LEADERSHIP: From The Horse’s Mouth – Lead a horse to water…

The task I’ve been given is easy enough. Without moving out of your own zone, you persuade horse to walk in circle around you. Me and the horse face each other – he’s wearing halter; I’m wearing an increasingly helpless expression. Despite my best encouraging noises and some persuasive head tugging, he’s going nowhere. I start harbouring dark thoughts about the horse. Obviously stubborn… possibly stupid….
Help! Ian Benson takes over. few flicks of the halter rope help generate energy for movement, the horse is encouraged to look in the direction he needs to move – and it’s done. Well – Benson does have reputation as horse whisperer. But right now he’s less interested in the horse’s behaviour as mine. What was my reaction to the exercise?
Okay – so I thought this exploration of how horses can help develop leadership strengths was going to be bit of doddle. After all, I have in the past spent lot of time with the beasts. Also, I don’t like failure. So, lesson one – don’t blame others when you fail to get your message across; work on making the message clearer.
Well, actually nobody said that was the lesson. The learning that goes on at the North River Horse & Humanship Centre at Waipu is both experiential and self directed. I get to figure out what’s going wrong with my communications with bit of equine input. Benson and fellow workshop leader Philippa Ross provide some structured exercises, observe what both client and horse are doing, and help prompt the self enquiry. But the real teacher is the horse.
That’s because when it comes to communication, says Benson, horses are free of any agendas, give you very honest responses and speak body language like natives. It’s why “equine-assisted psychotherapy” (EAP) is increasingly being used not just as therapeutic tool (often for troubled kids), but also as learning and development aid. It provides clues for improving both individual leadership behaviour and team dynamics.
“What interests us is when things are not going right,” says Ross. “So with the tasks we do, even people who’ve been with horses all their life are out of their comfort zone because we do things differently and see how people cope. It’s the coping that is the important bit; the process allows people to discover how their thoughts and feelings affect their behaviour and because the horses respond immediately, change occurs accordingly. Individual and team development comes from seeing the relationship between input, attitude and output.”
What becomes clear when working with horses, says Benson, is that if the relationship isn’t going well, then you need to change the dynamic and you can only do that by changing something you do.
“I know that I cannot directly change another – and that applies with my horses. I can’t go out there and change them and if I try then I have to start using things like force, fear, bribery, intimidation, which builds unhealthy relations. So if I want to elicit change, I have to change something in myself and what happens with that is the existing relationship suddenly doesn’t work any more – we go into this chaos of change.”
From there four things can happen, he says. You can stay in chaos and that becomes the relationship, you sell the horse (or quit the relationship, but the issue remains unresolved and will probably crop up with new horse or new relationship), you shy away from chaos back to how things were (but it’ll never be quite the same), or you hold true to your change.
“If you do the latter, the horse by nature will test you to see if the change is true, but they will then honour that change and the relationship will evolve.”
Benson, who originally bought his Waipu property to go dairy farming because he wanted work that didn’t have too much to do with people, attributes his own growth as person to the horses he started acquiring almost by accident some 17 years ago. Within six months of owning his first horse, he was running trekking business.
“The more I worked with horses, the better I became at interpreting people. I’ve probably worked with about 10,000 people, taking them trekking, and along the way gradually discovered that I’d become very attuned to reading and interpreting body language. So few years back I started writing about my journey with horses and it sort of evolved from there.”
Instead of teaching the horsemanship practices he adopted many years back, he started to develop what he describes as “humanship” training – which uses horses to teach people about themselves.
What began as an almost instinctive understanding is becoming increasingly structured as he and Philippa develop theories around how four main leadership styles (coercive, absent, consensus and integrated) work out in practice during people’s interaction with the horses and how those styles can be amplified when knowledge is added to the equation. He grabs some chalk to sketch diagrammatic explanations on the concreted yard outside his farm office. It’s clear his own exploration of the topic is continually evolving.
Philippa Ross whose background includes psychology degree and family therapy work in the United Kingdom, met up with Benson after moving to New Zealand and starting her own business mainly focusing on troubled children.
“I came to see what he was doing. We ended up combining our professions and developed the Integrated Leadership Programme for businesses and teams and the Attitude is Everything Leadership Programme for youth. Ian does his stuff on humanship and I do mine with personal and professional development.” What both embrace is learning that comes from the inside rather than being externally imposed. It is, says Ross, about being true to yourself. That has involved bit of an “untraining” process for both of them.
“I had to learn not to teach; Philippa had to learn not to coach,” says Benson. “It’s to do with self empowerment, and what works for me might not work for anyone else. That’s why we’ve introduced concepts rather than hard and fast rules. The message is not to be like me but to be like yourself.”
That is the path to what Benson describes as “integrated” leadership – based on understanding, trust, respect and partnership. It is, he says, “where the relationship between the leader and the led is one of togetherness; travelling the same journey together, each with our different role to play… with equal status and in constant communication with one another.”
He now runs leadership and humanship programmes both in New Zealand and in Germany where he’s contracted to provide the courses for large human resources company. The programmes running from his Waipu property are offered both as one-on-one process or on group basis and include equine-assisted learning/psychotherapy, humanship/horsemanship training, mentoring and trek around the North River property.
That’s when I had to unlearn all my previous knowledge of riding horses with bridle and bit and instead discover how to communicate with gentle movements of halter, reins and body. Okay – I didn’t get it entirely right but the learning process was lot of fun. For Benson, that’s process that never ends.
“I am sure this will take several lifetimes to truly master.”

Vicki Jayne is 3media Group’s editor at large. [email protected]

Visited 3 times, 1 visit(s) today

Business benefits of privacy

Privacy Week (13-17 May) is a great time to consider the importance of privacy and to help ensure you and your company have good privacy practices in place, writes Privacy

Read More »
Close Search Window