Seven Questions to Ask When Considering an Equine Facilitated Leadership or Team Building Program

As we settle into the budget and planning season, many organizations are considering training options for the coming year.  As Equine Facilitated Experiential Learning (EFEL) programs continue to gain in popularity, the nuances and differences that exist between various approaches should be taken into consideration.  The importance of approach and philosophy cannot be overstated as it speaks directly to the efficaciousness of the program.  As these workshops and programs are new to many people, I thought I would share seven questions everyone contemplating an EFEL program should ask to ensure they achieve their training objectives.

1.) Is the approach behavioral-based or relationship-based?  The importance of this difference cannot be overstated.  Behaviorally based approaches objectify the horse, relegating the horse to being nothing more than an apparatus.  The exercises are often oblique, based simply on placing the participants in an unfamiliar circumstance, without any framework or clear learning objectives.  Many of these types of programs evolved out of therapeutic applications for people with emotional challenges and have little to do with professional development.  The exercises are often domineering and abusive to the highly sensitive horses, driving them into fear response.  This unfortunately reinforces dominant behaviors from the workplace that erode team work and employee engagement and work at cross-purpose with professional growth and development.

Relationship-based approaches are significantly more mindful.  Programs that follow this philosophy focus on the learning opportunities the horse/human relationship delivers.  As horses mirror human emotions, it enables the participant to experience for themselves how they connect, engage and motivate the horse, without dominating or coercive behavior.  This is a direct metaphor for how people connect, engage and motivate their co-workers, subordinates and prospects.  By allow the participant to experience this first-hand, it creates a memorable learning experience they will never forget.  Relationship-based exercises are structured, with clear objectives that are aligned with business and developmental goals clearly in mind.  These programs are also significantly more mindful in their philosophy of partnering with the horse, ensuring proper emotional, psychological and physical care is followed at all times.

2.) How comprehensive was the facilitators training?  Like any growing industry, training and certification programs flock to any opportunity to capture a quick buck.  Unfortunately, in the case of working with horses for professional development, this can be disastrous.  It is very common for behavioral-based approaches to require a paltry level of training.   For example, programs such as EAGALA require a three day workshop to be level one certified.  In comparison, I studied a relationship-based approach that required more than twelve weeks of study onsite, with additional off site study spread over the course of an entire year.  The educational difference between a dozen contact hours under study with the horses and more than three hundred contact hours with the horses speaks for itself.

3.) Is the approach framed in scientific research that cultivates emotional intelligence competencies?  Programs that lack any reference to research from the neurosciences, performance psychology, Core Mammalian Emotional Systems, Applied Behavioral Economics, Kolb’s Adult Learning Style Inventory or quantum physics can border on pop psychology and ungrounded, unsubstantiated opinions.  In effect, programs that lack solid scientific evidence justifying the approach are no more efficacious than the tired ropes courses, paintball outings or competitions to build paper boats in a resort swimming pool.  Programs that are founded and aligned in peer-review research are significantly more accessible for the participants.  It draws a direct correlation between cognitive learning and deeper, emotive learning…delivering lessons that last a lifetime.

4.) What is the professional background of the facilitator?  Again, like any growing industry, people will flock to an opportunity to make a dollar, whether they are qualified or not.  This is why we see so many certification programs that, to the letter of the law, are not truly certification programs.  Ask about the professional background of the facilitator.  I cannot tell you how many people I’ve seen in this industry speed through a quick and dirty certification program to conduct leadership development programs without ever having held a leadership position in their lives.  Leaders bear the battle scars of leadership and have their own experiential learning under their belts from real-world engagements.  Ask about the depth and breadth of the facilitator’s actual leadership experience in business settings.  Were they a sales manager responsible for eight people for two or three years or do they have more than a decades of multi-cultural, multi-generational experience leading hundreds of associates?  Have they ever bore the mantle of leadership at all?

5.) What is the facilitator’s horse training philosophy? This is as critical as the difference between behavioral-based and relationship-based approaches.  Keep an eye out for facilitators that claim Natural Horsemanship expertise.  The leading example of this is an approach called Pirelli.  So called, Natural Horsemanship philosophies reflect the same approach as transactional leadership from the Industrial Age.  They attempt to coerce the horse with pressure, adding incremental discomfort to the horse until the horse does what they want.  They then reward the horse by releasing the pressure.  Punishment and reward are classic, behaviorally-based approaches to dominating people, or horses for that matter, to get what the transactional leader wants.  It is the proven cause of the employee disengagement crisis we are experiencing today.

More mindful, relationship-based approaches to horsemanship focus on communicating with the horse in a manner they can comprehend and invites the horse into relationship.  Approaches like Carolyn Resnick’s Water Hole Rituals™, Barbara Rector’s Adventures in Awareness™, Lisa Walter’s work at EquuSatori™, and an approach called Transformational Horsemanship™ all reflect this philosophy.  It models transformational leadership, of leading from a place of service to the horse that is attuned with actual herd dynamics and horse leadership in the wild.  Keep in mind, in packs of predators the leader is the one who dominates. In herds of horses the leader is the one who watches out for the safety and well-being of the herd and is watched by the herd.  The diametrically different approaches resonate through the EFEL workshop and will deliver very different results.

6.) Does the program have additional, educationally-based coaching and support tools to engrain the work over time?  Change is process driven, not event driven.  A mindful EFEL workshop will impart a powerful shift in perspective, opening up the participants to seeing their world from a different orientation.  This is critical in cultivating adaptability and creative problem solving in today’s rapidly changing world.  But tools must also be provided that can be easily accessed and used in the workplace to support the shift in perspective.  Educationally-based coaching should also be available to further support professional growth the ensure lasting results.

7.) Is the program aligned with tangible business objectives that can be measured for return on investment?  This is exceptionally rare.  In fact, our firm is the only professional development company with EFEL programs that I know of that does this in every engagement.  Why is it so rare?  This lack of accountability grew out of the old team building and leadership events of the past.  Why didn’t ropes courses attempt to introduce metrics?  Probably because they delivered little, if any, tangible business value than a company picnic.  Don’t get me wrong, company outings can strengthen relationships, but they’re not developmental events.  Ask if the program conducts any baseline assessments, both with the participants and of the current state of the business.  Is there an exploration of immediate business objectives?  Is a gap analysis provided?  Is this documented?  Finally, does the firm establish performance metrics for both the individual participants and for the business?  Are follow-up assessments conducted?  Without these critical measurements in place it is very difficult to measure the outcomes and value you’re receiving from your investment.

Equine Facilitate Experiential Learning can be a powerful, innovative and enjoyable tool for professional development.  Like anything, the quality comes down to the details.

© 2012, Terry Murray.

6 Comments

Filed under Experiential Learning, Leadership Development, Sales Training, Team Building

6 responses to “Seven Questions to Ask When Considering an Equine Facilitated Leadership or Team Building Program

  1. Susan Shea

    Terry, thank you so much! I so agree with you! I think it is so important that facilitators and “horse handlers” are aware that what we are trying to do is not a Parelli or Anderson type thing! I will be sharing this article! as i develop with my own horses, I will continue to read and learn and get the “boys” input on this learning!

  2. Terry, Too many programs leave too many gaps and no followup and you have described them spot-on in your article. . ~Tara

  3. Great article Terry, thought provoking for anyone considering participation in a program with horses. Lack of relationship and connection seems to lie at the core of so much so totally agree with the philosophical approach whether being behaviour or relation based. Actual integration of learnings gained during the program into everyday life seems to be a challenge for many workshops. Cheryl

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