From The Horse’s Mouth: Reflections on Leadership Work With Horses


Earlier this month, I led my inaugural leadership development workshop with horses in Sonoma. You might have read my newsletters promoting the event and even thought it sounded interesting.

It was more than interesting; it was a powerful day for the participants as well as for me.

As I was describing my upcoming event, a lot of people wondered aloud how horses could be effective leadership development teachers. I had experienced the magic of introducing horses into my client work previously but I had a tough time putting into words why it would be a unique and hugely beneficial experience.

Here’s my attempt, Dave Letterman style, to elaborate on the top 10 reasons horses are great at teaching leadership.

Top 10 Reasons To Participate In A Leadership Workshop With Horses:

1) Horses are pretty darn big; interacting with them takes both courage and care under pressure.

2) It’s easier to spot leadership strengths and growth areas in someone else; the whole group learned a lot from each other.

3) The horses continually engaged and interacted with the group in meaningful as well as unpredictable ways – keeping us on our toes and our learning continually fresh.

4) It’s hard to lead the horses effectively, or yourself, by leaning too far into the past or the future. How much time do you spend regretting the past or planning out the future?

5) There’s a lot of unexpected learning; horses, as well as fellow participants, respond to the consistency of your intentions and your body language.

6) It’s impossible to underestimate the impact of learning in Sonoma’s beautiful outdoor environs with the sounds and sights of rural nature all around us.

7) Horses beautifully mirror leadership throughout their pack, which has important applications for leadership at all levels of an organization.

8) It’s amazing how quickly the group opened up to each other and asked for support and feedback on their current “tough issues” and development areas.

9) Challenges with horses can mimic leading under pressure. People felt that stress and often surprised themselves with what they learned about their behavior under pressure.

10) The learning continues long after the day; in subsequent conversations with participants, each identified new growth edges they want to continue exploring.

I also wanted to add my personal top 5 surprises about my leadership workshop.

Top 5 Surprises Working With Horses:

1) One full-day with the horses flies fast and on a follow-up survey, 50% of participants wished the day had been longer.

2) It’s fun to work with horses; they provide laughter, eat your clothing when you’re not looking and ask provocative questions.

3) Leading a horse through an obstacle course is not as easy, or as straightforward as it appears.

4) Our group became it’s own “pack,” taking on different roles, encouraging, as well as challenging each other.

5) Horses can read your mind; often horses approached participants for meaningful interactions based on what that person was thinking about. (OK, they can’t really read your mind, but they can read your energy!)

If upon reading this you think, “Hey, I might want to participate in one of those next time!” just send me an email and let me know.  

I’ve had a fair amount of interest in another workshop and I’m tentatively eyeing Fall 2016 for my next workshop. If you want to be on the list that’s notified for the next retreat, please say so!  Due to the workshop’s small size and growing interest, the next one will likely fill-up without much publicity.

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Jo Ilfeld, PhD

An executive leadership coach, Jo helps C-suite leaders, executives, and high-potential managers develop the flexibility, skill, and frame of mind to meet the challenges of the next five, ten, twenty years…. and beyond. She works with individuals, teams and organizations on four core areas of leadership development. Check out Jo's bio page for more information.

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