executives, about their work style. That means there isn't much you can hide. Not able to easily coax the horse in the direction you want her to go—even when co-workers try to help? That's no coincidence, Romberg and Baskfield say. Chances are, there's something lacking in your communication skills that's also adversely impacting your relationship with workplace peers, those you manage, and maybe even your customers.
With much to learn, I headed to Hudson, WI, approximately an hour from Minneapolis, in August, to meet the horses. I'd spend the morning observing Talon Performance Group, a recruitment firm serving the legal industry, and the afternoon of the same day getting equine guided/dissected myself.
Arriving the night before, I was given a glimpse at dinner of what I would experience the next day. My dining companions were Romberg; Baskfield; Sue Wahl, owner of the farm the program is held at and the Hawk's Ridge Retreat Center house I was staying in; and three Wisdom Horse train-the-trainer students learning how to become equine-guided learning facilitators themselves. It didn't take long before our conversation over salads turned to the horses I would be spending the next day with. The horses, explained my guides, reflect the energy of the people interacting with them. Sure, they'll be tense if you're tense and relaxed if you're relaxed, but it's much more than that. When learners in the Wisdom Horses program are on the verge of an epiphany—some big truth about themselves or their company—the horse they are working with often will stick out his tongue and move his jaw around. Sometimes the horse will even start coughing. Once the realization is spoken, the horse's ability to reflect energy sometimes takes an unceremonious turn—he liquefies his assets, you might say—or to put it plainly, lets out a stream of urine. You're releasing something, so he decided to do so, too.
The uncanny ability of horses to read energy, and respond to it, is something corporate employees—and bosses—could learn a thing or two from, said Baskfield. "So much communication is beyond language. Few of us learn how our energy expands and contracts, and how we do it," she said. "Horses are fabulous trainers for teaching us this invisible thing is real."
The next morning, Baskfield, Romberg, three train-the-trainer learners, and I arrived at the farm at 8 a.m. As an ardent animal lover, I wanted face time with the horses, so, naturally, I didn't demur when Romberg and Baskfield asked if I'd like to go into the pasture with them to get the horses. Baskfield asked us to keep in mind that we're going into their herd and we're a herd ourselves, meaning we're visitors in their home. Therefore, we would wait for them to come to us rather than the other way around. When we got within 50 feet, a black male horse named Cole trotted up to us of his own accord, with a brown horse with a black mane (known as a "bay") named Dan, and another black-and-white female, Tula, following not far behind. A large white male, Gyp, also decided to join us. As we walked the horses into the center of the arena to wait for the Talon group, a train-the-trainer apprentice warned me to stay clear of the horse's blind spots, yet another useful metaphor for dealing with co-workers and bosses in the corporate world, I thought to myself.
When Talon arrived, consisting of seven employees including both the CEO and president, Baskfield and Romberg asked them to assemble in a circle to share "what kind of horse you are today." "A young, playful, inquisitive horse," one Talon employee shared. Another described himself as "a curious horse today, listening, observing, and trying." The CEO said she was "chestnut-coated and sleek, moving kind of at the head of my group." Another saw himself as "a trail-riding horse, following the leader."
After a safety demonstration with Dan, the bay horse, Romberg and Baskfield noted some initial parallels between communicating non-verbally with horses and with corporate employees. They explained how to get a horse moving without ever touching him or her—oddly enough, the same kind of coaxing a workforce and customers sometimes require. "When clients want to leave, you have to get in front of them, or get behind them and push them forward," Romberg pointed out. Baskfield built on that metaphor: "Sometimes at work, even if you have buy-in, you need to propel people who are dragging their feet," she said, clapping her hands behind Dan, which spurred him to start walking ahead. "It makes you aware of how to get yourself and others going."
While your employees generally understand the spoken word, that doesn't mean they're listening, according to Romberg and Baskfield. Communication research has shown, said Romberg, that more than 85 percent of communication is non-verbal, and stems from "the body language, energy, and authenticity we put out." For more meaningful interactions with employees and co-workers, said Romberg, "trust the energy you get from others."
But to be receptive to receiving that "energy," Romberg and Baskfield said you first have to be grounded in yourself, or, in other words, have a feeling of being centered and focused. So they started the day's activities by leading Talon in yoga exercises, asking the learners to raise their arms up high above their heads and then drop them down below their knees several times. "Do you notice how you feel your feet a little more?" Romberg asked.
Romberg and Baskfield then told the Talon group to assemble around the horse they felt most drawn to. The largest group congregated around Cole, the same horse who enthusiastically approached us in the pasture earlier that morning. "He seemed feisty," a Talon career counselor noted. Meanwhile, one of his co-workers, a young woman who is a recruiter, said she wasn't drawn to any horse in particular because "all horses are the same to me." These reactions are instructive, said Romberg and Baskfield, as the traits the employees say drew them to certain horses, and their attitude toward those horses, says a lot about their reaction and attitude toward co-workers and customers.
With the learners assembled around Cole, Tula, and Dan, Baskfield kicked off the first formal training activity of the day: Each participant used props such as orange traffic cones, shovels, work gloves, and buckets to create representations of their respective job roles. One mid-level staffer got down on her haunches, took a long-handled shovel, twisted it around, and balanced it a few inches off the ground, spinning it like an axis around her body so it pointed at each of her co-workers. The career counselor who was drawn to Cole because of his "feistiness" revisited that sentiment with his display, an orange cone with a shovel stuck on top. Why the orange cone? Romberg and Baskfield asked. The orange cone was a "tad feisty," while the shovel symbolized digging "below the surface" of workers he coaches. The young recruiter ambivalent about horses chose a horse halter signifying her search for job candidates possessing "unbridled passion." She also included a rope in her display, "to lasso candidates to save them from being under-employed."
The CEO chose a dirtied pair of work shoes leaning against a rock. The shoes represented footsteps to follow behind, while the rock provided a "skid-free anchor" to support those following footsteps. The president favored a riding crop balanced upright with a rope attached to it, marking his need to provide the Talon workforce with "gentle prodding." The office coordinator decided her role was best represented with a small decorative basket set atop a stool, which she said highlighted her "support" function in which the support is more than just functional—it creates a more pleasant work environment.
Romberg's and Baskfield's next assignment was for each Talon learner to take a turn leading a horse of their choosing around each of the displays. "It was hard getting Dan to go where I wanted him to go," the office coordinator noted after her turn. "I had to let him set the stage." Romberg and Baskfield asked whether that bothered her. She said it didn't matter if she wasn't the one determining the path because she "got where she needed to go," a parallel to how she operates in her job, just going with the flow and deviating when necessary.
Bridle in hand, the young recruiter immediately set the bay horse, Dan, at a trot, running with him around the displays. Romberg was curious about her approach. "You didn't stop, and you didn't let the horse stop," she noted. The recruiter pointed out in her job she has to pick up her feet. "I can't do career transitions if I'm not high energy." Her colleagues agreed there are parallels between her interaction with the horse and the displays and her personality at work. "You're fast-paced and do whatever it takes to get the job done," one of them said of her style.
The CEO chose Tula as her horse partner and allowed her to pause whenever Tula saw fit—which happened to be, for a minute or two, at the upright riding crop display assembled by Talon's president. When Tula and the CEO returned to where the exercise began, where her workforce waited, the horse placed her nose on the foot of the president and then laid her head on his left shoulder. Evidently, Romberg and Baskfield, surmised, the horse picked up on strong energy between the two of them. I later learned the CEO and president are husband and wife.
The purpose of Talon's next exercise, "Equine Billiards," was to discover ways to get the attention of new, possibly resistant clients, and push them toward the desired market direction or "slot." The object was to get the three participating horses (symbolizing customers), Tula, Dan, and Cole, into three large rectangular "slots" in the arena marked off with PVC pipes. "No bribing or touching the horse," Romberg said, "and only the person who's turn it is can talk." Employees had to stand in a lateral line between two cones and remain in that configuration. The person at the head of the line had 45 seconds to take a turn at persuading the horse into one of the slots. When the turn was over, the person went to the end of the line and the front person went out to work with the horse. One hour was allotted for the exercise, so participants had several turns. After noting the "rules" of the exercise, Talon was asked to come up with a consequence if they broke a rule. Talon decided on push-ups as the consequence they would share as a group for rule breakage.
As the game began, none of the Talon team made much progress. To make matters worse, they accidentally broke the rules when one of the team clapped and shouted as the president tried to coax Cole into one of the slots. Showing a creative streak, the team headed to the arena's perimeter to lean up against the wall for baby "push-ups."
After going back to the "consequence wall" a second time, the Talon gang finally hit upon an idea: If a co-worker got a horse halfway to a slot, the next in line would run to meet that worker and his or her horse, instead of starting from scratch. Then one of the Talon employees had the idea to ask the person at each end of the line to pick up the cones so the line could move throughout the arena freely and still stay between the cones. Talon banded together—literally—arm in arm in a phalanx to persuade the horse into place. "That was hard," one participant exclaimed. "That's going to market," Baskfield responded.
The parallels between Equine Billiards and customer or client interactions were explored further during the exercise debrief, when Baskfield pointed out the progress Talon made when they worked together—especially when they communicated between turns to get behind one another's horse so the horse had a Talon teammate both in front and behind leading him into the slot. In your work life, Baskfield asked, are you ever "afraid to ask some one else to stand behind you?" Just as the horses in the arena were drawn to different workers, so, too, can clients be moved to action by one employee more so than another. So, a key to effective teamwork, said Baskfield, "is knowing when to hand off."
At the end of the day, the Talon CEO said the Wisdom Horse lessons taught her the importance of "recognizing and supporting the leadership and ideas of people who aren't necessarily leaders by job title. There are more leaders than I thought at my company—I saw leadership in all of us."
For the extended version of this article, plus Margery Weinstein's account of her private Wisdom Horse session, visit www.trainingmag.com/....