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Natural, courageous leadership – learning with horses

August 30, 2013

Horses as an ancient archetypal symbol represent dignity, honour, beauty, grace, presence, strength, power and endurance. For thousands of years humans and horses have worked together in a partnership of balance and oneness by those who had wisdom and insight; for others horses were often seen as our servants, but always there has been an undercurrent of true horsemanship, nags men, horse whisperers and indigenous peoples who worked with horses without the need for dominance.

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about language, ideas, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense.” Rumi

This guest article written by Sue Blagburn


The ancient art of horsemanship has been traced back to 8000 B.C. Over the centuries horses have become domesticated impart due to their social nature and practical ability. Less than one hundred years ago horses were our transport, our agricultural support and our courageous assistants in warfare. As machines took over their jobs as workhorses and warhorses, equines have become our recreation, our partners and our pets; but now as we transition into a new paradigm of what it is to be human in the 21st century, a growing number of horse people including myself feel certain that horses have a new role to play in teaching us a form of leadership based on co-creation and co-dependence; a leadership based on love, insight and compassion. Today horses can be our co-creative partners, healers and guides helping us reconnect to authenticity and meaning in our lives; assisting us in re-aligning our mind, body and spirit so that we can walk into our future with grace and integrity. The horse by her/his natural biological make-up needs us to become an authentic empathic leader in order for the horse to feel safe. As soon as we start to connect with a horse she or he will be sizing us up, asking: who is leading? Trust, honesty, humility, integrity, congruency, are all qualities we can learn with horses as our co-creative partners.

Partnering with horses in this way has become known as ‘Equine Facilitated Learning’ and it is the work I do in providing horse assisted education for organisations and individuals. My work brings in the work of whole systems learning, organisation constellations and phenomenology to bring about new ways of seeing and being, with the help of my extraordinary horses. It provides leaders (participants) the opportunity to learn about themselves and others through experimental and embodied learning with horses. We enter a field of no wrong or right doing, a completely non-judgmental space for self-development and reflection. I create an environment of safety, trust, confidentiality and openness, and then the horses do most of the work. I encourage my participants to step out of their normal comfort zone – many have not even handled a horse before – and I coach them in horsemanship skills, how to connect with the horses, how to lead, and how to work with the horse at liberty. The horse is always given the choice of connecting, engaging and working with the participant or not as the case may be.

horse 2
Some say that 93% of how we communicate is through body language, sensory perceptions and intuitive feelings, and yet so often within our rationalistic culture we focus on the 7% while side-lining the 93%. When learning to partner and lead a horse without words and without force we begin to develop the neglected 93%. The horse provides accurate and instant feedback through response based on how safe and energised they feel in the participant’s presence; the horse simply responds to how the participant really is, in the present moment. The horse picks up and listens not to the participant’s agenda, status, or outer persona but to their inner story, body language and commitment to what one really cares about, and one’s intent. And so the horse acts as a mirror to the feelings and emotions one experiences in one’s personal and professional life.  The word guide means ‘someone who can find paths through unexplored and unknown territory’ and in this regard the horse guides the exploration of the participant’s inner world in how it relates to external challenges, ambitions or stuck places.

Partnering with the horse teaches the participant to pay attention and stay connected with the present moment, focusing on a goal or an obstacle without thinking or judging, assessing or questioning. It develops the art of being fully present in the moment. In this way the horse helps us train our willingness to let go of what we rationally ‘know’ or think we know to open up beyond our rational mind. This provides a foundational space from which we can develop new ways of perceiving; new pathways that balance thinking and intuition, heart and mind. In this authentic state we develop natural presence for courageous leadership beyond the self-imposed limitations of positional authority and control that come with an overly dominant ego and rational mind.

Through working with horses we become part of the learning context around and within us; part of our inner and outer neighbourhood. Our empathic ‘betweenness’ develops with our lived-in environment, opening us up to the learning potential in our midst. With this comes the opportunity to relearn how to trust our feelings, hearts, sensate responses and gut feelings. Team work with the horse helps shift our intention towards what is naturally good in self and others helping us attune with our inner and outer self, other team members and wider ever-changing context. In opening ourselves up to our true selves we discover – perhaps rediscover – that we all have the resources we need to be our own inner and outer leaders. This allows us to recognise and empathically understand how our differences are important assets for co-creative team learning. It helps us to be leaders who can hold a space for diverse teams of participants to flourish.

It starts with the herd …

horse herd

“In a herd of horses, leadership is shared. The lead mare sets the direction and pace of the herd. The lead stallion keeps the herd together and protects it from predators. Each member of the herd has a role in protecting the health of the herd. All of the horses in the herd contribute to the socialization of new or young members, teaching them what behaviours are healthy and correcting those who behave in ways that could compromise the health of the herd. The ever-present goal of herd leadership is health, harmony, unity and safety. For herd members to place their trust in leaders, they must see four qualities in them. One, leaders are paying attention and can detect even the most subtle shifts in the environment. Two, leaders can give them clear direction on how to respond to the shifts. Three, leaders are able to follow that direction with focused energy, providing the herd with guidance on the pace with which to respond. Four, leaders display congruence of their inner and outer expressions. Ultimately, the herd members must know that the leaders have their best interest as their source of motivation at all times. Attention, Direction, Energy, Congruence: When leaders demonstrate these qualities and skills, the herd becomes confident in their leadership. The bottom line is that confidence in the leader makes the herd agile in times of change. The same is true for people. To gain our confidence, our leaders must demonstrate that they are paying attention to what is going on in their communities/organizations, are able to give clear direction with focused, inspiring energy, and are so authentic that their intentions can be fully trusted. Confidence in leadership makes a community or an organization agile when the time for change can no longer be avoided.” Adapted from TeachingHorse: Rediscovering Leadership, by June Gunter, Ed.D.

Returning our senses to our social herd-like nature is not a sign of weakness, but a place to gain personal responsibility through wisdom and courage. As we gain wisdom we increase our ability to become conscious co-creators for ourselves, each other and all of life. In this way, working on our leadership presence with horses provides a rich opportunity to refine our natural leadership qualities. We deconstruct our rationality constrained ideas of leadership and learn that everyone has leadership capabilities and responsibilities.

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