When I moved to Texas in 2013, I decided that learning to ride a horse was critical to my assimilation in the state. I mean, this is Texas, right? As a Yankee, Texas and horses were inseparable in my mind. The two were one and the same. Didn’t all Texans learn to canter before crawling? (No, as it turns out.) Weren’t all Texans born with a swagger, a cowboy hat, and a pair of boots? (Debatable. But certainly, if not at birth, they obtain them shortly thereafter.) So, learn to ride, I did. Now, I’m hooked—I even have a pair of boots and a cowboy hat (or three) of my own. And if there is one thing I’ve learned from horseback riding, it’s that navigating a trail atop a 1,200-pound animal can teach you a lot about yourself and how you effectively, or ineffectively, lead.
David Konefal, owner of Lone Star Horsemanship, is a horse trainer and riding instructor in Conroe. He has been working with horses for 40 years and is far more comfortable in a saddle than a conference room. But he understands how the leadership traits needed for one can translate to the skills necessary for success in the other. “Horses are emotional creatures, and so are people,” says Konefal. “And just like in business, if the horse—or your team—is not following, you are not leading.”
And, just like many employees, says Konefal, horses become frustrated by doing the same thing repeatedly without reflection. “Repetition without change leads to frustration, so you need to mix it up a little bit instead of doing the same thing over and over again,” he says. For both horses and humans, that’s where learning new skills can improve results. Wings of Hope Equitherapy in Cleburne, on the other hand, opened its barn doors in 1996 to provide programming for those with disabilities. The nonprofit organization continues to offer equine-assisted therapeutic activities, as well as equine-assisted learning and discovery services for those working through trauma/recovery or those looking to improve communication and teamwork for corporations, nonprofits, and academic and civic organizations.
Jennifer Woods, executive director of Your Harvest House Burleson, has participated in the equine-assisted discovery program at Wings of Hope several times: first, as part of a chamber of commerce executive leadership program, and then as the director of her own organization. “I’m very passionate about the program. It helps you see how to work through challenges and overcome your fears,” says Woods. “Working in an office, you can get into silos and not interact with each other. This program reveals issues as they come up, and it helps improve communication across generations. It gets you outside and working with horses, which is not only more enjoyable, but it also can make the process so much less intimidating for a work group—leading to greater results.”
“Partnering with a horse can be a powerful team-building tool because horses mirror our energy and require us to be focused and present in the now,” says Cheril Boustead, director of equestrian programs for Wings of Hope. “Working with the horses will teach you tricks and tools that you can apply to your everyday life.” Boustead is a certified therapeutic riding instructor and equine specialist in mental health and learning.
Wings of Hope can work with your team to create a full- or half-day experience tailored to the needs of your group. The property offers programs year-round and features 25 acres of woods and open pasture, a covered arena with windscreens, its Discovery Trail, and an event room, which can accommodate up to 30 people and includes A/V equipment.
J&K Ranch-Kennels in the northwest Houston area also offers horse-related team-building activities. Its program uses the equine assisted-learning modality. No prior horse experience is required. The program focuses on ground activities with horses to help participants learn specific skills or achieve educational goals. It is modeled on the principles of the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, Horses and Humans Research Foundation, Parelli Natural Horsemanship, and the book “Evidence-Based Horsemanship” by Stephen Peters and Martin Black.
“The Equine Assisted Learning Modality is not about horsemanship,” says M.K. Kelley Smith, B.S.W., an equine professional. “It’s not about riding or knowledge of horses.” Smith uses her background in social work to inform her program. “The services I offer are a combination of my academic background in social work and my lifelong passion for horses,” she says.
Jeffrey Kerish is director of talent and leadership development with SAP Ariba in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He participated in J&K Ranch-Kennels’ team-building program alongside 21 business leaders from his company. He says the workshop helped the leaders recognize their conscious and unconscious patterns of interacting with each other. “Our leaders learned how to set boundaries without any words. After each interaction, our leaders went through a debrief session, sharing what they learned about themselves and the skills they were using with the horses,” recalls Kerish.
And as participants in equine team-building programs no doubt learn—lead, and your team will follow. Just like with horses. “One of my clients was having issues rounding up her herd to go back to the barn. I showed her that she just needed to lead the ‘boss’ mare back to the stable, and the rest of the horses would follow,” says Konefal.
Exercises in Equine Leadership Programs
The activities you’ll participate in during a group equine team-building outing will depend on the program, but here are a few common ones:
— Walking the horse with little to no touch or tools, such as a halter
— Collaboratively leading the horse through or over obstacles, such as cones and rails
— Using nonverbal skills to stop or turn
a horse in another direction
— Relating communication and relationship lessons learned with horses to skills
needed in the workplace
Author on Equine Self-Discovery
In his book, “Horses Never Lie: The Heart of Passive Leadership,” acclaimed horse trainer Mark Rashid shares his method of training horses, which emphasizes balance over bluster. While the book is intended for horse owners and riders, it’s not hard to see how many of its lessons and observations also can be applied to human relationships and leadership skills.
“It has always been my contention that working with horses is, or at least should be, a delicate balancing act between finding how much or how little direction it will take to help the horse we are working with understand whatever it is we are trying to teach,” Rashid writes. “Too little direction, and our efforts might become ineffective. Too much direction, and we may develop resistance and animosity between our horse and us.”
“Horses Never Lie: The Heart of Passive Leadership” is published by Skyhorse and distributed by Simon & Schuster.