What is social intelligence and why is it important?

Social intelligence is “the capability to effectively navigate and negotiate complex social relationships and environments”.

It’s important because all successful interpersonal relationships (at work, at home, and in our communities) depend on our ability to effectively maneuver through our relationships.

But where do we go to learn – and exercise – our social intelligence skills? Like most of us, I learned these skills in an informal way, through family, friends, school, community, etc. But nowhere did I formally “learn” social intelligence skills.

… that is, until I started working with the masters of social intelligence and emotional agility themselves… horses. Did she just say “horses”? Yes, she did.

But how can horses teach us anything about human social intelligence?

Studies have shown that about 90% of human communication falls within the non-verbal range, which means only 10% of communication is verbal.

Horses are surprisingly skilled at teaching us how to use the other 90%, which is essential to advancing our social intelligence skills.


For starters, horses are highly adept at expressing their spatial needs – with other horses and animals as well as with humans. Sharing a space with a horse can give us incredible access to learning how to use these subtle yet powerful non-verbal cues in our own lives.

Horses also do something that humans (who haven’t studied it) don’t: They use emotions as information. Able to engage surprisingly agile responses to their circumstances, relationship challenges and environmental stimuli, horses:

  1. Feel the emotion in its purest form
  2. Get the message behind the emotion
  3. Change something in response to the message; and
  4. Go back to grazing (horses don’t endlessly ruminate over the story, they let the emotion go and either get back on task or relax, enjoying life to its fullest).

Simple? Yes. Easy? No. At least not until we have the tools to learn and practice this process.

The vast majority of humans never get past step 1. Some refrain entirely from feeling a troublesome emotion, thereby suppressing it. Drama queens (or kings) on the other hand may express their emotion and then wallow in it without ever moving on to step 2.

For me, the Emotional Message Chart (EMT) is one of the most powerful tools we use in HorsePowered Teams leadership training. It defines the messages behind common emotions like fear and anger, provides questions to ask ourselves to move through the emotion, and helps us get to the root of what triggered us. Once I started using this tool, it changed my life. And my relationships.