Kate is a gentle, well-mannered mare. She’s a light creamy color known as buttermilk buckskin.  One of the first honorary members of the Epona Meadows Herd, she worked for years as an equine coach in Leadership with Horses.

We introduced ‘In The Box’ to a client group one day. This exercise involves a team of two or more humans and at least one horse. The goal is for the humans to motivate the horse to enter a box [three poles on the ground, with one open side] and stand quietly in that box for at least one-minute. They must accomplish this goal in silence, using only nonverbal communication. They are also asked not to touch the horses. Typically we have two or three human teams in an arena, with several boxes and horses at liberty.

Kate was very familiar with this exercise and had participated many times. But that day, Kate had other plans. She chose a spot in the middle of the arena and just decided to stay there. In fact, she refused to move. Period. Not even horse handlers and facilitators could budge her.

An obstacle becomes an opportunity

We scratched our heads over her behavior.  She appeared to be comfortable. She seemed to doze in the sun, one of her back legs cocked in relaxation.  It was pretty obvious that she wasn’t going anywhere except for ‘here’.

We discussed our options. We could take her from the arena and replace her with another horse. Or, we could let her stay in the arena and see how the group worked through the exercise with this new situation. We decided to leave her where she was and see what happened. The team had several options:

  • Choose another horse in the arena who was willing to participate in the exercise.
  • Declare they could not complete the exercise because of Kate’s behavior.
  • Complete the exercise by creatively problem-solving.

There is no wrong answer to this exercise. What’s interesting is to see what a team decides to do and why. Rather than ask clients to complete an exercise the ‘right’ way, we ask them to solve problems and do things in their own way, so they and we can observe what is effective and what is ineffective about how they work to meet their goals.

leadership training with horses

Be flexible, suspend judgement

The team who had been assigned to Kate literally thought outside the box. Instead of choosing another horse, or becoming frustrated with and blaming Kate, they completed the exercise in an elegantly simple and effective way. They picked up the poles and brought the box to Kate!

We allowed Kate to be who she was that day and did not force her to do something she didn’t want to do. She had a voice and a choice. From that day forward, Kate participates in this exercise by standing still. Her decision to participate in the expected way has created a more complex and enriching team experience for our clients.

As leaders, we sometimes get in a rut about how we solve problems. Katre shows us that sometimes even a simple situation can benefit from a fresh approach. Sometimes we need to be willing change our game plan, and get curious about possibility.

  • When have you had to re-think your game plan?
  • What shifted in your approach?
  • How did the result create new learning for you and your team?
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