Leadership – Straight from the Horse’s Mouth

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What can horses tell you about your Leadership presence?

Victoria Lance explains how her team of equine coaches at have been people whispering to create extraordinary leaders.

Experiential learning, leadership, and the equine mirror.

Experience – the difference

There is a gap between theory and practice; between awareness and action; between what we know and what we do. “Knowledge is not wisdom, wisdom is using the knowledge”¹, through consistent action that creates a habit change.  We move from knowing to doing when changes take place at a deep neurological level, through insights (‘aha’ moments) which create complex new neurological connections that inform our meaning and resultant actions.  T.S. Eliot said that not paying attention to an experience is to ‘have the experience but miss the meaning’, as if to eat food and not notice the taste.  Paying attention to an experience is a powerful way to get even more from it, and being in the presence of another sentient being, “a horse”, focuses that attention, when that being responds with ½ tonne of feedback on the impact of our Leadership presence.

Leadership today calls for a dynamic combination of self-awareness, multiple intelligences and highly developed inter-personal skills…EQ. Where knowledge informs; skills develop through practice – requiring an experiential approach to learning which allows participants to become aware of how their behaviour and actions impact others.

A growing number of organisations are buying into ‘equine-facilitated’, ‘equine-assisted’, “horse accelerated coaching”, and ‘horse whispering’ programmes as a leadership development process. What do these programmes offer to corporate executives who want to improve the way they lead?

The horse as a mirror

Mirror is defined by the Encarta dictionary as: ‘something that accurately reproduces, describes or conveys something else’. Mirrors reflect; reflection is ‘the ability to reflect light, sound or other forms of energy’. In workshops with horses, ‘mirroring’ is the perceived ability of the horse to accurately reflect back to the human client key pieces of information about them in order to facilitate change. In other words, the horse’s responsiveness to energy offers a mirror to who we truly are, creating opportunity for self-reflection, self-discovery and self-ownership, in ways that human relationships fail to do.

Horses engage something fundamental in us and reveal it more fully to our awareness. They offer a mirror to the workings of our inner selves, creating opportunity to know ourselves better and own ourselves more fully. Horses’ reactions reflect how they experience who we are being and how we are behaving around them – what they understand by our actions. How they respond when we are with them tells us directly the impression we are making on them. This authentic mirroring has complete integrity; horses cannot lie. Horses challenge us to focus down into the detail of what we feel and how we act, and open us up to the big questions of who we are and who we wish to be.

Engaging with horses demands that we engage with ourselves. Horses elicit profound responses in us because they are fully authentic; receiving their feedback makes us more genuine. They show up our issues and weaknesses, with an unspoken invitation to see who we are, and become who we are capable of becoming.

How would these skills help our executives show up more authentically and effectively in the board room?

Seeing our reflection

Interacting with horses brings us face to face with ourselves – our ambitions, our fears, the kinds of relationships we get into, the assumptions we make about and discover how interacting with horses at liberty gives instant, honest feedback on the way in which (non-verbal) communication impacts on ourselves and others. Encounters with horses have the potential to enhance and develop who we are at all ‘neurological’ levels: environment, behaviour, skills and competencies, beliefs, values, identity – and even our sense of purpose and meaning. Where we are incongruent with ourselves and others, horses offer us the opportunity to align across these levels. Personal alignment is one of the key aims of experiential learning programmes with horses.

Horses reflect back to us how we are to them; their response shows us not what we tried to communicate, but the meaning of what we actually did communicate. Mahrabian, who carried out research on meaning in communication, found that when the words are ambiguous, or there is a conflict (incongruity) between the words a person uses and the non-verbals (including paraverbals like tone), people tend to rely more on the non-verbals to evaluate the emotional state of the person speaking. In this context, 55% of the meaning of communication is in body language, 38% is in tonality, and only 7% rests in the words themselves. We are always communicating; we cannot ‘not communicate’. Horses respond to the deliberate and accidental signals we give when we are with them; they also respond to our thoughts and emotions, which are expressed through minute physical and chemical changes (animals really do ‘smell fear’). Meaning is conveyed through breath, muscle tone, speed of movement and tiny variations in patterns of behaviour. We learn a great deal about ourselves when we pay attention to the horse’s reactions.

How much could you learn about your leadership in 3 hours?

A recent client explains their experience:

“If you want to succeed then take time to learn and understand yourself, your employees and your customers. Sometimes we do get lucky and after a chance meeting whilst exhibiting at a business show I came in to contact with Victoria Lance from Leadchange.

Within 3 hours I had learned more about myself than in my 36 years on this planet after experiencing her accelerated coaching and learning techniques using Alec her horse!   I was honestly intrigued at how I was going to communicate with a horse. I did have ideas of watching ‘ The Horse Whisperer’ to put me in good stead and pick up some tips beforehand but as things happen I never did .

The day arrived and I was thinking hard whilst driving on my way to her venue. I was apprehensive but excited but I was most focussed on how this would benefit and add value to us all and our customers at essential 6.

I arrived and after catching up we got on with a little self discovery, learning about conditioning and what I was looking to achieve from the session. This was extremely important and explored experiences that could reflect directly to our behaviour. Next it was boots on for the practical part with Alec the horse!

Now believe me on this one! if you are not a horse person and you are  presented with a 16 hands tall,  powerful,  strong horse then a few doubts start to run through your head about the tasks that Victoria,  but more importantly I would be setting  for myself.

The practical tasks were now imminent…

Victoria simply asked me to “take Alec from one point to another in the arena and it is your choice where you go”.

At this point you have to remember that it would probably be easy if we had a lead or some reins!

But we didn’t. The horse was completely free.

My first attempt was unsuccessful, miserably. Alec would not come and comply with my wishes so I had to step back and start to explore why?

Second attempt. I’d gathered my thoughts and now more focussed we started moving a little under my guidance but still not achieving my desired outcome as Alec was far more interested in the grass on the outside of the arena. I was sure at this point that I had been stitched up and Alec had not been fed! Victoria soon reassured me he had.

So back to some reflective practice with guidance from Victoria and I came to the conclusion of why Alec was not doing what I wanted and more importantly what I had to do. 

3rd attempt. With a spring in my step and fully focussed I had Alec walking and interacting with me. It was one of those magical moments where I had connected with Alec and Alec had connected with me. We were both enjoying ourselves at this stage with me calling the shots leading Alec who at this stage was now holding his head high enjoying himself as much as I was.

The practical element had now been achieved so we settled and went back to the office to debrief and explore what we had achieved and learned. Without giving too much away this was the point where a 360 degree picture become clear and helped me greatly to understand Myself, The Team, Our Customers and all who I come in to contact with!

The learning from this ultimate experience is already being seen within essential 6 and I can thoroughly recommended this to you all!”

What would the equine mirror reflect back to you or your clients about your leadership presence?

Victoria Lance

Victoria Lance is a Coach and Facilitator with LeadChange, an innovative consultancy whose workshops develop the leadership capabilities of corporate executives through a combination of ‘horse whispering’ and co-active coaching.   LeadChange runs half-day introductory events for potential clients. Attendees experience our unique coaching methodology, and discover how interacting with horses at liberty gives instant, honest feedback on the way in which their leadership presence impacts on others.  

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