Effective managers rely on nonverbal skills just as much as verbal communication.
Leadership with Horses is a class that hones our most primitive leadership abilities.

It’s a clear, crisp fall day in the Pacific Northwest and you’re at Epona Meadows in Woodinville, standing in an outdoor arena with nine of your coworkers. As a team, you must lead two horses and a donkey — each about 1,000 pounds — in unison around the arena without talking or using lead ropes, halters, or bridles. Your only tools are your mind, heart, and body. How do you and your team get the animals to complete the task? More importantly, what can you learn from this experience?

Corporate teams are asked to perform activities such as this in the Leadership with Horses program offered by Roam Consulting. According to Amanda Madorno, who runs the program, people learn a great deal from their equine brethren through the experiential lessons.

Leadership with Horses program director Amanda Madorno. Photo courtesy Ellen Felsenthal.

Leadership with Horses program director Amanda Madorno. Photo courtesy Ellen Felsenthal.

“You can learn more in a day with horses than you can in six months of leadership training (elsewhere). The kinesthetic experience is so powerful,” Madorno says.

A lifelong horse lover, Madorno designed the program in 2005 to complement other coaching and leadership programs she offered to businesses around the world. The course aims to help teams build trust and develop emotional intelligence, leadership credibility, and personal presence. The training takes place over a half-day or a series of days in the spring, summer, or fall. Leaders and their teams work with horses to achieve specific goals such as trotting without a halter and bridle, navigating an obstacle course, and completing a relay.

The course hinges on the idea that horses read our nonverbal cues and innately know when our intent is aligned with  our mind, heart, and body — horse sense, in other words. Thus, participants can better understand how they are perceived by gauging a horse’s reaction to them.

“Leaders and teams are interacting with other sentient beings with no political agenda. There are no politics of power, position, salary, or prior relationship,” Madorno says. “The horses respond incredibly authentically based on the way that you show up.”

Class participants are first paired with a specific horse or donkey for simple one-on-one activities such as walking in unison. Based on what they sense of an individual’s intention and comfort level, the animals will cooperate, stand still, or wander off. Assertive leaders, for example, may come across too strong and need to soften their eyes and relax their posture to connect with a horse. More timid leaders may need to walk more confidently and intentionally to show the animals they are comfortable in their role. As leaders build competency, additional activities are added to the mix to help them improve problem solving and creativity.

“You can’t execute strategy without connectivity and relationships. A competent, emotionally intelligent leader knows how to translate good people skills into relationship management skills,” says Madorno. “We don’t talk about these things enough. Horses bring forth these things in a tangible way because they are emotional intelligence masters,” she says.

Available to both individuals and teams, the Leadership with Horses program is primarily utilized by C-suite leaders who understand the value of personal development and experiential learning. To date, about 1,000 people have participated in the program, including leaders from Microsoft and PepsiCo.

Cindy Jacobs, the executive vice president and chief medical officer of OncoGenex in Bothell, attended several of Madorno’s leadership and consulting programs in early 2014. Jacobs, who is a horse owner, loved the program. “You can’t hide anything from a horse,” she says.

LeadershipWithHorsesTopTakeawaysOne task Jacobs’ group had was to describe the horses in detail as they were grazing.Jacobs says it was interesting
to see how everyone observed the horses differently, which highlighted their unique points of view. During the training, Jacobs also learned that she needed to carry herself differently to better communicate with the horses. Madorno suggested she relax more, loosen her shoulders, and soften her approach.

“It was really clear I had to back off,” Jacobs says. “Your body position, presence, and body gestures really impact the horses more than people realize.”

Jacobs recommends the program for other leaders, particularly those who need to be more self-aware or confident. Madorno says no prior experience with horses is required, and even those uncomfortable around horses usually adapt and become comfortable by the end of the course. Horseback riding is typically not part of the program, though each session is tailored to a particular company’s needs.

“People walk away with a satisfactory experience,” Madorno says. “I tell companies to get their people here. The horses will take care of the rest.”