My HorsePlay experience

Over the years I have been driven to enhance my knowledge of human behavior and organizational development in an effort boost my own managerial success and to understand why some people are more effective as leaders than others. As a result I have read a plethora of books and articles on leadership, behavior, and organizational change. I have also participated and attended a tremendous number of speeches, seminars, and workshops. Each has added some level of value to my chosen field of study – Leadership.

So I was very curious, and maybe a little skeptical, when I was invited to attend a workshop called HorsePlay HP2 . After all, what can we learn from playing with horses? So I discounted the program as another “Let’s have some fun and feel good calling ourselves a team” canned program. I packed up my doubts and my skepticism and headed to Petoskey, a resort town in Northern Michigan.

Boy … was I ever WRONG!!! The setting was gorgeous, the weather fantastic, the horses were spectacular, and the coaches from Pitts-Aldrich Associates and EquuSpirit were phenomenal.

We had gathered together in small, segmented groups for breakfast. Then we headed over to the Bay Harbor Equestrian Center. We all left breakfast at the same time, traveled 9.5 miles down one road, making a left hand turn out of one driveway and a right hand turn into another. To no surprise, we did not all arrive at the same time.

Our coaches started off talking about the horses. They explained that horses have survived on earth for over 55 million years, longer than any other land mammal. Horses are prey animals; they don’t attack; they react. They endure because of their unique physiological attributes coupled with their highly tuned survival skills. Horses trust their senses, know their purpose, and take clear action. They exist as a team playing, learning, and developing shared leadership and responsibility. They even instinctively foster an effective succession plan. The coaches told us that if we paid attention (attune to the horses’ nonverbal communication) we could learn extraordinary things about ourselves and others just by interacting with this small herd.

After a short “bio-break”, a safety talk, and a few interesting exercises on assumptions & interpretations, communicating, and the “default” need to compete, we headed down to meet our equestrian partners. As we started down the path to the pastures, it became obvious, even to the most casual observer, that even at a distance of several hundred yards, the horses sensed our presence. Although they each displayed individual responses, we could tell by watching their postures, ear movements, and body positions that we were definitely on their radar screen.

We were divided into small groups and given very clear instructions. The first was to gain the trust of the horse we had chosen, Fallon. However, since 97% of communication is non-verbal, we were not allowed to talk to Fallon. Some in our group had previous experience with horses, but for one of our group, this was a first time exposure, and these are BIG animals. Each member had to approach Fallon and begin a relationship with him. Clearly the there was some shared anxiety for both horse and human. We were fortunate to have Christina Pitts as a coach for our group. She carefully and compassionately asked us Socratic questions about why we approached Fallon the way we did; how he seemed to react; why did we think he reacted that way; what could we try differently; and how does this relate to how we develop relationships with people? Talk about impact … I was immediately thrust into deep introspection and retrospection.

I started to realize at a whole new level how I impact others and how, as a result, they respond to me. Even with good intentions I sometimes come on with high levels of energy and excitement that can and at times does push people away. A long time ago I learned that in all interactions, we need to “meet people where they are.” I had always interpreted this to mean from a knowledge and skill level. I never related it to the energy I was putting off (positive or negative) and how others (horse or human) respond to that energy.

There were several lessons learned that day, which HorsePlay HP2 combines into Optimize5 – Wisdom from the World of Horses©.
S-L-O-W = FAST
Be Present
Pause-Reflect-Choose
Less = MORE
Small = BIG

I thought perhaps this workshop had meaning for me because of my familiarity and long term interest in Leadership & Teams, so I thought I’d get input from one of the other participants. I asked Bob Owens, CFO of OTR Wheel Engineering, Inc. His response was:

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