EEL Part 2: Equine Experiential Learning (Through the Eyes of a Horse)

By October 7, 2015Article

In our last Issue, I shared my experience growing up with horses and how I came to the realisation that Equine Experiential Learning (EEL) was deep-rooted and influential throughout my life. Here I will delve into understanding how EEL can provide significant advantages in leadership development through its unique bridging of leadership competencies, self-awareness and relationships through self reflection. (Note: As mentioned in Part 1, participants do not need to have had any experience with horses. All activities are conducted on the ground; horses are not ridden.) 

Horses for Courses… Why?

Throughout the history of leadership and personal development, many innovative tools and activities have been designed to assist facilitators create the all-important shifts in awareness for participants. Experiential learning provides learning through reflection of doing, but as activities can only be staged to mimic real life scenarios, participants often try to anticipate and influence the outcome in search of “perfect” results. They may even feel the facilitators’ own bias and judgements, and this can interfere with their interpretation of the experience, and therefore participants do not get genuine learning or the desired insight.

EEL offers a solution to this dilemma. It has been available for decades and has become more mainstream over the last ten years, recognised for its power of providing participants with an instant in-the-moment reflection experience. As humans are creatures of habit, when in unfamiliar situations, we tend to revert to our ‘default’ behavioral patterns; however through reflective learning activities relevant to real-time life issues and work situations, the experiential learning EEL enables participants to become more aware of their default leadership style, emotional intelligence and problem solving skills.

The Psychology of Horses

Let’s gain a little more understanding about the horse… not from the perspective of riding, but from a view of their psychology. Horses are prey animals. The difference between prey (horses, deer, rabbits) and predators (lions, dogs, cats) is that prey animals will leave food for safety, whereas predators will leave safety for food. For survival, horses have flight instinct, which means they run first and think later. This happens because they are highly tuned into and sensitive to their environment, sensing more than humans; they use their emotions to guide their actions. Horses’ communication is virtually all non-verbal, which makes them superior readers of the body language of other horses (and also of humans).

Herds are also highly functioning teams; survival depends fully upon successful relationships within a hierarchy upheld through trust and respect – even the smallest can be the boss of the herd, such as for my own grey gelding pony who recently put a stallion into line below him. But ranking is continuously tested, as boundaries are set and reset, depending on circumstances.. My favourite bay mare, (who is at the bottom of the pecking order), is the one that the entire herd cowers behind as she bravely favours leading out on trails over bridges, through rivers, town and traffic. When there’s something unusually frightening in their home paddock, they all nuzzle her to go check it out first.

What EEL Offers

Given the equine psychology, EEL provides a truly unique setting for participants to learn in new ways, especially for self-reflection. Horses are incredible mirroring instruments, delivering feedback that cannot be produced through other people. Horses live in the present, they have no agenda. They give us honest, instant insight into the effectiveness of our communication, relational skills, and leadership whilst heightening our self-awareness of our emotional state from both our conscious and subconscious mind.

The most valuable benefit derived from the powerful experiential learning of EEL is the mirroring by the horse of what the participant is thinking and feeling. Horses reflect back to us without judgement or criticism. Their reactions to humans come from the purest authenticity, Human ideologies do not matter… wealth, fame, accomplishments, connections, or whatever. When a person walks into the arena, whether he or she is the company CEO or the company janitor, status makes no difference to the animal. Horses don’t judge or discriminate – they simply tune in and observe minute subtleties in your body language and energy levels, most of which are from the subconscious of which we are not usually aware – our past conditioning and beliefs. In this way, the horse reflects back what others may see in us that we do not see in ourselves.

The outcomes of an EEL session can be revealing. Horses can show us our blind spots, bringing to the surface behaviours that are ineffective or non-serving. They help us see how our patterns of thinking and feeling that limit our beliefs and create our life and work experiences. Horses can highlight many interesting things about a person; how you interact with the world and how the world responds to you; whether you are present, timid, aggressive, calm, anxious, or in control of your emotional state. They can reveal if you lack self-esteem or if your communication is unclear and inconsistent. Ultimately, participants gain a shift in awareness more powerful than most human-conducted training and development activities.

I have been using EEL activities with my two young children and other pre-teens. It provides the perfect demonstration for them to start to grasp what self-awareness and being in the moment truly is. A favourite activity where the horse is let loose in the round yard and the goal is to move the horse calmly at various intentional speeds in circles around you, change direction, approach you or move backwards away from you, and finally bring the horse into the centre to stand calmly and respectfully in front of you. The catch is, the only way to communicate to the horse is through body language and your energy. You cannot touch the horse and the horse is not connected to any lead.

This exercise enabled the children to understand the concept of being aware of their thoughts, the movements of their body and energy levels. They could feel their own inconsistencies in their thoughts, feelings and actions; any doubts they had were communicated instantly to the horse. Most importantly, they got a deep sense of their problem solving skills and how they react under pressure. One spring afternoon following a session in the round yard that involved a few children and adults, one girl asked me who within the group had performed the activities the best. It highlighted the competitiveness that is so ingrained within most people, but it became the perfect opportunity to get her to reflect to see that the activities with equine are not to compete with each other. For some, the horse would be in a higher energetic state, or it would show moments of confusion if the person’s messages were inconsistent or unclear, for another, the horse was calm and there was an apparent connection, softness & unspoken trust. The unique & different responses from the very same horse instantly highlight the various strengths and weaknesses of each individual person, but as their automatic reactions were recognised and changed, the horse responded favourably to their new approach.

Stay tuned in our next issue for EEL Part 3 as we continue our journey partnering with equine to cultivate leadership, teamwork and communication, creating emotionally intelligent people. We are interested to hear your thoughts and/or experience of EEL, simply email me at news@www.synet-group.com