I was intrigued right away by the idea of a nonpredatory approach to life, since modern society is so focused (almost viciously so) on the predatory mindset. From our language to our social structures, we focus on one-upping everyone else. But Ms. Kohanov details a different mindset, a way not just to view the world but to interact with each other that offers the possibility of changing not just our individual habits but society at large. I find that prospect gratifying. As Ms. Kohanov says in the book, “We need to develop new leadership models to support authentic, empowered, transparent, collaborative communities.” Amen.

This book focuses on the author’s experience working with horses and what she learned from them about herd behavior. It was a revelation to her (and to me as I read the book) to realize that ‘prey animals’ such as horses don’t lead lives of constant terror, but in fact have highly developed social skills that allow them to deal with threats and then go back to grazing without continuing to worry. She uses this information in her one-on-one horse therapy with clients, and has extrapolated what she teaches in those sessions to a set of concepts the reader can use to learn nonpredatory social skills. The book focuses on the concept of freedom through relationship (the herd!) rather than the staunch individualism we’ve long been taught but which is actually maladaptive in the long run.

One of Ms. Kohanov’s main premises is that we rely too much on words and not enough on the other 90% of communication that is nonverbal. I’m inclined to agree with her. She suggests that the focus on words in modern (literate, computerized) society encourages us to dissociate from the material world: the body, the environment. Paying attention to the nonverbal component of communication helps us to connect with our own bodies and emotions as well as our fellow human beings and the animals with whom we share this planet.

This lengthy book is divided into three parts. Part I provides the background and justification for her ideas, including biographies of several famous people who appear to have learned a great deal about leadership and social skills from their horses. This section also includes discussion of the great spiritual traditions that promote nonpredatory and cooperative behavior as well as an in-depth discussion of the Fulani, a pastoralist culture in sub-Saharan Africa who live with their cattle herds and interact with them in unique ways. The details of George Washington’s life – the bits you never read about in history class – were fascinating and eye-opening. And the description of Andrew Jackson as a sort of ‘how not to do it’ example was also very educational.

I feel that the information Ms. Kohanov presents provides a strong support for her assertion that nonpredatory wisdom really does create the best kind of interaction with the wisest and most compassionate outcomes. In fact, by the time I had finished reading this section, I felt (please pardon the pun) that she was flogging a dead horse. But I must admit to liking the idea of nonpredatory wisdom from the start, and I suspect not all readers are so accepting, so it’s probably wise that she backed up her ideas with such a depth of information.

Part II details Ms. Kohanov’s experience as a horse trainer, working closely with several animals who needed special handling thanks to having been mistreated by former owners. I was moved by her willingness to share her heartbreaks and failures as well as her successes. In addition to the tales of  her relationships with her horses, the author provides the neurological and biological background for why these kinds of behaviors and interactions work to defuse tense and dangerous situations. Some of what she describes can sound like magic or telepathy at times, but in reality it is subtly built into human and animal nervous systems. This section provides another set of information that supports the idea of nonpredatory behavior as a valuable tool for social interaction. It also gives the reader pretty much a blow-by-blow account of how the author developed her system, which I found fascinating.

Part III is the nuts and bolts of Ms. Kohanov’s system of nonpredatory behavior. She details 12 guiding principles that the reader can use to learn to ‘tune in’ to that 90% of communication that’s nonverbal. I like the fact that she begins by having the reader learn to communicate better with themselves first, and then move on to communicating with others. She offers extensive guidance for listening to your emotions and your body, and being aware of other people’s responses and giving them space. I’ve begun working with the concepts in this section and have found them to be helpful in terms of identifying what I’m actually feeling in any given situation, and also in terms of dealing with potentially difficult situations in a way that defuses them.

The author points out that predatory leaders have actively suppressed the knowledge of these skills and encouraged the depiction of humanity as a predator in order to justify their own practices. By bringing these skills into the open and sharing them, she is hoping to begin a paradigm shift, though she recognizes that this will be difficult.  In fact, I can feel her frustration throughout the book as she describes her work to get these ideas ‘out there’ and help us move toward a world where mutual aid and consensual leadership are valued over winning at any cost. One idea that really struck a chord with me is that we don’t know how to own our power in a mature way; that’s just not something society teaches us. From the workplace to family reunions to political races, we act like adolescents trying to manipulate and one-up each other. What Ms. Kohanov offers is a different paradigm, a practical strategy for finding your inner authority so you can have power with others rather than power over them. For that idea alone, this book is worth the read.

~review by Laura Perry

Author: Linda Kohanov
New World Library, 2013
pp. 452, $19.95