What Working with Horses Teaches Us About Who We… | Gagen MacDonald

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What Working with Horses Teaches Us About Who We Are as Leaders

Aug 04, 2021

As a firm focused on navigating the human struggle of change, we know that personal transformation goes hand-in-hand with organizational transformation. Working alongside horses gives leaders an experiential way to identify and start embodying that change within themselves.

Eighteen months ago, we piloted our new equine guided leadership experiences within Gagen, taking one of our teams to the MacDonald family farm in southeastern Wisconsin to gain insight into their individual leadership strengths and growth opportunities by working alongside horses. This past month, after a pause due to the pandemic, Gagen CEO Maril MacDonald partnered with Gagen’s equine leadership experts, MaryCay Durrant and myself, to launch the newest Imaginal Cell program with participants from the extended Gagen MacDonald community — including clients, organizational partners and industry peers.

Throughout our day and a half together, we took leaders through a variety of ground exercises with the horses (no riding) in a 70-foot wide circular “round pen.” In the pen, following a safety demonstration, participants have one-on-one time with the horse and a coach to work through a personal leadership challenge of their choice. After they discuss their situations with the coach, leaders are encouraged to get the horse moving around the periphery of the pen. Since the horse can act on its own free will, she may respond to different movements, signals and requests of the leader in a variety of ways — running around the pen full of frenzy, taking a few lazy steps before putting her head back down to graze, staring back at the leader unsure of what the person is asking or calmly moving as asked while focused on the leader. Throughout the session, participants are able to discuss their experiences with the coach, adjust their strategies and draw key takeaways to apply to their leadership going forward.

Here are the three core insights we see leaders gain from their sessions:

When navigating uncertainty, we follow patterns that may not be continuing to serve us.

We each have a unique default set of behaviors, thoughts and skills that have served us successfully in the past. These patterns are often what we default to when working in partnership with our family, friends, co-workers or for the first time with a horse!

As the plans and ideas the leaders have when they walk into the round pen exercise either work or flop, this very physical experience allows leaders to really observe and reflect on their own behavioral patterns, and decide how those patterns are continuing to serve them in new situations. If it’s time to let some of those patterns go, the pen is a great place to experiment with new solutions and tactics to bring forward back at home or in the office as new patterns are set.

Your energy always speaks louder than words, and may be interfering with the verbal message you’re trying to communicate.

As prey animals, horses are incredibly attuned and sensitive to the world around them. Studies have even shown they can pick up on and mirror the heart rates of humans working with them. Without a verbal language to fall back on, the only way to interact with a horse is through non-verbal communication. While a leader may be saying they feel confident and ready to begin, if the horse senses their elevated heart rate and breathing rate, they will immediately pick up on the nerves and feel unsafe, no matter what the person is saying.

How many times have we received an e-mail where technically it was beautifully crafted, but reading between the lines and considering the actions of the leaders in play, you weren’t sold on it? When working with a horse, we can’t pretend that words suffice on their own. Instead, we’re full beings where every action, thought and body movement matters in how that horse is interpreting your intentions second to second.

Leaders making loud exclamations, gesturing wildly or expending a lot of energy won’t be able to get a horse to move if inside they’re afraid their efforts will never work. While the cues may be clear, the horse will sense the hesitancy, and pause to wait until she knows it’s safe to move forward as asked. It may not be as visceral or recognizable from the outside, but the people we lead sense the same things.

In the end, the best leader you can be is the leader you are when connected to your authentic self.

One of the greatest perks of learning in this context is that horses don’t hold grudges. Once they sense the congruence between what the leader is asking and what the leader is truly thinking, horses will respond accordingly, allowing leaders to embody what it means to lead with true clarity and commitment.

Vulnerability and shame expert Brene Brown defines authenticity as “the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be, and embracing who we are.” When working with horses, there are not complicated dynamics of identity or history to navigate. All the horses are looking for is a partner who is able to acknowledge the facts of what is actually happening and honestly express themselves.

Rooting your leadership in your authentic self is not just the most fulfilling way to live and lead. It’s also the best way to empower others to bring their authentic selves to the table, which enables more honest, valuable collaboration all around.

Each of these insights manifests differently for each participant. This work is different — and in many ways bigger — than the things we’re taught in leadership seminars and business books. It’s about acknowledging the limits of language, as opposed to using it to make things feel simpler than they are. It’s about, ultimately, connecting to a new experience focused on trusting yourself, and embodying that physically and mentally going forward.

We’re excited to bring more opportunities for learning alongside the horses to more of our clients and friends of the firm through additional workshops, team events and individual coaching. Reach out to info@gagenmac.com if you’re interested in scheduling a session for your team or learning more.

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