I was very excited when my friend Irene told me she had started working as a horse coach. No – that’s not someone that coaches horse’s aka Robert Redford in the Horse Whisperer, rather that she coaches people – using the horse as a vehicle to drive the conversation.
She offered me a session to experience it, and I jumped at the chance. As an experienced coach myself, having worked with executives and groups over many years, I’m well aware of the power of a different setting such as the outdoors to drive the coaching conversation.
But with a horse, a living, breathing animal? A big one at that. And just to note, I’m not a particularly ‘horsey’ person, having only ridden when being led on pony-trekking activities on holidays. This was going to be a whole different experience, but I was up for it.
I met Irene and she introduced me to the four horses, and invited me to lead Naomi, my horse for the session, into the field. This was the first time I had led a horse, and I instinctively did what I do with people, I talked to the horse in a calm voice to let her know what we were doing and where I was taking her.
Through the session I was given simple tasks to do with the horse, starting with leading her around the small field. After each task Irene asked how it went and how I felt. Very quickly I was making parallels with ‘leading’ a horse and leading teams, for example. Lessons like leading from the front, clear signaling, looking in the direction you want to go – all had obvious workplace parallels.
My first attempt at leading my horse round the field failed when Naomi preferred to munch on the grass. I was reluctant to ‘force’ her to move on, so I reasoned that it was ‘ok’ to pause and let her eat the grass, as I didn’t actually need to lead her anywhere. This made me think about classic change management – with leaders wanting to impose change on an organisation, and those that dig in their heels and refuse to move. There’s something about pausing to be with people that don’t want to change, to listen to them, feel their concerns, try to move forward ‘with’ them willing rather than forcing. I paused and waited for Naomi, but when I realized (with some guidance from Irene) that she was unlikely to ‘move on’ on her own, I had to take the lead and guide her forward.
A few times Naomi would move into ‘my space’, like when she was eating the grass and would come near to my foot, or when walking she would drift towards my body, her frame forcing me to adjust my direction. I had the sense that she did not understand my ‘personal space’ and it was up to me to step back. I likened this to boundary setting. The application for me was around work creeping into the evenings and time stealers like social media. These things won’t respect my boundaries. So, it is up to me, and me alone to ‘step back’ when needed.
Once I had gained confidence in leading Naomi and had mastered the art of using my whole body language and full ‘intention’, I could see she was happy to be led. Equally, if I did not lead, she was happy to not be led, and would go her own way. Oh – so many lessons here for leaders in organisations. Lead your people, they want to be led. But only if you are confident and clear in your direction, and your actions match your intention. If not, they will go their own way. They won’t come and ‘ask’ to be led. I could relate this to myself with my business, the ‘clear signaling’ is key for my customers to know me, what I stand for and what my offer is.
I found it easy to open up and to talk to Irene, whilst I was stood there, rope in hand, with a horse between us. Something about interacting with a living, breathing, beautiful creature that could represent so much more, made it possible to draw out lessons for me.
So my challenge to you is – when was the last time you had some coaching that was different and took you out of your regular routine?
If you’re in Eindhoven and want to try horse coaching – you can contact my friend Irene.
And if you would like some coaching minus the horse – you can contact me, we can always go for a walk!