A senior executive from a highly successful and dynamic organization stands in the centre of the small wooden enclosure as her 4-legged teacher stares out across the fields. Distracted by the feed bucket that is passing and various movements around the enclosure, what will compel these two learning partners to join up and begin the dance of relationship? The facilitator asks “imagine that this is the workplace and Lotta* is a member of your team, how will you motivate her to want to be lead by you? What kind of relationship would you want to create in order to build trust and connection? How could authentic leadership guide you in this situation?” The two-legged student responds by saying “actually she does remind me of many of my team members. She is strong and independent and traditional way of motivation might not work. I think she is too smart for that. I am not exactly sure what will work, but I am willing to try and step outside of my comfort zone and see if she responds to me if I move towards her.” As the student moves into Lotta’s space, there is a noticeable and immediate connection between the two of them. Both sigh and relax, breathing together.
This situation is one of many experienced by leaders and team members around the world as Equine/horse Guided Education supports humans in their quest for moving to a more authentic place within themselves. Expanding our thinking about the role that animals play in helping us to become more healthy is rapidly spreading around the world. Since the early 1950’s, horses have traditionally been engaged in therapeutic riding programs to help those with physical disabilities and since the early 70’s, mental health facilities and practitioners have partners with horses in creating major breakthroughs for trauma survivors, abuse victims and emotionally damaged people. Over the past 10-15 years, various forms of equine guided education, equine guided psychotherapy and equine guided coaching are becoming more widely accepted as viable and highly successful in supporting businesses in leaders, teams and individuals in their quest for healthy workplaces.
Health and wellness in the workplace is not just about our physical aspect wellbeing. It also includes emotional agility (emotional intelligence), life/work balance, healthy relationships, great teamwork, strong leadership, and many other areas of personal and professional development. More and more organizations are looking at innovative ways of providing healthy alternatives to their employees as the demands of business continue to create stressful environments.
What can a 1000 pound horse teach us about health and wellness in the workplace? Why horses? Who is drawn to this new learning technology? Where is it being offered and by who?
These types of programs are being offered all over the world including Canada, US, Europe, Asia, and South America. Quickly gaining credibility as one of the most incredible experiential learning programs offered today, equine (horse) guided learning is innovative, provocative, and creates powerful learning shifts in two-legged participants. Companies such as IBM, Microsoft, and Sun Microsystems are some of the large global organizations that have participated in this learning. Locally a variety of organizations including public sector, municipalities, utilities, community service agencies, financial institutions are bringing their leaders and teams together to experience learning outside of the classroom surrounded by the beauty of nature and the natural ways of learning together.
As my client, Susan* and Lotta continue their interaction, it is apparent that this student/teacher duo are a good match for each other. As the client loses her focus and begins over-analyzing the situation, Lotta moves away from her, shaking her head as if to say “that is stressing me out, try following your intuition.” I offer up “what’s happening? (a simple yet profound question). Susan responds with “I started thinking about what I wanted her to do and how I would do it, and as she moved away from me, I began feeling like she didn’t like me.” I say “is that the only thing that might be going on – what if she just wants you to learn to trust yourself more, to relax and be still for a few minutes? Is that something you know how to do?” She responds with “I run fast and furious in response to the demands in the workplace, trying to be all things to all people. I feel like I need to please everyone, and then I end up feeling stressed, and in fact most recently I let my CEO down because I disagreed with his approach, but didn’t have the courage to tell him. It feels like we are avoiding each other, and that isn’t comfortable for me. Relationships are everything to me.” “What happens if you just notice your feelings around acknowledge them, what might that create in Lotta?” Susan moves into Lotta again and lets her shoulders drop as she connects with her values of integrity and authenticity. Lotta connects again and they begin walking together. Like two old friends who are supporting each other in quiet, reflective conversation, Susan and Lotta are re-defining friendship and trust. As the session draws towards a close, I ask Susan how she is feeling, and she responds by saying “relaxed and peaceful, something I haven’t felt for weeks now.”
Stepping into confidence when you have no experience or knowledge is challenging at the best of times – add a horse to the mix who is counting on you to be clear, and see what emerges.
Horse guided learning brings participants together in a discovery process that focuses on intention, motivation and intuition. Horses live in herds (teams) and require clarity and authentic teamwork and leadership in order to feel safe. In their natural habitat, as animals of prey, their survival depends on this. Leaders and teams who have experienced these programs continue to provide feedback many weeks and months after about the powerful learning they experienced with the horses. One leader recently said “My lesson with Lightning is indelibly etched in my mind. I must remember not to push or pull my team as this causes too much stress, but to be clear on my requests and coach them through the learning process”.
Creating a workplace that is stress-free might not be too realistic, but we can learn to manage our stress and coach our teams to be more proactive in developing strategies that will support healthy work environments by looking for more innovative ways of providing assistance through equine guided education programs.