Leadership lessons from a horse


RAVENNA, Ohio – Six teammates stood in the arena looking at each other, then the horse, then each other again.
After a moment, several people took a few cautious steps toward Pan, a Hanoverian gelding, but he trotted off to a far corner, suddenly interested in playing with another horse instead.
The group was trying to coax Pan, who stands 17 hands tall, through a small obstacle course, but the rules of the game said they couldn’t touch him, bribe him or use a halter. They had to be more creative than that.
And it wasn’t merely a matter of getting Pan through the course. Each teammate also had an individual task to perform at the same time. One person had to circle her left arm in the air, another did jumping jacks and one clapped his hands.
If someone broke the rules or failed to complete his or her job, the whole group suffered the consequence: one lap around the arena for each violation.
Just like in the corporate world, the participants had to encourage their unwilling worker – in this case, Pan – to finish his task while still performing their own “jobs.”
And just like in the corporate world, it wasn’t easy.


The activity was part of the Leadership Equine Assisted Development workshop, a seminar that uses horses to strengthen leadership and team development. Companies enroll their employees to help them develop self-awareness and workplace skills like trust, confidence, cooperation and bonding.
Workshop creator Sue Thomas said horses pick up on feelings like stress, tension and anxiety. The animals will back away from people who are too forceful and ignore those who are too timid.
Thomas said these reactions mirror situations in the workplace. If a horse backs away every time a participant approaches, it’s likely the participant is making his or her co-workers want to run, too.
“Usually, what happens here is pretty prevalent in life,” Thomas said.
But more than simply pointing out problems, the workshops help participants understand why the problems are there and how they can be fixed.

Get connected

For instance, when Sophie Romack of Warren tried to make Pan pick up his hoof so she could clean it, she discovered he didn’t trust her enough to allow it.
“We’re not working together,” Romack said after a failed attempt. “We’re not connecting.”
Romack then spent more time with Pan, petting him and talking to him, but when she tried to lift his foot again, he still refused.
So Romack tried another tactic. She led the horse around the arena, gently establishing her authority and building his trust.
When Romack made her third attempt at lifting Pan’s hoof, he picked it up without hesitation.
“We just needed to get connected,” Romack said.
The lesson showed Romack she needed to believe she could succeed. At first, she didn’t believe in herself and that meant the horse didn’t either, Thomas said.
“If the horses do not believe you can be the leader of them and they don’t trust or connect with you, they’re not going to lift that hoof,” Thomas said.


Thomas, of Mantua, knows what she’s talking about when it comes to horses and business. She has a master’s degree in organizational development and analysis, plus more than 25 years of business experience, 17 years of equine experience and 15 years in human resource management.
Besides raising self-awareness, the workshop, which is held at Edge of Freedom Farms in Ravenna, also gives participants a lesson in workplace dynamics.
The obstacle course challenge began with the participants building the course from boards, barrels, balls, mats, ropes and other items available in the arena.
They could use anything in the arena to help Pan through the course, as long as they didn’t break the rules – no touching, bribing or using a halter.
The team members also decided they would have to walk a lap if they broke those rules.
The team came up with a course that would require the horse to walk between two barrels, go over two consecutive jumps and weave in and out of three mats placed on the ground.
After 10-15 minutes of coaxing, Pan completed the course, but team member Sandy Donaldson of Hudson said it was more luck than skill.


After the activity, came the critique.
Thomas told the group members they could’ve improved their performance simply by building an easier obstacle course. After all, no one told them it had to be complicated.
“The group decided to make things a lot harder on themselves than it needed to be,” she said.
Teammate Darlene Jacobson of Independence said she mentioned the difficulty of the course while it was being built, but when no one responded, she gave up and followed her teammates – something she also finds herself doing at work.
The group also gave itself a harsh consequence, Thomas said. The team members knew Pan would probably wander while they walked their lap, which meant they would have to start the course over.
Team members said they agreed to the consequence because no one wanted to cause problems by disputing the suggestion.
Thomas said if the team had taken a minute to ask questions and get clarification, its task could’ve been much simpler.
During the workshops, it’s not hard for Thomas and other facilitators to see where a participant could make improvements. But the goal isn’t for them to see it – it’s for participants to recognize it themselves and take the lessons back to their desks.
(Reporter Janelle Skrinjar welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at jskrinjar@farmanddairy.com.)


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