Growing up in 1950s America, cowboy culture was endemic. I’ve been a bit of a cowboy ever since.
Twenty years ago, I learned about equine leadership training. Jackie Stevenson from Spirit of Leadership is a consultant who uses her herd of horses to teach executives leadership skills. At Pebble Ledge Ranch, their facility in Novelty, Ohio, they work with Fortune 500 C-suite execs with the goal of helping their clients learn about themselves.
The horses are said to provide pure and genuine feedback. To say I was skeptical of this process would be an understatement. I started with the assumption that it was New Age-y, touchy/feely, and not my cup of tea. But this came at a significant time for me. I had room to improve my leadership skills and still had some cowboy character in me. And if nothing else, I’d get a respite from my workday.
I had spent a little time with horses as a youth. I had girlfriends with horses, went to horse camp as a kid and worked on a ranch at which riding was part of my job. None of this prepared me in any way for the learning experience I had.
My interactions with the horses were fascinating. They involved getting to know the herd, one horse at a time. To the horses, we are just two-legged, hairless horses. Gaining their respect and determining where you are going to fit in the pecking order is their imperative. This is not about training horses; it’s about learning self-awareness.
My first interaction with them went like this: Jackie asked me what I would like to do with the big young black horse in front of me. “I want to jump on his back and ride him,” I said. “You would probably die,” was her reply. “Now that one,” she pointed to an older Clydesdale, “you could probably ride her.” So, I did. I jumped on her back, she galloped for 100 yards, then put her head down and ate some grass. We’ve been friends since. I soon found I was the Alpha to the two-year-old Friesian/Draft mix I worked with. A two-year-old horse is mentally like a teenage human.
My numerous exercises and interactions with the herd were valuable, but the most important component was the debriefs. Sometimes I would be asked how I reacted and what happened, only to learn that in the heat of the moment, I didn’t accurately recall it.
Emotions can run high when you’re working with a 2,000-pound animal that towers over you, especially if you’re establishing your place in the herd.
The experiences taught me a lot about myself. I learned to rein in my energy. I learned a lot about non-verbal communication. Talking to the horses is useless.
Yet somehow, it’s possible to get them to do your bidding. I learned how to lead from alongside vs. in front, or from behind.
As the primary rainmaker in business, I always had a tangible role. As a strategist, it’s more intangible. The skills and techniques learned from the herd have helped make me who I am today. ●
Steve Peplin is CEO of Talan Products