From a young age, Stacey Tolley has felt drawn to horses. Her grandfather—“not just an incredible horseman and grandparent, but a best friend”—owned a stud farm, and this was her earliest introduction to the animals which would guide her life and career. Through running her horse-training business, which focusses on dressage and show-jumping, she learnt that horses are sensitive creatures who intuit human intention through body language and non-verbal communication.
“What horses expect from us is what we should expect from other people,” Stacey says. “They want us to be level and calm, to know that they can trust us and that we can trust them.”
This astonishing intuition has been proven even stronger through the horses’ interactions with Stacey’s daughter Georgia, who is profoundly disabled with a one-of-a-kind genetic condition. Stacey says it was a “steep learning curve” given she had no previous experience with disability before having Georgia, but she volunteered for Riding for the Disabled and was amazed at the benefits horses provide for people with disabilities. Seeing Georgia’s connection with horses is Stacey’s most “visceral experience” with the animals: they flock to her, are gentle and protective, and surround her quietly as if they understand her vulnerability.
“They are amazing animals, because they just know. They understand that Georgia needs protection just like they understand a foal needs protection. And she lights up like a Christmas tree whenever she’s with them, too!”
Combining her training expertise with these inherent abilities of horses to interpret human intentions, Stacey decided to partner with others to create a new business, Equiano. Horses, she says, can see things in us that we can’t see in ourselves, and being aware of these insights gives us the tools to improve our behaviour.
“Horses are the most honest judges I’ve ever seen,” she says, “and it’s empowering to communicate effectively with them.”
The idea behind Equiano is to provide people with insights into their body language, kindness and empathy, as well as firmness and moral values. Through interactions with specially-trained, gentle and sensitive horses, the program helps people develop leadership, teamwork, emotional intelligence and non-verbal communication skills which can provide insight into all facets of life. How the horses respond to a person can reflect underlying anxiety, stress or overenthusiasm, and it’s Stacey’s role to be the translator between horse and human.
Equiano has recently launched after three years of careful development, but already they have seen incredible results.
“People are responding really strongly. Working as teammates with horses is a profound experience that has helped people with professional leadership,” Stacey says, “but those skills are just as valuable at home and in social life.”
More than anything, Stacey is excited about Equiano’s impact on women in leadership roles.
“We are still living in a man’s world, but I’m really excited about women in leadership,” she says. “Right now is such an exciting time for women.”
Often, Stacey believes women in leadership roles can overcompensate with assertiveness under a perceived obligation to be ‘tough’, because for so long leadership has been dominated by men and masculine traits. But genuine connection is at the core of all successful leaders, and there is power in allowing women to embrace their feminine strength and balance nurture and trust with firmness.
Horses are outstanding teachers in finding this balance, says Stacey: “they don’t want you to be forceful or overemotional, they just want you to trust them and work in respectful partnership”. Equiano instils this confidence by “helping people to lead while retaining the core of who they are”. The program allows participants to practise assertiveness in a safe way with the animals, and these insights can be taken back to the workplace and beyond.
“As a leader, you have to be a gentle authority, a guiding light—and that is what all horses want from us.”
Further developing the Equiano program by continuing to work with horses and women is Stacey’s main goal for the near future. Ultimately, it is her “dream come true” to help others while working with horses, and she would love more people to discover how wonderful her favourite animals are.
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