What can leaders learn from horses?

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The Equine Experience is the most exquisite leadership exploration exercise I’ve encountered.

“The Equine Experience is an exquisite exploration of yourself…Miraval’s must-do attraction,” the travel review claimed. A powerful group of Fortune 100 executives was lured into Wyatt Webb’s famous Arizona stables.

Miraval is a gorgeous five star destination, built around the principles of mindfulness. It’s a blissful retreat, set up to teach people how to be more in tune with their thoughts and energy in the moment…and to process daily living without judgement. This place knocks the patina off hardened souls.

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Our morning instructions created intrigue and anxiety that increased the difficulty of our task.

Mike and I facilitated an immersion retreat designed to improve teamwork through unforgettable shared experiences. Little did I know, the horses would be our best teachers.

Arizona winter air is frigid at 8AM before the sun breaks over the mountains. On this equine morning, our shivers were accompanied by the jitters – we City Slickers were about to engage with horses for their morning ritual. Our horses were beautiful, calm and magnetic…but we were anxious, tentative and uncertain.  And they knew it.

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Thankfully, Pete was the first to master the task…demonstrating the calm confidence each horse expected.  Seventy five minutes later, we sat in a circle debriefing our experience.

That’s what horses do: they sense suspicion, danger and fear. It’s not that any one of us were wielding a weapon…but horses only reward calm confidence. Now there’s the trick! Unless we shed our anxieties, they weren’t going to let us clean their hooves. An oxymoron: hurry up and calm down.

“Why are you petting your horse!?” our horse whisperer quipped. “She doesn’t need a friend, she needs her hooves cleaned.” We all wanted our horse to like us – but the pleasantries weren’t getting the job done.  As the executive coach in the group, I was on hyper-overdrive, processing the teaching and the learning…what fun!

“I finally just focused my energy and decided I could do it without fear,” Pete smiled, as he was the first leader to complete the task – demonstrating what’s possible if we found our calm.

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I learned a great deal from our facilitator: mindfulness improves personal leadership in every way.

“It’s not what we learn about the horses that sticks with us,” our facilitator mused. “Isn’t it what we learn about ourselves that makes the difference?” The best lessons are so simple.

Followers appreciate our care and concern, but they rally around our calm confidence through opportunity and uncertainty. The horses made that lesson obvious.

Good leaders make a habit of seeking new experiences to learn about how our thoughts and feelings affect others.  And we continually re-learn how calm confidence is the most effective way to embrace the unknown.

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4 Comments

  1. Inspired IT Hiring on January 21, 2014 at 3:23 pm

    Paul, thanks for sharing this story! It reminds me of an adventure my college aged daughter and I experienced during a trip to Portugal. We had arranged for a horse ride through the Portugese National Forest. We bribed a cabbie to take us to the remote location and begged him to return for us later on. The stable was… there was no stable. The horses lived among the trees. The trainer lived in a tin can of a camper nearby with his wife and small (3 years or so) child. There were no saddles and there was no common language, let alone cell phone service. No one in America knew we were there, literally. We washed the horses, learned bareback yoga and headed into the wilderness. When the cabbie returned for us four hours later, we had had the time of our lives! Scared? Terrified! Do it again? In a heartbeat! Thank you for bringing this memory back to me and reminding us all that sometimes you just have to dive in and trust your gut that things are going to work out okay.



  2. Inspired IT Hiring on January 21, 2014 at 9:23 am

    Paul, thanks for sharing this story! It reminds me of an adventure my college aged daughter and I experienced during a trip to Portugal. We had arranged for a horse ride through the Portugese National Forest. We bribed a cabbie to take us to the remote location and begged him to return for us later on. The stable was… there was no stable. The horses lived among the trees. The trainer lived in a tin can of a camper nearby with his wife and small (3 years or so) child. There were no saddles and there was no common language, let alone cell phone service. No one in America knew we were there, literally. We washed the horses, learned bareback yoga and headed into the wilderness. When the cabbie returned for us four hours later, we had had the time of our lives! Scared? Terrified! Do it again? In a heartbeat! Thank you for bringing this memory back to me and reminding us all that sometimes you just have to dive in and trust your gut that things are going to work out okay.



  3. jeff prouty on January 23, 2014 at 9:24 pm

    Wow, small world Paul. Team Prouty just returned from Miraval (and the equine experience) as part of our 4-day strategic planning process. Keep up the great work, see you in 2014, Jeff Prouty 🙂



  4. jeff prouty on January 23, 2014 at 3:24 pm

    Wow, small world Paul. Team Prouty just returned from Miraval (and the equine experience) as part of our 4-day strategic planning process. Keep up the great work, see you in 2014, Jeff Prouty 🙂



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