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A catalyst for leadership transformation: the horse!

Leadership research is inspired by the analysis of the behavior and characteristics of great leaders to offer managers ways of being and acting. However, given the radical transformation of workplaces and the arrival of new generations of employees, it is becoming urgent to explore new models that are both innovative and efficient.

A growing number of professionals are taking a serious look at the remarkable qualities that horses have to support people in learning sustainable leadership. Collaborative leadership, authentic communication, clarity and agility of roles, adaptability and preservation of resources are some of the important concepts that horses help us better integrate when we interact with them.

For example, the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland[1]HEC Paris[2] and the Mannheim Business School[3], in Germany, incorporate equine interaction training modules into their leadership development and Executive Masters of Business Administration (EMBA) programs. Similarly, like Google, Coca-Cola, Danone, Deloitte, Orange and L’Oréal, many companies offer their managers new training, in interaction with horses, in order to transform their leadership.

Surprising at first glance, this approach makes sense when you think about it. It is reminiscent of biomimicry[4], a well-known concept among engineers that aims to study nature and inspire us to find innovative solutions to the challenges we face. The covering of airplanes inspired by the skin of sharks, the efficient air conditioning systems of our buildings modeled on termite mounds and the well-known Velcro, developed thanks to the observation of thistles, are some examples.

Horses are fascinating creatures of legendary strength and great elegance that have captivated humans for centuries. In freedom, they have survived and prospered for millions of years in a potentially hostile, changing, uncertain environment with limited resources, where in addition many species and several predators coexist. They gather in herds, according to a defined hierarchy and precise roles, and according to a collaborative leadership, to ensure the prosperity of the group and the survival of each one. A context that is ultimately very similar to that of our companies!

Horses inspire us to learn at two levels of analysis. The first: from an organizational point of view, because they have adopted winning strategies for millennia to survive and evolve. The second: on a personal level[5]. Indeed, as prey, the horse demonstrates both an extremely high sensitivity to everything that happens in its environment and an extraordinary emotional intelligence. These two characteristics are essential as much to his survival as to his contribution to the group and are implemented in his interactions with human beings. The horse thus offers us the opportunity to experience our leadership beyond rational arguments and our fine words.

Six herd-inspired strategies

It is possible to observe, within the herds of wild horses, six winning strategies in the service of the common mission of these animals (survive and prosper). These approaches are a source of inspiration for the management of our organizations.

  1. Simplicity and clarity of organization: within a herd, the hierarchy is precise and recognized, and the roles are clearly defined, even if they are agile. It has been observed, for example, that the alpha mare has the responsibility of leading the herd to pasture, while the alpha stallion has that of the security of the herd; a simple decision-making process that allows for a quick response.
  2. The diversity: each member of the herd contributes his own talents to the sustainability of the group. The different personalities, the variety of ages and the importance of both females and males are all essential factors in this sustainability.
  3. Adaptability: the change in the environment in which the herd evolves contributes to developing the ability of horses to adapt from a physical, mental and emotional point of view, even in terms of roles.
  4. Communication : yet lacking speech, horses have a clear, direct and authentic way of communicating. The transmission of information is constant, because it is an essential condition for the survival of the herd: where to feed, how to warn others of danger, etc.
  5. The collaboration: it is at the heart of the success of the herd, both between its members and in harmony with the ecosystem.
  6. Conservation of resources and energy: the herd is nomadic and uses its resources – as well as those around it – only when necessary, without excess. It prioritizes a state of comfort and homeostasis. Interesting fact: one of the key elements often forgotten in our companies is precisely the conservation of energy. In horses, the main leader constantly ensures that his herd does not run out. The objective here is to preserve its energy for situations requiring a quick response, for example the attack of a predator. The rest of the time, the leader ensures that his herd lives in a state of comfort, relaxation, joy and prosperity.

And you, do you apply these strategies in your organization?

  • How do you ensure that your company’s mission is carried by each member of your team?
  • How clear, adaptable and agile are roles and responsibilities?
  • How much value do you place on the diversity of talents, genders, cultures and skills to achieve your goals?
  • How do you rate the quality of your communications?
  • Does your business promote collaboration… or competition?
  • How much attention do you pay to conserving energy to support long-term efforts?
  • What benefits could you reap, individually and collectively, by including or developing some of these strategies?

Develop your individual and collective leadership

A leadership training based on interactions with horses does not correspond to a fun horseback ride or a riding lesson. Indeed, guided by an expert in learning and coaching by the horses, you will observe the dynamics of the herd; it could bring about deep realizations about your leadership. During the interactions, you will then have the unique opportunity to transform your individual or team leadership.

Imagine standing in front of this imposing animal weighing more than 1,000 pounds. A totally free horse, watching you, a little wary.

You are challenged to take him, in complete freedom (without riding him, touching him, using a leash with him… or a carrot!), from point A to point B of the arena. You interact with it without resorting to force or enslavement. You must establish contact with the horse, create a bond of trust and encourage collaboration on both sides rather than forcing the animal into action.

This is a one-of-a-kind leadership exercise!

Indeed, this is indeed about leadership. Let us first remember the definition of this concept[6]. Leadership is the influencing process which allows a person to get others to invest their efforts and skills in achieving common goals. However, exercising your influence with these magnificent and imposing beasts will require drawing on your personal or collective resources, rather than relying on your technical skills and rational arguments.

Thereby :

  • If you’re too dominant[7] or if you pay no attention to the horse’s needs or emotions, the horse will avoid you.
  • If you lack self-confidence or are unclear in your communications, then the horse will lose interest in you and move on.
  • If you don’t trust the horse or give it any clear vision or direction as to where you want to take it, then it will stop.
  • Indeed, collaboration will only take place – and you will therefore be able to guide the horse – if all the elements of authentic, collaborative, agile, conscious and courageous leadership are present.

The horse reacts in the millisecond to your thoughts, your intentions and your emotions, offering you through its non-verbal language precise and sincere feedback. It is in this instantaneous reaction – without any judgment or a priori – offered by the horse what is the catalyst for transforming your leadership, because you will want to pass this challenge. And you will have to transform to get there.

This “immediate feedback” is not influenced by political correctness, corporate hierarchy or the perceptions of a human trainer. It is authentic, in the present moment, and it allows participants to better understand things, feel them, visualize them, learn them and transform them, in addition to mastering the general skills – the famous soft skills – required to be a good leader.

There are many parallels to be drawn between the qualities you will need to influence the horse and those on which you must rely to convince your colleagues to follow you, beyond rational arguments. For example :

  • How emotionally intelligent do you demonstrate when exercising leadership?
  • How much attention do you pay to the trust you inspire in others?
  • How confident are you in yourself?
  • What is the quality of your presence when you interact with others?
  • How brave are you?

So many questions, and more, that you will have to face… and, thanks to your coaches – equine and human – for which you will find answers.

Online or classroom training is gradually reaching its limits. Could experiencing a leadership apprenticeship or team cohesion with horses finally give you the powerful tool you have been looking for for so long? What if the horse, an ancestral animal, became both an inspiring figure and an accomplice in transforming individual and collective leadership in an innovative way within your company?


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[1] https://www.imd.org/sl/program/women-leadership-program-content-learning/

[2] https://equicoaching-events.com/seminaire-equicoaching-hec-paris-2021/; https://www.hec.edu/en/news-room/let-horse-lead-you-better-management

[3] https://www.mannheim-business-school.com/en/mba-master-and-courses/mannheim-series-for-executives/workshop-leading-teams-effectively-with-the-power-of-horse- assisted-coaching/

[4] To go further: Benyus, J., Biomimicry: when nature inspires sustainable innovations, Rue de l’échiquier (Paris), 2017, 408 pages, and The Biomimicry Institute (https://biomimicry.org/).

[5] Serot Almeras, H., and Bresciani, S., “Equine Facilitated Learning for Enhancing Leadership and Communication Skills,” Academy of Management Proceedingsvolume 2021, n° 1, July 2021.

[6] There are many references, including: Nanjundeswaraswamy, TS, and Swamy, DR, “Leadership styles”, Advances in Managementvolume 7, noh 2, February 2014, p. 57-62.

[7] Bismuth, D., “When the company is a wolf for the horse” (online article), Harvard Business Review France, July 19, 2017 (https://www.hbrfrance.fr/chroniques-experts/2017/07/ 16305-lentreprise-wolf-horse/).

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