Mirror mirror in the stall…?

Experiential learning, leadership and the equine mirror

In this article, Andrew McFarlane of LeadChange explores how reflective feedback from horses helps corporate executives develop practical leadership skills.

Experience – the difference

There is a gap between theory and practice; between awareness and action; between what we know and what we do. We move from knowing to doing when changes take place at a deep neurological level, through insights (‘aha’ moments) which create complex new neurological connections. T.S. Eliot said that not paying attention to an experience is to ‘have the experience but miss the meaning’. Paying attention to an experience is a powerful way to get even more from it.

Leadership calls for a dynamic combination of self-awareness, multiple intelligences and highly developed inter-personal skills. Knowledge informs; skills develop through practice – requiring an experiential approach to learning which allows participants to become aware of how their behaviour and actions impact others.

A growing number of organisations are buying into ‘equine-facilitated’, ‘equine-assisted’ and ‘horse whispering’ programmes as a leadership development process. What do these programmes offer to corporate executives who want to improve the way they lead?

The horse as a mirror

Mirror is defined by the Encarta dictionary as: ‘something that accurately reproduces, describes or conveys something else’. Mirrors reflect; reflection is ‘the ability to reflect light, sound or other forms of energy’. In workshops with horses, ‘mirroring’ is the perceived ability of the horse to accurately reflect back to the human client key pieces of information about them in order to facilitate change. In other words, the horse’s responsiveness to energy offers a mirror to who we truly are, creating opportunity for self-reflection, self-discovery and self-ownership, in ways that human relationships fail to do.

Horses engage something fundamental in us and reveal it more fully to our awareness. They offer a mirror to the workings of our inner selves, creating opportunity to know ourselves better and own ourselves more fully. Horses’ reactions reflect how they experience who we are being and how we are behaving around them – what they understand by our actions. How they respond when we are with them tells us directly the impression we are making on them. This authentic mirroring has complete integrity; horses cannot lie.

Horses challenge us to focus down into the detail of what we feel and how we act, and open us up to the big questions of who we are and who we wish to be. Engaging with horses demands that we engage with ourselves. Horses elicit profound responses in us because they are fully authentic; receiving their feedback makes us more genuine. They show up our issues and weaknesses, with an unspoken invitation to see who we are, and become who we are capable of becoming.

Seeing our reflection

Interacting with horses brings us face to face with ourselves – our ambitions, our fears, the kinds of relationships we get into, the assumptions we make about ourselves and others. Encounters with horses have the potential to enhance and develop who we are at all ‘neurological’ levels: environment, behaviour, skills and competencies, beliefs, values, identity – and even our sense of purpose and meaning. Where we are incongruent with ourselves and others, horses offer us the opportunity to align across these levels. Personal alignment is one of the key aims of experiential learning programmes with horses.

Horses reflect back to us how we are to them; their response shows us not what we tried to communicate, but the meaning of what we actually did communicate.

Mahrabian, who carried out research on meaning in communication, found that when the words are ambiguous, or there is a conflict (incongruity) between the words a person uses and the non-verbals (including paraverbals like tone), people tend to rely more on the non-verbals to evaluate the emotional state of the person speaking. In this context, 55% of the meaning of communication is in body language, 38% is in tonality, and only 7% rests in the words themselves.

We are always communicating; we cannot ‘not communicate’. Horses respond to the deliberate and accidental signals we give when we are with them; they also respond to our thoughts and emotions, which are expressed through minute physical and chemical changes (animals really do ‘smell fear’). Meaning is conveyed through breath, muscle tone, speed of movement and tiny variations in patterns of behaviour. We learn a great deal about ourselves when we pay attention to the horse’s reactions.

100% leadership?

Paul (not his real name) was CEO of the UK division of a global pharmaceutical company when he participated in a LeadChange workshop. His experience illustrates the power and accuracy of the ‘equine mirror’.

In a 1:1 session, Paul was being coached on his approach to achieving company objectives. He told the coach: ‘as a business, we set objectives each year – and if we achieve 80% of them, we feel we that have been successful’. As the coaching progressed, Paul made a connection with the horse, and walked with it at liberty (no head-collar or lead-rope) around the perimeter of a large round pen. 80% of the way round the horse walked away from Paul and stood in the middle of the pen. Observers wanted to know how we (the facilitators) ‘trained the horse to do that’!

Of course, the horse had not been trained. Paul was running the pattern ‘80% is a result’ and the horse’s highly-tuned sensitivity to energy picked up that feeling of achievement as Paul completed 80% of the circuit. He began to realise that his managers and employees might also be responding to the same subtle signals, and relaxing when the business had achieved 80% of its annual objectives!

Paul re-ran the exercise – this time maintaining 100% focus – and the horse faithfully followed him all the way round. The experience made him much more aware of what he was communicating at work through subtle, non-verbal signals, and of the importance of maintaining focus to deliver 100%.

What would the equine mirror reflect back to you about your leadership?

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