It’s Leadership Training!


Fell Pony stallion Willowtrail Black Robin giving me feedback on leadership at feeding time.

With eleven ponies around, I sometimes give myself a bad time that I’m not using them in some way every day – taking a trail ride or moving manure, for instance.  Today I read an article that made me realize that indeed I am putting them to use everyday – as leadership trainers!

The article I read told about a leadership curriculum launched this spring by the equestrian program at my alma mater.  Red Barn Leadership Program director Avery Brown says, “The horses are wonderful teachers. People usually drastically change both their strategies of interacting with each other and their strategies for expressing themselves even within the course of an exercise. What’s wonderful about the horses, too, is they tend to give you immediate, profound feedback. It’s not personal. Either the horse says, ‘Yes,’ or the horse says, ‘No, thanks.’ It’s that easy.” (1)

The Red Barn Leadership Program has three different types of training – leadership, team building, and youth development – and all of it is done from the ground; no riding is required.  The first task of each training is herd observation, noting interactions and the different personalities.  Then students introduce themselves to the herd.  Finally, students set up an obstacle course and lead the horse through it.  Because horses live entirely in the moment and are very honest, participants get immediate feedback on their leadership style and on how different individuals respond to different approaches to leadership.  Participants also get feedback on their emotions and stresses since horses will respond to these as well.

Earlier this year I learned about a similar program here in Colorado when I met Kelly Hendricks.  Kelly has been co-facilitating leadership training with Christina Haxton for eight years.  “Horses are utilized in these leadership training workshops to help illustrate, experience and reflect feedback from an animal whose response is always honest and forthright. Through activities done on the ground, by people who most likely have little to no horse knowledge, participants learn through experience about leadership, communication, and teamwork.” (2)

My first exposure to horses as leadership trainers came a few years ago when I encountered the work of Linda Kohanov, author of The Tao of Equus and other books.  Kohanov’s Epona Equestrian Services website perhaps sums up the status of horses as leadership trainers best:  “At the dawn of the 21st century, horses are breaking out of their roles as beasts of burden, yet they’re far from obsolete.  As horses are no longer required to work in our fields and carry us to war, they’re doing something arguably more important:  working on us.” (3)

So while I may not be riding or working my ponies in harness each day, there’s no question I’m using them.  Haltering and leading ponies, loading them into and out of trailers, asking for and getting good manners at feeding time, and even picking up feet to trim them are all opportunities for me to get some leadership training.  And I don’t have to pay tuition!


© Jenifer Morrissey, 2012


About workponies

Breeder of Fell Ponies, teamster of work ponies, and author of Feather Notes, Fell Pony News, and A Humbling Experience: My First Few Years with Fell Ponies. Distributor of Dynamite Specialty Products for the health of our planet and the beings I share it with.
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