Article: Leadership Lessons from Horses: Jagat Rathore

Sports, Books & Movies

Leadership Lessons from Horses: Jagat Rathore

Equine Facilitated Experiential Learning (EFEL) - an approach to human development that questions traditional leadership development practices
Leadership Lessons from Horses: Jagat Rathore

Authentic leadership is not only about being compassionate, patient and consistent, but also providing confident and knowledgeable guidance


Drawing up a list of desired qualities in a leader may not be easy


Equine Facilitated Experiential Learning (EFEL) - an approach to human development that questions traditional leadership development issues

The holy grail of OD

The pursuit of ‘authentic’ or ‘enlightened’ leadership development has long been the holy grail of organization development across the world. Over the years, the term ‘leadership’ has been defined and re-defined many times and the trend will doubtless continue. As leadership roles have evolved and changed over the years, so have the associated skills and qualities. Drawing up a list of universally accepted leadership qualities may not be easy, but it is safe to assume that charisma, integrity, values, loyalty, emotional intelligence, mental awareness, and influencing skill (to name a few) would feature on every list of critical aspects of leadership.

But, the real challenge does not lie in identifying leadership qualities; the big question facing organizations is, “How can we teach – and learn – these skills?” The quest for this ‘holy grail’ has led scholars and researchers far and wide – it has resulted in the development and establishment of various approaches from NLP to Ontology and countless techniques and process from outbound training to executive coaching. Each approach has built upon the other; each technique has juxtaposed with another; and often, the results have been exciting and impactful.

A new approach

The dawn of the new millennium saw the coming of age of another method of human development. Organization development professionals in the USA discovered the benefits of adapting Equine Facilitated Experiential Learning (EFEL) methodology to leadership development and kick-started a whole new trend.

EFEL is a relatively new field within the area of behavioral learning programs and draws primarily on the tenets of experiential learning - learning through hands-on experience. In general terms, EFEL is an educational program that is facilitated within a group format and focuses on ground activities rather than riding.

In EFEL programs, participants engage in structured, facilitator-led sessions that include constant feedback related to participants’ experiences. The sessions provide opportunities for participants to become involved in situations that require interaction with the horse and the group, and to reflect on these experiences. The overall intent is to create opportunities whereby participants, through direct experience with the horse, learn about self, internalize this awareness within the sessions, and generalize it to other life situations.

Why horses?

Given the horse’s superior intuitive nature, direct interaction with it is a unique experience. The horse’s intuitive nature has evolved as a mere function of survival; it is constantly attuned to its surroundings and the subtle communication within the herd as a response to ever-changing environments. No surprises then that horses have been observed to have acute communication skills within their social structures and highly adaptive behavioral responses within those structures.

Also, a horse has the ability to respond intuitively to human behavior and intent, which results in immediate feedback from the animal. This response creates opportunities for an EFEL participant to react both cognitively and behaviorally in relation to the cues from the horse.

In the broadest sense, EFEL has proved successful as an approach aimed at increasing life skills through hands-on doing. It has been identified as useful in building communication, problem-solving, and team building skills, as well as enhancing personal awareness and a sense of self.

Implications for leadership development

“Leaders, who cannot embrace the concept, that much of their power and success, or lack of it, is based upon unconscious influences, are finding that guiding an organization or team to success is a much bigger challenge than it has ever been,” says Lisa Murrell, founder of MetaSystem Consulting Group and Equine Alchemy and author of ‘Inspiring Real Change: Using Systemic Experiential Learning to Develop Systems, Organizations, Teams and Individuals.’

Referring to EFEL as a ‘ground-breaking approach to leadership development’, Lisa says, “Horses are social creatures that readily and honestly respond to the challenges inherent in forming and sustaining relationships. As animals that are preyed upon in nature, they have also retained a highly developed ability to sense changes in the stance and arousal level of other herd members, an ability they easily transfer to interactions with human beings. Horses see through the slightest incongruities of emotion and intention, subtle as well as critical leadership skills.”

Working with horses provides a way for people to become aware of the messages they are ‘sending out’ unconsciously. This information enables insights into why leaders continually create situations that don’t work.

The principles of EFEL are basic and easy to understand. The horse is the perfect mirror of the human that is with it (horses do not lie). The horse is looking to have feelings of safety and peace always. This is because the horse is a ‘prey’ animal always looking over its shoulder for the ‘predator’. If the human is trying to control the animal for whatever reason, this produces fear within the horse. If the human is disrespectful of the horse (inappropriate touching, movements, sounds, thoughts or feelings), this produces fear within the horse too. When the human begins to make conscious and appropriate requests, rather than demands of the horse, cooperation begins to happen. Trust and respect are earned with horses in much the same way as with people – through acknowledgement and respect. This ‘golden rule’ applies to horses, but with the added aspect of greater guidance and leadership coming forward from the human. It is the human’s responsibility to approach the horse as an authentic, enlightened leader.

Authentic leadership is not just about being compassionate, patient and consistent, but also providing confident, skillful, and knowledgeable guidance with a healthy dose of coaching tossed in for good measure.

“In this age of corporate greed, poor management, distrust, and widespread fraud, a program that teaches responsibility, accountability, respect, trust and mindful interaction was a natural development,” says Franklin Levinson, founder of The Maui Horse Whisperer Experience.

The future

EFEL based programs have proved effective for corporations seeking to advance the leadership qualities and skills of top executives. In the US, organizations across sectors, from the manufacturing, telecom, real estate and pharmaceutical industry, have incorporated EFEL based workshops as an integral part of their leadership and people development programs. As far as trends go, Equine Facilitated Experiential Learning seems to be here to stay.

Jagat Rathore is an OD Consultant, Executive Coach & Speaker. He works with OD Alternatives Consultancy

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