leadership training

How studying the way of the horse can help people with corporate leadership and teamwork.

One by one, four horses were led into the arena. They did not know each other and had never been together before. Their riders hoped the trainer could teach the horses to be safe and reliable partners, while also learning to be safe and reliable leaders.

Setting the Stage

The horses bucked and reared and made lots of noise, and their personalities emerged in the drama of the arena. One was clearly the bully and was chasing and posturing relentlessly. One of the others moved wherever the bully moved, staying close enough to mimic him but far enough away to avoid getting kicked herself. Another was repeatedly being charged by the bully yet kept coming back for more. The fourth remained disengaged from the drama, moving away from the noisy display throughout the entire performance.

I didn’t know these horses, but I knew the characters well: the bully, the bully’s sidekick, the underdog and the observer were all playing out their roles. The arena had become the stage for a metaphorical group of individuals trying to learn how to successfully coexist.

The trainer that day was Chris Irwin. He explained that in order to train the horses, they would have to accept him as a safe and reliable leader. Employing an acute awareness of his own body language and intentions, and of his environment and the beings (horses) within it, Chris succeeded in attaining join up from the four horses. He was then in a position to affect change in their behavior as he went on to work with them over the weekend.

Equine Assisted Learning

The demonstration fascinated me, and the concept of using herd dynamics as a model to teach humans has become my life’s work. With a number of Equine Assisted Learning certifications under my belt, I began to create personal development programs, both for special needs children and corporate groups. There is a lot of overlap in what is effective for both of these populations, as diverse as they may seem. A troubled child and a troubled corporate team can both flourish when they can truly “know they’re heard” and “know their herd”. The double entendre is clear, and the Knowing Your HerdTM workshop was developed by Horses At Heart Equestrian Adventures Inc., so that learning life lessons from horses could now be accessible to a broad population.

Applications Within the Workplace

“Improving leadership capability and embedding a new culture in a junior supervisory team was key in moving our business forward,” says Tracey McKillop, Operations Manager of a medical insurance company. “I had the right people in place, and I now needed to instil confidence and allow for personal and professional development. I was looking for something different, individualized, challenging and not your typical sit around a boardroom table approach.”

Tracey brought her team to the workshop with clear goals. I provided them with a debriefing on horse and herd behavior – enough for them to employ safe horsehandling techniques and establish themselves as safe and reliable team players and leaders during several hands-on activities. A thoroughly enjoyable day was had by all, and at the end, Tracey’s group was able to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of their team skills. We had wonderful discussions.

Tracey summed it up in a follow-up letter: “Working with the horses was a positive experience helping us identify how and why we lead the way we do, seeing and experiencing in the moment how we function with others, while allowing us to appreciate the impact of new behavior in order to break past experiences and quickly build new ones.”

Horses as mirrors It is so simple to see the results of our behavior when we are around horses. Their feedback is in the moment and they have no hidden agendas. Horses provide a clear mirror in which we can see how our interpersonal and leadership skills affect our environment. Heavy handed leadership can quickly translate to a resistant horse exhibiting what we interpret as “misbehaviors”.

Inconsistent leadership results in any number of issues. An unsure leader or rider can produce a horse that seizes control of the leadership role. The flow chart of possibilities in this scenario is virtually endless. A leader/rider with a horse in control often becomes aggressive while attempting to regain that control. A frightened leader/rider with a horse in control tenses up, creating a nervous animal, and this results in the leader/rider sending any number of mixed messages to the mount. These messages can create both short and long term problems, not only in the way the horse interacts with the leader/rider in the moment, but even in his physiology as he braces against an insensitive rider. In a human team of people working towards common goals, these kinds of issues can erode productivity and morale.

Maintaining Respect

What we really want in our work relationships is mutually respectful partnerships – the same thing we want with all our relationships and with our horses. We want join up, the elegant state of multiple beings choosing to move as one. Successful leadership and teamwork depend on mutual respect, and it is wonderful when enlightened individuals in the corporate world make choices to help their teams become aware of what mutual respect looks like.

Linda Kohanov, a pioneer in the field of Equine Assisted Personal Development and author of The Tao of Equus and Riding Between the Worlds, says that horses have “an extraordinary ability to awaken intuition in humans while mirroring the authentic feelings people try to hide”. The next step after awakening intuition on a personal level is to awaken intuition on the group level.

With all our equine friends have already given us as beasts of burden, as military partners, as athletic partners, and as barnyard friends, how nice is it that they are also now contributors to the evolution of human consciousness.

Thank you to Leo and Evelyn Weiss for being wonderful models for respectful human relationships.

Deborah Weiss is a leader in Equine Assisted Personal Development and Therapy programs, with multiple certifications and 8 years as Executive Director of Horses At Heart Equestrian Inc. She has developed programming for corporate coaching, family counseling, and group and individual programs for autism spectrum disorder. Horses At Heart operates from WaterStone Estate & Farms in Newmarket, Ontario. Program information can be found at www.horsesatheart.com