Nine times out of ten, a horse ends up in rescue, not because of something they’ve done.
They’re there because, along the way, a human failed them.
One of the most important experiences rescue horses can have is positive and diverse interactions with humans and other horses.
Horses as Teachers: Equine‐Assisted Leadership
In our Leadership with Horses program, horses engage constructively with people in non‐riding activities that seem simple, yet offer complex leadership lessons. The activities vary from leading – with a halter and a lead, to at‐liberty – without anything attached to the horse. We vary horses working with just one person to small groups of people. The horses may also work together in larger groups for drill team‐like exercises as well as in small teams of two to six horses.
The focus of equine‐assisted leadership development is the horse as a teacher and a coach rather than the horse as an animal to ride for competition or pleasure, or other equestrian pursuits.
Leadership with Horses is anchored by the principle that horses have gifts and abilities to help leaders see themselves as others see them, identify limiting behaviors and replace those behaviors with more productive ones that increase their leadership effectiveness.
Rescue horses bring something uniquely moving and powerful to equine‐assisted work. They are resilient and open‐hearted, even though many of them have often survived horrible situations at the hands of humans.
Given a chance to heal and start over, they are often willing to trust, to forgive, and to try again.
Right there is a profound leadership lesson.
The horse‐human connection has a lasting impact on our leadership abilities, as well as our physical, mental, and emotional well‐being. As a result, the role of horses is growing and expanding.
An increasing number of riding instructors, holistic health practitioners, coaches and organizational development professionals are working with horses in the fields of equine‐assisted learning and equine‐assisted therapy.
More therapeutic and coaching roles are opening up for horses. This is good news for rescue horses, especially those who may not be suitable for riding. They have potential homes and careers in these types of programs.
Benefits for SAFE Horses
Before any SAFE horse participates in our program, Terry Phelps‐Peddy, Operations Director, and I sit down and make matches between the horses and the exercises we’ve planned. We know that not every SAFE horse is ready to participate in Leadership with Horses. And, of course, we want good outcomes for the horses that do participate.
We discuss what will most likely happen during each exercise, for example – humans working with horses in close quarters and from all sides of a horse. We choose horses who have the temperament and who are ready for that type of interaction. We look for suitable horse teams as well. We consider things like who’s friends with whom, who’s dominant and who’s not, and how long it’s been since they’ve been turned out together.
From there, we introduce horses and horse teams to the exercises by simulating a client’s possible response. The Leadership with Horses team re‐creates typical behaviors that we may see from people during an exercise. We observe the horse(s) and see how they handle close proximity, lots of energy from different people, hand‐waving, clapping, etc. This is something we do every time we work with a new horse or horses, not just SAFE horses.
Our Core Beliefs for the Program
When we facilitate horses and clients in the arena, we keep these core beliefs at the heart of our work:
We honor the horse as a teacher and coach. Without judgment, they make us aware of what we often cannot see about ourselves. They reveal insights and ways we can become more effective leaders – all without saying a word.
We allow horses to be who they are. No horses are ‘trained’ for our program. We encourage their individual personalities and work with their unique gifts to create powerful learning experiences for our clients.
Horses have a choice and a voice. This is often a rare experience for even the best cared‐for horses. There are no ‘have-to’s’ for horses during the exercises. We work with a horse’s responses – whatever they are – to facilitate insight and learning for our clients about their behavior, their energy, their leadership presence.
SAFE horses also learn that people can be loud, disorganized, even energetically a little chaotic, without something terrible happening to them. Most of our clients do not have instant success in their first interactions with horses. They explore new ways of embodying their leadership and regulating their energy, often for the first time. Their efforts can be confusing to horses as they practice bringing the mental, emotional, and physical aspects of their leadership into alignment, or congruence.
Their Transition to a Forever Home
We believe that when SAFE horses participate in Leadership with Horses, they (as well as the humans) develop a greater capacity to extend trust, develop meaningful connections, and experience mistakes as a part of learning, rather than punishment.
This, in turn, leads to the possibility of stronger relationships between horses and humans.
We hope our program continues to be one of the steps for SAFE horses to successfully transition to their forever home.