she journeys through her life as trainer’s wife, mother, businesswoman and Internationally competitive rider.

I am preparing for an upcoming Women’s Retreat ( and so I’m reviewing the Brené Brown curriculum from my recent Dare to Lead™ Facilitator Training.

I get to speak about the unspeakables – Vulnerability & Shame and the antidote to it – Empathy.

As I was revisiting the 5 parts to Empathy, I thought that Warwick could easily rename the “Focus work” to “Empathy work.” I was specifically thinking this when I was reviewing the 5 attributes of Empathy but then as I was typing this, all of it resonated with me in context of our horses (of course, Brené is speaking of Daring Human Leadership).

The thing about empathy is that you don’t have to have experienced the same thing.  You are not responding to an event, it’s not responding to an experience.  It is responding to the emotion that underlies the experience or event.  With empathy, you are connecting to the emotions.   Brené does this little exercise where she asks: “Raise your hands if you know what Love feels like?  Hate? Surprise? Fear? Shame? Curiosity? Disappointment? Confusion?” When everyone raises their hands for each one, like you probably did, she exclaims, “You Pass!”  We have all felt those things, we know what emotions feel like even if we haven’t experienced every single event.

So, you have the ability to be Empathetic because you’ve felt those emotions before.  You have the ability to connect to the emotions even if you haven’t had the experience. However, while you may be inherently kind, empathy is a practiced skill.

Here are the 5 attributes of Empathy and kind of my mashup as to where it relates to our horses as well as humans.  Brené puts them in this order.  I interpret it in this order 1, 3, 4 and use #2 and #5 throughout (hope that makes sense):

  1. Perspective Taking – To see the world as others see it – you need to listen to a person’s story and honor it as truth even if it doesn’t fit with your experience in that situation.Another way that I just saw this written in context to horses from Kerri Lake’s “Listen Like A Horse”-  ‘This is what it feels like to be me in this situation’~          Love, your horse.
  2. Stay out of judgment – Kerri also talks about judgments in the way that I wish I could convey. She says:  Judgments are not truths, they are opinions.  Judgements that show up as negative or positive are creating limiting barriers for our awareness.  They create obstacles for communication.  Judgment leads to fixing problems rather than creating effective and elegant responses.In reference to people, Brené has found in her research that we judge in places that we are susceptible to shame and we judge those doing worse than us in those areas.The beautiful thing about our horses is that they don’t judge us.  Not many places we can go for that in this world!
  1. Recognizing Emotion – Emotional literacy is hard with people and even harder with horses. This is why just observing them and “Being” with them is so important.     One of the ways your horse communicates with you is the way that he presents, “Here’s how it feels to be me with you when you show up like that.”I think Warwick’s sentiment of “Take everything as valuable information not as a personal insult” is right on here.  We have to recognize their emotion without judging it.  Once we judge it, we create our own emotion and horses can read that vibration from us.  That is one of their superpowers, so we have to be very careful that it doesn’t influence the next skill.
  1. Communicate Emotion – Communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings.  This is the beautiful dance of the Focus work with your horse.  Keeping stress indicators in mind.  Balancing the drive and draw.  Waiting for them while they process.  You are communicating to them that you hear and understand them.   The way that we do this is through the next skill.
  1. Mindfulness – Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and surrounding environment. It involves acceptance, which means that we pay attention to those things without judging them.  When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.  **This excerpt is from the definition of Mindfulness from the Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley.I love this piece because we get so caught up in the past with horses.  We create stories around what has happened to the horse in the past instead of just listening to their truth.  I love what Kerri Lake says, “Those stories are largely of misunderstanding and misinterpretations of people, of their judgments and fears of their own ability or inability to be in control, to perform, to create a certain outcome.”  Their truth is simply who they are and how they are showing up right now, at this moment, standing in front of you.

Well, that got a little more in depth than I had envisioned.  I was simply thinking of the straight 1-5 list and let you make up your own parallels but I felt compelled to add my thoughts.  I don’t think we will change the name of the Focus Work, but I think it really speaks to what we are doing with our horses when we are being empathetic (you can say Empathetic or Empathic – they are the same).

We are honoring them.  We are respecting them.  We are listening to them.  We are loving them.

I for one, can never go back to the horseperson I was before.  I was well on my path when I bought Dale, but he has really shown me what can be accomplished through being empathetic.  To say he is a completely different horse now is the truth.  In this case, doing the Empathy Work is a double-edged sword though – since the plan was to show him and then sell him.  Now that I’ve seen the horse he can be, the decision to sell him will be harder knowing what he will likely revert back to.   I struggle with that – the practical (we don’t need 8 horses on 6 acres) versus the emotional (how can I sell him knowing he will revert back to the horse he was before in the absence of empathetic handling).   I guess I’ll figure it out eventually.

Thanks for letting me share my musings.