Why Horses?

How do Management Consultants end up doing Leadership Development with Horses?

Good Question.

Participative Designs Inc is a management consulting organization.  We’ve worked with CIBC, the Ontario Government, Manufacturing Organizations, Fortune 500 and companies of all sizes.  We offer many services – leadership development, change management, executive coaching, facilitation, team interventions = anything dealing with the people side of leadership – but once the work day is over one senior consultant (Sharon Quarrington – that’s me) would head for the riding ring.

I was dealing with a serious performance problem.  One day my horse would jump anything and the next would leave me in the dirt.  Things got worse as the battle to see “who is the boss” got bigger and more dangerous until I chanced to meet an amazing horse woman who showed me that the problem was not the horse….  the problem was that everything I thought I knew about horse training was backwards.

I did not have a badly behaved horse – I had a communication problem between two vastly different perspectives – the predator (me) and the prey (my horse) .Every time I ended up in the dirt my horse had swerved because my body language said “danger”.  He was doing his best to be helpful and I didn’t appreciate it.

The difference between Intention and Impact is at the root of most Leadership challenges.  

Leaders intend to have a positive influence on their teams yet so often a difference in perspective creates stress and tension that leads to decreases in performance.

  • Leaders whose teams thought they were too controlling actually were trying to empower, they just didn’t provide enough early direction and when the project inevitably ran into trouble took it over in an attempt to be helpful.
  • Leaders who were stressed out by workload at the same time their teams were frustrated by not being involved.
  • Teams jumping into action too early and having to restart when they discovered that there was no agreement on scope.
  • Both sides of a grievance feeling they were doing the best action while neither consulted the customer.

We thought it would be interesting to explore mindsets using the horses as a demonstration. Leadership theory is easy to obtain but the leader mindset is difficult.  At some point every good leader shifts from seeing themselves as someone who achieves goals (a good predator) to seeing themselves as someone who leads a team towards a shared goal (a great herd leader).  Those who never make the mindset shift either end up stressing their teams or stressing themselves (or both).

We brought in our first group of leaders to work with the horses  in 2004 and I was stunned with the results.  Getting out of the office, raising awareness through experience, driving home the lessons with people leadership.  It worked better than I would have ever guessed..  I still hear from some of the people who were at those first few training’s and even 12 years later they still remember exactly what they learned from the horses.

  • There was a senior supervisor struggling with team performance.  As she was leading one of the horses and looking back to make sure he was following she backed straight into a wall.  She looked at me and said – oh my – this is exactly what I do with my team – they keep asking for direction and I am so focused on keeping everyone happy that they have no idea what I want.  She went back and started sharing her vision with the team and they became much more productive, six months later she was promoted.
  • There was a District Manager who wanted to learn how to communicate better with his team.   Every time he was with the horses he kept reaching into the horses blindspot and petting it – the horse would put his ears back, we would point that out and he would stop.  Within 15 seconds he was petting the horse again and again we asked him to observe feedback, the fifth (yep fifth) time he did it he stopped and turned to me and said – I think I know what my communication problem is – I’m so busy sending my message that I am not listening to anyone’s feedback.

Both these leaders had been given these messages before in a 360 and from personal coaches but seeing a horse react to the exact same mindset helped them understand the feedback in a new way – and both were able to act on it.

This is how I know we are doing something right – not the great reviews or the appreciations at the end of the day – but the feedback we get months and years later that tells us the impact the program had on someone’s life.

We are not the only people who have noticed that the instant feedback from horses has value – but our program is unique. We didn’t start with Horsemanship or Psychology.  We started with Leadership.  The horses bring learning to life and our expert management consultants ensure Leaders take those lessons and build them into their own practice.  Every session is led by Sharon with the assistance of 2 to 4 horse experts to ensure that no one is ever left on their own with a horse.  Depending on the group size and seniority we may also add a second leader coach to increase the amount of one on one feedback..

I started Horse Sense because I thought it would be fun to share what I had learned but we keep doing it because it works.   When our session is rated as the number one to keep in a 12 month leadership development program that includes keynotes by some of Canadas top experts (John Burdett and David Weiss) I know we are doing something right.  One Director told me of coming home after a dinner with the current President of the United States and when asked about her day said it was “amazing” – “oh right” her partner said – “you met Clinton” – “I did” she responded “but what was amazing was what I learned from some horses!”

Why do  Management Consultants do Leadership Development with horses? 

  • Because horses are way more interesting than slide decks.
  • Because it makes hard concepts much easier to understand.
  • Because earning Followership works the same way for people and for horses
  • Because we get better results faster
  • Because the learning sticks

We love is helping good leaders have the impact they are hoping for.  Each time a leader is better able to support their teams we have improved the lives of so many people.    We believe that the best way to grow organizations that make a positive difference in the world is to support their leaders.  We would like to support you.