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New World Library Unshelved

New World Library Unshelved

Positive news and inspiring views from the New World Library community

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Bestselling author Linda Kohanov is beloved for her groundbreaking articulation of “the way of the horse,” an experiential wisdom known to riders for centuries but little studied or adapted to off-horse use. In The Power of the Herd: A Nonpredatory Approach to Social Intelligence, Leadership, and Innovation, Kohanov takes those horse-inspired insights on the nonverbal elements of exceptional communication and leadership into the realms of our workplaces and relationships. The Power of the Herd explores the benefits of “nonpredatory power” in developing assertiveness, fostering creativity, dealing with conflict, and heightening mind-body awareness. We hope you’ll enjoy this interview with Kohanov about the book, which is now out in paperback. 


The Power of the Herd looks at history, animal behavior, science, religion, and our current political and cultural challenges from the perspective of what you call “nonpredatory power.” How did you discover this long-hidden form of power?

It all started in 1999 when I met a stunning black Arabian stallion who had been damaged by conventional dominance-submission horse training methods. Most horses can be “broken” by these techniques. In other words, they submit unquestionably to human authority in a machine-like way as a result. Midnight Merlin rebelled. He became unpredictable, enraged, and increasingly violent. He was so hypervigilant and hypersensitive that if you touched him, he’d jerk away like you’d shocked him with a cattle prod. You couldn’t even put a halter on him and lead him around without a serious fight. Several experienced trainers had tried to “tame” him without success. One of these trainers abandoned Merlin at a Tucson boarding facility after he’d attacked or bucked off several riders. He was so dangerous that he had to be isolated from other horses as well. 

At that time, I was boarding my horses at the same facility. I had a confident, intelligent, and very trustworthy black Arabian mare named Rasa. After our training sessions, I would let her wander the property to eat grass. Invariably, she would run over to Merlin’s corral when she was in heat. Everyone else thought he was crazy, but I could see a strange combination of softness, sadness, and longing in his eyes as he related to Rasa over the fence. Merlin wanted to connect, and yet like a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder, his sudden outbursts of frustration, rage, overstimulation, and fear aggression kept him isolated. I took him on, convinced that I could use gentler techniques to rehabilitate him.

What did you learn from Merlin?

I learned about power, courage, and self-control. I developed the ability to calm and focus someone who was violently attacking me. And ultimately, I developed a compassionate form of heroism that also became useful when I worked with people who were panicking or lashing out.

Working with Merlin turned out to be the bravest, scariest, seemingly most foolish thing I have ever done. While he would try very hard to control himself, the tiniest things would set him off. He would be friendly and interested in what we were doing one moment. The next moment, I was suddenly “the enemy.” Merlin would rip the lead rope out my hands, buck, whirl around, and lunge at me, rearing up, striking out with his teeth bared, literally threatening my life.

I remember standing there on numerous occasions saying, “I don’t want to be this strong person,” over and over to myself, fighting the urge to run screaming out of the arena as he attacked me, once again, for no apparent reason. All I could do was hold my ground and pray that I was fierce enough to win his trust. This turned out to be the essential paradox of rehabilitating Merlin. I realized, rather grudgingly at the time, that gentleness, sympathy and understanding couldn’t begin to transform the savage, wounded force that would rise up inside him without warning. To contain this violence, I would need to tap a different form of power, one I wasn’t even sure existed at the time.

Aren’t you talking about what some people call “horse sense?”

To a certain extent, though with Merlin I had to develop other, more advanced skills. As far as I can tell, this term goes back to the 19th century. “Horse sense” is commonly defined as practical wisdom combined with “gumption” and intuition. But it also describes a kind of nonverbal interpersonal genius. Scientists, for instance, have shown that during human interpersonal interactions, only about 10 percent of communication is verbal. Someone with horse sense notices and processes information coming from that elusive other 90 percent, while being able to calm, focus, and motivate others effectively, also through nonverbal means. 

People these days are more likely to talk about “leadership presence,” which is also primarily a nonverbal phenomenon. With Merlin, I had to develop an extremely high level of leadership presence and horse sense.  

Is this how you came to research historical leaders who were also great riders?   

Yes. I actually began The Power of the Herd as a simple overview of what horses teach people about leadership, and I kept coming across these stories of influential historical leaders who were also considered accomplished horsemen and -women. They include Alexander the Great, Katherine the Great, Elizabeth I, the Buddha, Andrew Jackson, Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan, England’s current Queen Elizabeth, and, most important in my mind, George Washington, who was not only revered as a great rider but also recognized internationally as one the finest horse trainers in the colonies. 

Especially intriguing to me was the fact that both Alexander the Great and Prince Siddhartha (who became the Buddha) were renowned for rehabilitating violent stallions that no one else could touch. It suddenly struck me that gaining the trust of an angry stallion was an ancient power story, one that predicted greatness. And I began, in part through analyzing my own rite of passage working with Merlin, to pinpoint what skills and intrinsic personal qualities this archetype was pointing to.

At the time, I was also teaching these mostly nonverbal leadership skills to students, some of whom progressed to the point that they were skilled enough to work with Merlin directly. By then, he was much calmer and more trustworthy. He was living with Rasa and another mare, and he had sired several sons and even met his own granddaughter. Even so, any human who proposed to work with him had to display significant leadership presence, as well as a combination of confidence, sensitivity, acute mindfulness, and a balanced, connected, nonviolent form of power that could nonetheless stand up to — and transform — violence. 

These primarily nonverbal skills took me four years of diligent writing and research to translate into words. Through a multidisciplinary approach, I analyzed the lives of several historical innovators who had tapped this highly effective, counterintuitive, nonpredatory form of power to make significant breakthroughs. As I read numerous biographies of George Washington, for instance, I could actually see the evolution of nonpredatory power transform him from an aggressive, sometimes explosive young man into the person who was able to win the Revolutionary War. I could see very clearly that he employed a particularly heroic form of nonpredatory power to stand up to the much larger and extremely well-organized, well-trained, and well-funded — yet excessively predatory — British forces. I also noticed that several innovative religious leaders, including Lao-tzu, the Buddha, and Jesus, had actively promoted a nonpredatory approach to power. 

Focusing on nonpredatory power turned my perspective on human history, human potential, and even evolution itself completely upside down. It also made me very hopeful, very optimistic about our future.

What is nonpredatory power, and why should we develop it?

The easiest way to define it is to contrast it with predatory power. Both forms of power exist in nature and in purely human contexts, though civilization has overidentified with carnivorous behavior to justify conquest and predatory business practices. On page 370 of The Power of the Herd, I offer a chart that shows how these opposite yet interconnected power principles play out in nature. It’s actually helpful to consult this chart when hiring a new staff member or employing the services of an expert — or electing a political leader — to notice how often the various candidates employ predatory modes of thinking and behaving. Whenever possible, you want to choose someone who exhibits power and expertise combined with nonpredatory tendencies, a simple way to lessen the common, though ironic, possibility that you will actually pay to become someone’s prey.

It’s also immensely important for sensitive, empathetic people to develop nonpredatory power to deal effectively with bullies, whether we’re talking about kids acting out on the playground, individuals like Merlin who became violent as a result of violence perpetrated on them, or large corporations that are set up to thrive at others’ expense, literally feeding off members of their own species.

In this respect, it gives people confidence to realize that, in nature, nonpredatory species and individuals far outnumber predators, and that mutual aid is a major factor of evolution. It’s amazing to me, for instance, that we keep emphasizing a carnivorous “competition for limited resources” view of nature when hibernation, migration, and squirrels storing nuts for the winter are examples of competition avoidance.
But why do you call it “nonpredatory power”? Isn’t there a better, perhaps more specific word for this?

We tend to think of “predator” and “prey” as defining opposites in the “struggle for survival.” But throughout my book, I cite scientific studies, animal behavior, and even a long-ignored view of evolution active in the early twentieth century, to show that large herbivores are not victims. They draw upon the socially-intelligent power of an entire herd to successfully shield the weak and vulnerable, showing incredible heroism and altruistic behavior at times. In terms of power, it’s simply not accurate to call these animals “prey,” which implies that they are quivering, gutless victims. 

But we don’t actually have a word for this kind of power. The concept is similar to “nonviolence.” We use this word to distinguish courageous, in some cases revolutionary, action from “violence,” because the conventional opposite, “peace,” doesn’t really fit those who must enter conflicts with a different approach. In terms of power, however, the nonpredatory perspective is not necessarily nonviolent, as horses, cattle, zebras, and wildebeests are fully capable of defending themselves if necessary. Wolves and lions attack mature horses at their peril, usually leaving those altercations wounded and hungry. Sometimes they are killed if they don’t give up quickly, which is why smart carnivores go after the young, the sick, and the weak. However, this mature form of nonpredatory power is purely defensive and used as a last resort. When the aggressor backs off, the herd doesn’t seek revenge. Horses don’t lie in wait, chase a lion down, and kill him. After a serious altercation, the herd goes back to grazing. They show a remarkable talent for managing risk and negotiating change — without enduring the chronic anxiety some humans endure.

Large herbivores use speed, size, agility, and power to protect themselves and their young, drawing additional security from the group. But they also conserve energy for true emergencies through their ability to read the intentions and emotional states of predators at a distance. Nature documentaries sometimes overemphasize successful kills, no doubt for sensational purposes and perhaps because of humanity’s overidentification with predatory metaphors for power. But it’s important to realize that thousands of hours of film depicting a relatively peaceful coexistence between predator and prey are left on the cutting-room floor. In Africa, it’s common to see lions lounging less than a hundred feet from grazing herds that can clearly assess from moment to moment whether these giant cats are getting dangerous. Video clips also show single adult horses, zebras, and wildebeests attacking and driving off predators who’ve managed to pull down another herd member. And after that close encounter with death? Both rescuer and rescued shake off the encounter quickly and get back to grazing, back to life. 

My stallion Merlin would easily chase coyotes and aggressive dogs out of his pasture, but I also have photos of him letting a squirrel eat grain out of his bucket. I’ve seen bears and mountain lions walk past areas where my herd was caring for new foals. The horses were alert, but they didn’t panic. The next moment ravens were wandering confidently on the ground near the babies looking for grain, and the adults were completely unconcerned. 

Fear resilience is a lesser-known feature of natural herd behavior that many humans have lost. Social structures based on predatory models encourage people to prey upon one another, creating inescapable stress in abusive work, home, or school environments. Developing nonpredatory power helps people boost their courage and combine forces to stand up to, and transform, the needlessly destructive practices that currently wreak havoc beneath the surface of virtually all cultures, religions, businesses, and educational disciplines.

But how can we develop nonpredatory power?

That was the biggest challenge in writing this book, actually — one that necessitated an additional year of research and development. Using the historical, scientific, and cultural perspectives I accessed, I worked hard to combine these insights with the nonverbal elements of power I had developed through working with horses like Merlin. Looking at history, as well as current political challenges, I came up with Four Stone Age Power Tools: archaic behavior patterns and power plays that exist beneath the surface of all cultural, religious, business, political, scientific, and philosophical persuasions. 

But it’s not enough avoid what’s not working. To resist falling into these old habits, people need to know what to do instead. As a result, I came up with the Twelve Power of the Herd Guiding Principles featured in part 3 of the book. These additional chapters give us the emotional and social intelligence skills we need to create mutually supportive, empowered communities capable of drawing on everyone’s talents. 

The benefits are significant: Since the U.S. won the Revolutionary War, people have been grappling with the same seemingly insurmountable challenge. Our ancestors were slaves and masters, serfs and kings. They had no idea how to collaborate with other free, empowered people, and so, despite their best intentions, they would often unconsciously fall back into the old power tools their ancestors used. In the 21st century, we need to break through this pattern. And we need to develop innovative solutions to the other challenges we face. 

In teaching the principles collected in this book, I’ve found that if my students, my colleagues, and I increasingly avoid the Four Stone Age Power Tools while practicing the Twelve Guiding Principles, we experience significant positive changes in our professional and personal relationships. Most important, we find the courage and the support to follow our dreams while inventing new ways to help everyone thrive.


Linda Kohanov founded Eponaquest Equestrian Services to explore the healing potential of working with horses and to offer programs on everything from stress reduction and parenting to consensus building and mindfulness. She lives in Tucson, AZ.

Based on the book The Power of the Herd. Copyright © 2013 by Linda Kohanov. 


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