Thirty consultants are standing round the periphery of an equine arena with their eyes closed. There is no punchline.
Two horses are led in; the men and women open their eyes and are asked to observe them silently. “Get in touch with what you imagine to be going on for the horses and for you watching the horses,” says Catherine Bray, ringmaster for the day’s events.
This is part of a two-week executive training course organised by London Business School for partners from around the world at consulting firm AT Kearney. Ms Bray is founder of Equine Affinity, a centre for equine-assisted therapy and guided learning in Kent, southeast England. The day will see the consultants try to approach the horses, earn their trust and lead them round the arena. The purpose? For participants to learn about themselves and the unconscious signals they send to clients or colleagues, or indeed horses.
The interest in equine “guided learning” is also part of the corporate vogue for mindfulness, which encourages people to focus on the here and now, rather than ruminate on the past or future. “Horses are in the moment,” notes Ms Bray.
She believes horses help people understand their own relationships and personalities — the centre also works with disruptive schoolchildren. A horse with a tendency to bolt that had been “misunderstood by humans” transformed her own interactions, she says. She worked with him over time, to build trust. It taught her patience and built her confidence.
Ms Bray and colleague Becci Harvey, an equine specialist, are familiar with newcomers thinking the process is peculiar. “What if bonkers [simply] means doing things differently?” suggests Ms Harvey. Equine therapy, she adds, offers new perspectives. It may challenge assumptions: why might someone deem the big horse to be the leader, for example? “It helps them realise how quickly they judge,” says Ms Bray.
The exercises, the pair hope, will help the consultants, who are paid to be all-knowing experts, cope with ambiguity. This should help them understand their clients who are often dealing with change and uncertainty.
Peter Shepherd, programme director at LBS, explains the thinking behind the away day. “The pedagogy is we put you in situations where you have to be resourceful [and] adventurous.” Some people think it is going to be a waste of time, he concedes. But he believes consultants should be empathetic. “Everybody can do tasks . . . but not everybody can do relationships.”
Jude Jennison, who runs The Leadership Whisperers, which also arranges for executives to work with horses, believes “leaders learn leadership skills that are typically not taught in business but are critical to success — like trust, respect, courage, creativity and compassion”.
Michael Brown, an AT Kearney retail strategist in New York, says the day made him think about how he interacts with people: “I was very curious about it and approached it with an open mind.”
After watching how a colleague altered his posture to engage the horse at eye level, he decided to change his behaviour. The away day enabled him to understand that gregariousness can tip into aggression. “Every day we engage with clients or teams; it can be one-directional.” Interacting with a horse made him conscious of the “need to be invited in”. It made him aware of the need to understand others’ viewpoints.
Stephen Parker, AT Kearney chief learning officer, who did the programme last year, found it “very powerful”, it helped make him more “mindful”. Like Mr Brown, he learnt to be patient. At first the horse walked away from him: “I was performing too much in front of my colleagues.” The horses are, as he puts it, the “perfect feedback machine”.
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