For those of us who are lucky enough to ride or work with horses, I think we can all agree they are beautiful and intelligent animals. But I think we often forget just how truly special they can be. I believe it was Winston Churchill who once claimed, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man,” and this is something Jess Liston has built her life around.
Jess is a teacher and Equine Assisted Therapist at Candlebark School and also runs her own Equine Therapy business called Inner Rhythm. When we met Jess at Equitana last year, we were blown away by the work she does, and when I eventually found the time to speak with her for this blog post, we talked for WAY over an hour and could have gone on for many more! One thing is clearly evident when chatting with Jess, and that is her genuine passion for what she does. She lives and breathes horses and gets to witness every single day the impact they can have on someone’s life.
Jess grew up on a farm in Victoria, halfway between Melbourne and Adelaide, and was lucky enough to be introduced to horses from a very young age.
“I’ve always been around horses from early in my childhood. My mum was really good at understanding horses and it was fun for me to discover how to get them to trust me. I was lucky, because if a horse was upset or if I fell off, instead of thinking ‘well it was naughty’, mum always got us to think about HOW the horse was thinking. Was it scared? Was it frightened? Why did it react in that way?”
Her mother always used to say, “There is not a bad horse, each horse just needs to be understood with kindness and patience.” And for Jess, she believes the same can be said of humans.
After her first year of teaching at Candlebark school, Jess came across Equine Therapy and had a deep desire to learn more. She thought she might have to quit her job, but instead the principal at the school, John Marsden, offered her the opportunity of a lifetime.
“Being given the opportunity to start a whole new program at the school and figure it all out yourself, was a huge and generous opportunity. He was, and still is, incredibly supportive. He encouraged me to seek out professional development in the field, buy and train therapy horses, set up paddocks and learn on the job.”
With the one-month pilot program a success, Jess continued this for twelve months before heading to Germany to study at the Institut für Pferdegestützte Therapie to become a qualified Equine Assisted Therapist – a course delivered entirely in GERMAN!
“I think my childhood helped. I fell off a lot of horses when I was younger so I sort of looked at this opportunity as, well I might as well have a crack! Often people have a fear of failing, like they have a fear of falling off a horse, and so often it means they don’t even try. I had to at least try.”
During her twelve-month stint in Germany, a lot of Jess’s learning came through the process of observation – observing a person’s body language and how the horses would react to it.
Now back at Candlebark and running her own business, Inner Rhythm, after school hours and on weekends, Jess is living the life of her dreams. The work she undertakes is aimed at people learning from the reactions and cues given by the horses they are working with. It’s instant and authentic feedback.
“Horses are so perceptive, they know how fast your heart rate is from 10 metres away, and when you can appreciate this wisdom and what horses are telling you in how they react to you, the more you can learn about yourself.”
“I worked with one young girl, I think she was in about Year Three when we started, who found it really difficult to manage her emotions. She would often get really angry or overwhelmed and found learning at school difficult. I worked with her for some time, watching her work through and understand her own emotions by how the horses would react to how she was feeling. She is now in Year Eight and helps me run some of the children’s courses. Because she went through those exercises, she understands how they work and she can help other students in the same way. I am so proud of the person she has grown into.”
Some of the exercises in the Equine Assisted Therapy work Jess does sees people guiding their blindfolded classmates or colleagues to a horse, requiring both participants to give and receive support in an authentic way.
“You are creating situations where people need to give and receive love.”
She also sets up a scenario where participants get to paint the horses.
“It gives people the space they need, the environment they need to find what they have within them to draw on. The painting exercise is all about feeling tactile with horses. You can show people that you don’t always have to do things a certain way. It’s not about me giving them the answers, it’s about creating an environment or setting up a space so that they’ll feel safe and can discover things on their own.”
“With a lot of the novelty activities I get people to do with the horses, it’s about expanding their learning zone and creating completely new thought patterns that they can then use as a resource when they need to.”
“I worked with this one girl who was really nervous about going to boarding school. She was standing in the round yard and talking about all the negative things that might happen when she went, and the horse went and stood as far away as possible with his backside to her. I then got her to do a meditation exercise to calm herself down, and the horse actually came and put his head in her lap. With this she discovered that’s exactly what she could do – if she was in a difficult social situation at the boarding house she could choose to leave and go read a book in her room.”
Jess’s work is not only limited to children, she also works with adults and corporate companies who want their directors to lead authentically.
Mark Yarwood, CEO of Zagame Group found Jess’s classes incredibly rewarding and insightful. “I would never have imagined that a horse could teach me so much about myself and give me so many powerful insights into my personal leadership style,” he said.
Jess also runs an exercise where she teaches people to fall off (yes, you read that correctly)!
“Often the fear of falling off is greater than the actual thing happening. So I get them to get up and then slide off, over and over again first at a standstill, then at a walk and trot. For people to physically experience their fear is important. Life is always going to throw you challenges, so I teach people that the more uncomfortable things they can step straight into, the more fears they can face, the better.”
Jess is passionate about spreading the word about the benefits Equine Assisted Therapy can have in every single person’s life.
“We as humans tend to get too stuck in our heads. Horses don’t have egos so they don’t care about your background, what you look like, how much money you make. What matters to them is how you show up in the world, and this should matter to us as well.”
It’s fascinating listening to Jess and the different scenarios she has witnessed in her work with both humans and horses globetrotters. It’s incredible to realise how horses can actually help us become more in tune with our authentic selves and how they can help us deal with any situation we are faced with in life. Inspiring stuff! Make sure you check out Jess’s work at Inner Rhythm.
Oh, and I made sure to slip in the question asking where Jess’s ultimate globetrotting destination might be. Her answer? BOTSWANA! We can’t wait to welcome her one day.