I knew right from the start that Marion Valster was a special kind of human. Marion is a personal coach, employee engagement expert and runs an equine-assisted therapy business using her own herd of horses, themselves rescued and retired.
It takes a special kind of person to take two seemingly completely unrelated passions (horses and employee engagement) and create a lifestyle that combines the two! But Marion has done just that. She’s created a beautiful lifestyle where she prioritises time outdoors with the precious horsey beings in her care, while also registering as a psychologist and keeping up with her private clients and corporate workplace engagement workshops.
Here we talk with Marion Valster to find out how she has pulled it off and created a whole new level of freedom and fulfilment in her life.
MHL: What does freedom mean to you?
Marion Valster: In my younger years freedom was all about being responsibility-free. I grew up in The Netherlands and in my early 20s my best friend and I travelled and worked odd hospitality-type jobs in the UK, France and Switzerland (the Italian part). We were learning new languages, meeting new people and there was a sense of absolute freedom in that time.
I had originally wanted to move to Portugal, as I absolutely love it there – I spent my childhood summers there so I have always associated Portugal with freedom and happiness. But when I came to Australia for a holiday, I instantly felt at home. I later realised that a lot of the vegetation is similar to that in Portugal (e.g. Jacarandas) and as I am a very scent-oriented person, Australia even smelled right! Moreover, the thing I love most about Australia is that I can have land – in the Netherlands land prices are calculated by the square meter, so buying my first plot here (2 acres) made me feel as if I owned half a country!
These days freedom, to me, is about having that time in the morning before I start working, having coffee with my husband, playing with my horses… At night that freedom means not having to rush to bed at night, scared that the morning alarm will force me out of bed before I am ready.
MHL: What was your life like 5 years ago?
Marion Valster: 5 years ago I was working in an organisation that had a very toxic management culture. I was often engaged to work with ‘problem’ teams. It was a high pressure job, that really developed my coaching skills. I was turning teams around through my own brand of coaching that includes personal goal setting. Still, I felt completely stymied and stifled. The teams I was working with were under untenable pressure, with daily unpaid overtime, never catching up and always being behind legislative deadlines.
Eventually I asked for a meeting with the director to discuss my concerns for the emotional well-being of my teams. In this meeting I was told that I was being too emotional. He said ‘people should be happy that there is so much work, it means they may still have a job next month’. I realised right there and then that it was this attitude that made me feel so trapped. It was completely against my personal values. I went from fully engaged to completely disengaged in that one hour meeting!
I resigned, effective the next month.
MHL: It must have taken a huge leap of faith to follow your gut instinct and remove yourself from a situation that was not aligned with your values.
Marion Valster: Looking back I guess I had been working towards being my own boss well before this point. I had started my coaching and equine-assisted therapy business in 2010, but had never really done much with it. Coming out of that corporate role, even the thought of working in another cubicle factory was beyond me. Having to take direction from people I did not respect, working with values I did not believe in… that fear was far stronger than my fear of launching my own business! Rather than a leap of faith, I’d describe it more as a ‘knowing’ that it was time to take the leap.
I engaged a personal coach for myself to get clarity on where I wanted to really be. Together we created a strategy and all the steps I needed to take in order to succeed.
I had quite an extensive network that I could leverage from, so I launched the Workplace Engagement Coach platform. Through this I run workplace engagement training and workshops for small to large businesses, focused on employee resilience and wellbeing.
At the same time I began to put real effort into building awareness of the equine-assisted therapy side of my business. The results generated from the therapy was having lasting positive impact, not only on the clients, but on the horses themselves.
MHL: Tell me more about Equine Assisted Therapy? What does it involve? Who does it help?
Marion Valster: I just love to talk about my horses! They are all special beings in their own right. I don’t ride them, you see, they are rescues who can just be who and how they want to be, even when we do therapy with clients.
Equine assisted therapy has an ever-growing evidence base. It is quite experiential, there is no set routine. Equine assisted therapy is used to help sufferers of depression, anxiety or even emotional issues like loss or heartbreak. This form of therapy can also be used to help anyone who is feeling a bit lost or stuck.
Horses, evolutionarily speaking have finely honed instincts. You can hide behind your emotional walls and pretend all you like, but the horse will react to whatever is going on for you emotionally. So if a client is feeling anxious the horse will feel that too. The horse will immediately react and be alert and ready for danger.
As a coach, I can recognise the horse’s reaction and use this as a talking point with the client. I will talk to the client about what is going on for them internally, what thought just crossed their mind that might have made the horse react like the way they did. Horses are also great to teach people about boundaries (a 450 kilo animal can be quite intimidating, but when you make yourself look big and strong, the horse will back off) and of course mindfulness. With horses, you are always in the moment.
I think being outside in nature also helps people feel different. It is one thing to have clients sitting opposite me in the psychology clinic, and a completely different experience being surrounded by nature, having birds come down and steal your food, and just playing with some horses.
MHL: How do you describe your lifestyle now?
Marion Valster: I love my freedom, I love living within my values, I love not having to deal with bureaucracy and ridiculous processes because of some harebrained idea from an expensive consultant. I love determining my own hours, if I want to have coffee with a friend, I go and do that. If I want to just hang with my horses, I can. If I feel off or headachey, I don’t have to feel so guilty that I go into work – I can just lie down and listen to some mindfulness.
MHL: What would be your advice for someone who is feeling uninspired in a job that doesn’t align with their values?
Marion Valster: Save your money and start working on something that is aligned with your passions. Develop your contacts and networks now, even if you don’t intend to jump any time soon. If you can, have a safety net, e.g. a few hours per week in a call centre or something, just to cover your bills, do it. Work out the minimum you need to earn per week and go and chase it.
Engage a coach, look for options.
It is usually better to regret something you did do than have regrets over things you didn’t do.
MHL: What life rules do you want to pass on to the world?
Marion Valster: Be kind. Be interested. Give it a go!
What a beautiful use of talents and skills! Both from Marion and from the rescued horses!! I could use a bit of equine-assisted therapy to get me focused on my next move!
So often when we are young we are more apt to listening to our intuition and taking a leap of faith like moving to another country. Listening in to your dreams and actually living them out, getting on that plane to the unknown.
Marion was able to then use that skill set to follow her gut on another life-changing decision – to quit her job in order to create a life that is in full alignment with her passions and her service to the world.
Remember that you too can make a difference to the world by sharing your own passions.
Tap in to how you’re going to make your life something amazing, and if it’s not coming to you immediately…. Get yourself a coach to help you out.
Read more in the Locked On Life Interview series.