Blind Leading the Blind: Leadership Skills from a Horse

September 9, 2009

I can’t emphasize more how amazing it has been to be a part of these Equine Sessions with this group of young guys for the past month! It is truly amazing to see the lessons that can be learned during these horse lead exercises. Yesterday was no different! During the session I had way too many thoughts and revelations to share, so I am going to try and sum up some of my main ideas. But this is going to be a long one!

Before we arrived the facilitators set up three identical obstacle courses, running parallel down the main part of the arena. As soon as we arrived and the guys saw this, they could tell they were in for a challenging session. They were split up into pairs and then given instructions: one person would be blind folded and was in charge of leading the horse through the obstacle course by its bridle, the other person of the pair, not blind folded, was responsible to lead the blind folded person through the obstacle course. The non-blind folded person was not allowed to touch the blind folded person or the horse; he had to merely given verbal instructions, or any other creative form of communication without physical contact with the blind person or the horse.

So, even if the horse was freaking out and pulling the poor blind folded person off the course, the leader was only allowed to give verbal instructions. The guys stepped right up to the challenge and were seriously engaged form the beginning. I began seeing different metaphors in the different aspects and learnings of the exercise. I saw:

The obstacle course as Life itself.

The blind folded person as an Individual just going through life.

The horse as Life’s Events.

And the person leading as Leadership and authority figures in our life.

It is actually incredible to be aware of these factors and see how they impact one another. For instance…

The Individual may feel that they have studied Life closely and know it, but while walking through it, Life’s Events can come and cause a disturbance, distracting, disorienting and causing chaos for the Individual.

If the Individual does not trust Leadership there are negative ramifications, whilst if the Leadership is insecure, or a bad communicator, the Individual going through Life is more vulnerable and in danger to Life’s Events.

To complicate matters, Life’s Events are totally out of the Individual and the Leadership’s control. Sometimes Life’s Events are wild, unruly, nibble at the Individual, and end up dragging the Individual through Life, banging him into the different obstacles, whilst sometimes Life’s Events are calm and manageable. For an onlooker it is obvious to see who is being dragged along by Life’s Events and who has control over them.

Observing these exercises and also knowing the participants well is also amazing because their strengths and weaknesses become so clear in the arena. For example,

The one young man, who is very strong willed and has control issues, was interesting to watch as Leadership and as the Individual. When he was the Individual he was also was “lucky enough” to get challenging Life Events (the large, unruly white horse), which made it even more difficult for him to trust Leadership. The Individual took off his blind fold at least six times during the course of Life. He was scared of Life’s Events but instead of listening to and trusting Leadership, he removed his blind fold for full control. But then when he switched to being Leadership, when the Individual was perceived to not be listening properly, or Life’s Events began to get challenging he would break the rules and grab hold of the Individual or Life’s Events, trying to physically manipulate them.

Or another young man, who has serious trust issues, sped through Life with his partner with no real problems when he was the Individual. In the feedback time when he was asked how they did it so quickly, his answer reflected his reliance on self and not on Leadership. The Individual said he had studied Life and had every obstacle pictured in his mind. He made sure he had control over Life’s Events and even though he was blind to what was to come, he trusted his imagination of what he had already studied of Life to successfully get him through. He said it’s all about studying it and knowing what is to come and mathematics. When asked what he would do in a situation where he was completely blind to Life, not having been able to get a glimpse of what is to come, he paused and hesitantly responded, “I guess I would have to trust the leader?”

Or the other pair, with one older, more secure individual, and a younger, more insecure individual. Funny enough, when the younger guy was the Individual and the older was Leadership, even though Leadership’s communication was not clear at all times, there was an obvious bond and complete trust from the Individual, and this got them successfully through Life with no hassles. But when the younger guy was Leadership, with not much experience in being authority, he apprehensively led the Individual, not giving clear directions, and appearing obviously worried and frazzled at times. At one point Life’s Events pulled the Individual off the path of Life and Leadership was in way over his head. He could not muster up the words to even help the Individual. Life’s Events ended up pulling the Individual very far off the path and knocked him into a pole.

This pair was later given a second chance to be in the same position. I think about times when I have put my trust in leadership and have been hurt by them. I am not quick to trust again. I also think of times when I have been in leadership and, do to things which were out of my hands, people that I was responsible for got hurt. It is equally not easy to want to step back up in leadership again. Sometimes life’s events just happen and we are not equipped to deal with them as leaders or followers. When the pair got a second chance they truly amazed me. The Individual put his trust back in Leadership and did not hold back. Leadership, even though he was inexperienced and had made a serious blunder which allowed the Individual to get injured, focused and stepped up to the challenge. The second time around they succeeded.

That exercise taught me a lot about what it takes to be a good leader but also what it takes to be a good follower. There has to be a certain amount of trust in authority, but authority has to have the best interests of the individuals in mind. Life’s events happen and are spontaneous, but it is possible to deal with them in a way in which we have control. I saw that in action when one of the guys got the white horse (who everyone had been struggling with) and he calmly, confidently, took control even though he was blind to the obstacles of Life and was being lead himself. Are we in control of life’s events or do they just drag us through life as victims of the circumstances. How trusting are we of those that are in authority over us? How trustworthy are we as leaders?

It was a powerfully revealing session for me!


Lessons from a Rabid, Hyperactive, Mystical Horse

August 29, 2009

Yesterday when we showed up to the Equine Session we were greeted by a mammoth, dark brown horse, stomping, snorting, jolting, and galloping up and down the fence line, head erect and tail sticking straight up in the air. As we stepped into the arena this horse, who I will call Free Will, made his presence known. He clomped, and snorted, raced loudly past the group, jumped into the air, dug in the sand with his giant hoof, shook his head dramatically making a growling-type noise, and at one point, he even laid on the ground and rolled around in the sand like a dog trying to scratch its back.

This mystifying creature that towered over us reminded me of a cross between a hyperactive kid, a rabid dog, a wild stallion, and a playful dragon. Needless to say the guys were a bit intimidated by Free Will. The other horse in the arena, fairly unnoticed was a short, stubby looking light brown Palomino, unassuming, not calling attention to itself, calm, and just chilling in one place. The guys were asked about why they felt Free Will was acting the way he was. Some thought he was angry, others thought he was happy. Some thought he was showing off, others thought he was just curious about a new surrounding. Some felt he didn’t want to be there, others felt he felt free there. They all mutually felt that working with, and most definitely conquering, Free Will would be a challenge bordering impossible. And they were intimidated and terrified of him.

The facilitator gave them their challenge of the day. There was an obstacle, two poles (approximately ten meters in length) crossing each other and propped up (standing about two feet high) by buckets, right smack dab in the middle of the field. The guys were asked to, decide as a group, and name that obstacle as an obstacle that they regularly come across in day-to-day life. Then, as a group, they must try and get one of the horses to jump over the obstacle, conquering it. The guys named the obstacle “temptation”; resembling different things for different guys. They were told they could start with either horse.

They chose snorting, stomping, racing, Free Will and fearfully yet confidently went straight for him.

Free Will

At first they did not really work as a group very well. Free Will teased them, running all the way to one side of the field and waiting until they got there, then running to the other side, whinnying what I am sure was a horse laugh. The sensitive animal also picked up on their nervousness of him, which made him even more high strung than he already seemed. Eventually, the guys adjusted their strategy, became calmer, worked as a group and managed to contain Free Will in a specific area of the arena, not far from Temptation. This was the interesting point.

Free Will completely calmed down and began to eat grass. He was no longer stomping and snorting and running, but he also was not budging. They had Free Will restricted to a certain area but not controlled, and they could not get him to move. Free Will was happy exactly where he was. He lacked motivation and was content with his grass. They guys were patient, and for the next hour they kept Free Will contained, but could not get him to move towards the obstacle. Early on, three of the youngest guys became frustrated with the task, and maybe also bored. At first they goofed off, pushed each other in the direction of the big scary horse, laughed, made jokes, tickled Free Will on his belly with grass, and were generally disruptive towards the goal of getting Free Will to jump over the obstacle of Temptation. The other group members became frustrated with them. The youngsters didn’t care. After a while they gave up and went over to sit on the fence.

Then I watched as the remaining group members, totally absorbed in their task, tried to get Free Will to move. They were determined to get Free Will to overcome Temptation and it seemed that they forgot another world existed around them; some of these guys I know have overcame enormous temptation in their own lives, and some I know are still struggling with huge temptations on a daily basis. Those guys saw the depth in the challenge, and it meant more to them than getting a big horse to go over some stupid poles. It was more than an exercise, this was their life. 

I thought about the three youngsters sitting over on the fence, whose group involvement had actually been counter effective. All three are around the age of 16, and have maybe not been burned by the temptations of life the way the other older group members have. I actually know for a fact they haven’t. Even with the temptations they do face daily, the youngsters are still in that flirty phase, where they are not so sure they don’t want it in their lives. They did not seem to care much about getting Free Will to overcome Temptation, and actually ended up being a distraction for the others that did. The others, they remained focused and unwavering. They tirelessly tried, but in the end time ran out and they never got Free Will to jump over Temptation.

They were disappointed in the end. In feedback they mourned that they had not accomplished the task, getting Free Will to overcome Temptation. The facilitator disagreed. She first of all noted that they had taken a huge challenge in the first place, choosing Free Will and not the docile palomino. Then she explained that Free Will was a race horse, and a champion at that, and he is not easy to work with. She said that merely getting him contained like they did was a huge victory, because a group of addicts she had worked with in a previous group had not even been able to get the snorting, stomping, running Free Will contained. For the addicts, Free Will ran from them, pushed them, intimidated them, and controlled them. So the group being able to simply contain Free Will, and calm him down, was an enormous success. I saw the guys’ chests begin to swell back up a bit from their deflated stature.

My thoughts and reflections from watching the group of young men trying to get Free Will to jump over that Temptation are endless; some of their actions impressing, some insulting. But I can’t help but see the great semblance between this exercise with a horse, and the challenges I see the guys face in life, as I watch them trying to get their snorting, stomping, racing free wills contained, but then not stopping there and getting their free wills to overcome the obstacles and temptations of their lives. It’s a painful privilege to be a part of.


Scary Horse

August 25, 2009

I realised something pretty powerful and maybe very obvious today, through some young men and a couple of horses. Yep. You heard me. Young men and horses.

I am privileged enough to get to attend Equine Assisted Therapy and Life Skills with some young dudes I am friends with. I know that is a mouthful, and the word “equine” makes me feel funny for some reason. I dont’ like to say it. And the word therapy can also be scary for us guys.  But man! Don’t let those words put you off because this is one powerful thing to take part in!

For those of you that don’t know, Equine Therapy is basically therapy using horses. So the people taking part interact with the horses and the horses, being the incredible creatures they are, do all the work, allowing the human facilitators to merely observe and feedback what is happening in the arena.

The horses are incredibly sensitive and intelligent animals. They pick up on every little feeling, attitude and motive the participants have. And they simply reflect that back through their behaviour. For example, last week when we showed up to the first session, all the guys (15 in total) were a bit nervous, and the horse stood straight up, body completely erect, in front of the group, wide eyed, ears sticking straight up, looking something like a horse crack addict.

The other amazing thing that happens during the group sessions is to see how the participants work with and behave with one another, and the horse, as they try and carry out the tasks they are given. Tasks like, “get that enormous, stubborn horse that stomps and bites, to walk through those two poles…without touching the horse! Yeah! Pretty difficult. But it can be done! How the participants approach the task, and deal with the fellow participants, is also a mirror image of how they interact with the world, and others they regularly come into contact with. And all of this is debriefed and talked about throughout the session, and in the end. Very enlightening! 

I hope I am not boring you, but I assure you words can do it no justice! You have to see it and experience it for yourself. But until then, back to my point: the powerful, yet maybe obvious thing I learned today.

The young men were given the very task I mentioned before, to get the horse to walk in between two poles, without touching it. They were given no advice, no help, and just told to work as a group. At first it was an unorganized chaos. They were all just doing their own thing, making noise, throwing grass, going in their own directions, and they made no grounds with the horse.

But then they regrouped, and made a plan. They assigned a leader. They spoke about how calmer body language would help and also agreed not to make loud noise. They said they must trust each other and they must not be scared of the horse, or at least try not to show it, and in the case that they feel scared, take a step back and allow the braver ones to be in front. They had a plan.

They went back out to conquer the horse with this new strategy. They made a little ground but were still struggling, but this time, they communicated properly, and changed their strategies as they went. They spontaneously decided to all hold hands and surround the horse and walk it into the poles. And after a few minutes, that is exactly what they did.

During the feedback session one of the guys was talking about how he felt vulnerable and scared because some of the group members would teasingly hold his hand and pull him closer to the horses backside, a known dangerous area of a horse. The young man perceptively pointed out that the guys who acted like that, goofing off yet putting others in danger, were actually just scared, and that is why they acted like that. They were scared of the horse, scared of the task, and so they just messed around. Man!

How many young people have I seen do the same in life?! They have all the potential in the world, but do things that look like self sabotage, through negative behaviour patterns. But what a realization to think that negative behavior actually stems out of a fear. A fear they won’t succeed. A fear they will never reach their goal. A fear that the goal is way to high, or far, or big to achieve. A fear that they do not even have a goal.

I know I have done the same thing at certain points in my life. And I know manypeople that have, and still do it as well. But how wonderful is it, when we are in a place of fear, to know that the person beside us is there to hold our hand in support, and not to pull us closer to danger. We have no control over the guy whose hand we are holding, but we have control over our self. Maybe we can’t change the behavior of the person holding our hand, but we can be the supporting hand that he or she may need. Because he or she is probably just scared.