Building Teams through Connection with Horses
article republished from the Summer 2022 Clearwind Connection Newsletter
“I enjoyed the activity where we first spent time with the horses in their own space. This was a new experience approaching them to understand their space and not just horses for entertainment.” -Participant
“It’s so nice to know that there are still good people in the world that really care about other people. It shows there is hope for humanity yet.” -Participant
It’s 8:00 am on a sunny, warm, and breezy morning in late May, and we know that rain and thunderstorms are predicted for the afternoon. We have 19 people from a statewide nonprofit organization arriving in a few minutes at ClearWind Farm for an all-day team building event with our 7 team facilitators and the horses. This is their first face to face staff meeting in over two years of Covid.
“Plan A or Plan B?” one of our facilitators asks, referring to the potential rearrangement of horse activities to ensure we maximize time with them before the rain may start. “Plan B,” I say. And with that, the day begins.
Incorporating horses into organizational leadership development and team building provides experiential, real-time learning for the team as they work together – or not - to achieve a goal with the horses. Facilitators provide instructions and support. The arena, or pasture, becomes the blank slate or story board for the team to create the outcome they want – in this case, creating connection and trust.
Without halters or other restraints, the horses’ role is to be themselves, responding to the team’s efforts honestly. Through facilitated discussion, team members discover what worked, what blocked them, what they can do better. And they are often surprised to learn so much about themselves. All of this is then taken back into the work environment.
Like humans, horses are very social animals who live in herds, and have specific personalities and responsibilities, constantly adapting when there are changes in their environment. For thousands of years, they have survived by working together for the benefit of the herd. Unlike humans, they are prey animals, and to survive, they developed a keen ability to read the most nuanced body language of those around them.
As for Plan B that day, it worked beautifully, providing an opportunity to interact with the horses in small groups - approaching, engaging, and sharing their experiences with each other. As noted by our participant above, simply being in a different space with other sentient beings creates the opportunity to expand our view of what we think we know.
What didn’t work exactly as planned, was the final equine experience where the entire team was to engage in an activity that would bring all their learning and experiences of the day together, to inform their next steps. Nature has a way of inserting itself. This day, it showed up as a blinding rainstorm with thunder so loud that the group could not hear itself talk.
What happened then is one of the surprising joys of experiential learning. The team quickly moved into the barn, which was safer and quieter. Watching the rain come down sideways and feeling the wind whip through the alley way, new leaders emerged in the group and continued to work with flip-charts and full-engagement of the team, including the horses watching intently from their places in the stalls.
Thanks to the power of horses and nature, what started as a day focused on connection and trust abruptly transformed into a story of resilience and hope.