Horses Create 'Ubuntu' Teams

Horse Assisted Education can be an effective educational approach for complex learning and development requirements. Here’s my experience of how horses help create ‘ubuntu’ teams!

Ubuntu is an ancient African word in Xhosa that literally means: "I am what I am because of who we all are.'

It was one of Nelson Mandela's favourite words (and now mine). Today, it is a philosophy that lies at the heart of how many humanist tribes thrive in joy and happiness when they have so little materialistically. It gives them what they need to be happy teams – joint purpose, the knowledge they are safe with (and because of) one another, love and belonging, and a sense of higher self. When a leader can create a similar sense of Ubuntu in the organisation, people will take care of each other, bring out the best in each other and find their own best selves through the larger purpose of the organisation. It's too late at night to search for empirical evidence, but my gut tells me that an 'Ubuntu' culture will always help a business outperform itself sustainably.

I had an inspiring conversation today with somebody who leads the coaching practise at a renowned consultancy. He asked me a variation of the most common question I get these days. He asked me, “How can a horse be a coach?!”

Our conversation left me thinking about Horses, Teams and Ubuntu on the train journey back. Thank you to the person for asking me the question and inspiring today’s piece! 

The short answer to that question is that horses seem to be born with 'natural coaching-behaviours'. They give immediate feedback, in a non-aggressive, non-judgemental way yet touching us deeply and helping us see the truth. They then give us the space to reflect: and when we have owned an insight we just became aware of with the earlier feedback, they give us immediate acknowledgement and praise. They can coach us within minutes! It is one of the biggest reasons why horses provide leading-edge “team building experiences” that most interventions I have experienced and used either don’t do 'impactfully' enough or take long to do or by the time they do it the business has changed and opportunity is gone past.

(Image Courtesy- ilknur sen-Shutterstock)

In October 2017, I was facilitating a team workshop for the sales team of a leading software company.

The goal was for a team of 8 people to take a horse from Point A to Point B through a course laid out in the arena by learning how to use as many non-verbal communication cues as possible. They were given planning time before they began the course with the horse. I also explained a model of the leadership positions that collectively exist in a herd to lead themselves to a destination, all taking the same direction and collectively maintaining the necessary pace in the given moment whilst on their journey. For tens of millions of years, they have had to move hundreds of miles together to find food and not become food themselves on the way. Time and the need to survive on a predator-filled earth has made them masters of teaming through nonverbal communication and a lot of other amazing things we can learn.

That day, the team had to use the non-verbal communication skills and collective leadership model of the herd to take a horse on a short journey from one point to another,

We were working with two horses in that workshop: Oliver (Olly) and 'H'. And the team was free to choose who they wanted to work with. After taking a few moments to agree to work with Olly, and deciding on who takes which leadership position in the herd model, they connected with Olly and started moving him forward. They had only made a few paces before he stopped. The leader in the front, whose role was to lead the direction and pace, somehow ended up a good few metres in front of the horse and the rest of his herd. So he came back, and they started again. This time, they could not get Olly to move. They tried all antics (well, whatever they could apart from physical force, as we maintain high standards of safety both for participants and the horses) that raised the energy levels. Finally, Olly moved, but not with them. He gracefully turned his back around and headed towards the grass which he coolly began to graze on.

The team was stumped. Nothing about the leadership positions and model I had shared with them told them how to get a horse away from fresh green grass. Now what?!

What a gorgeous team coaching opportunity. It reminded me of those large sized complex projects and defining moments on those projects where teams would get “stuck” because they have lost the sense of the joint direction or pace. In such times, we find that individuals try to salvage whatever they can and do their best to move ‘their piece’ forward at least. Unfortunately, in the case of a horse, you cannot move it forward in pieces.

I decided to use this learning opportunity by asking them to shift their attention away from the horse and instead huddle together to debrief what had just happened and restart the planning. This time, they had the experience of trial and learning. I asked them to think about what their trial had taught them and to tell each other what they perceived might have been required from each other.

So they began telling each other what they thought each one could do differently.

As they started this sharing and feedback, one lady asked her colleague at the opposite end of the circle to speak louder as she could not hear him. I asked them if there was any reason they were standing so far apart. They smiled as they came closer. It was beautiful to watch. As they inched forward to tighten the circle, the lady mentioned and another couple of guys asked the rest to move even closer. It just needed somebody to say it, and everyone loosened up and took bigger more confident steps to form a circle that they were all happy with. Finally, you could see them conversing animatedly – shoulder to shoulder. Physically, mentally and emotionally connected – in a light yet genuine and honest way.  

In those few minutes, each one had received ideas on what he or she could do differently to play out their role successfully. More importantly, each one was open and curious about receiving this ‘help’ from the others. They smiled and jested together as they described some of those behaviour patterns as: “it is exactly what happens at work”. Everyone listened with humility and a sense of safety in the circle. It was beautiful to watch. Out there in the field, there were no titles, no hierarchies, no fear and no “serious or tough feedback”. That last piece was the horse’s job. And he had done it perfectly – as they always do!

And then the magic happened. My co-facilitator that day, Nancy Winton (Owner at Dance with Equus) and I noticed the two horses – Olly and H – had both walk up from different corners of the arena to the human circle that had been formed. They stood just on the outer rim, facing the inside as if they wanted to be a part of it. Have you ever experienced a moment where you had goosebumps because you have just witnessed something so powerful that you cannot explain scientifically but know deep down inside there is a big truth there? That was what happened to me and Nancy watching that moment. (The chance to witness precisely those learning moments is why I chose to do the work I do with horses and people.)

Coming back to that moment, the team stopped the discussion there and started to notice what had just happened. The next few moments of silence saw the circle expand, as the two horses took a few shy but curious steps forward to join it. It was the perfect moment for the team to accept the invitation of the horses to go play. The horses felt safe with what I think they had by now identified as a herd. The body language of the circle was congruent, clear, calm, non-aggressive, created safe energy and probably looked and felt like a herd. Horses being the social animals they are, given a choice, they always prefer to join the herd. When they ‘sense’ the energy and ‘see’ the behaviour of a herd, this choice becomes possible. What they don't know is that Humans Tribe, just like Horses Herd and Birds Flock. So if we look at it from their perspective, then those words just become a matter of semantics. 

It was fun to watch what happened next. Their original ‘plan’ had been to take Olly on the journey. But as 'life' is what happens when we are too busy planning, and they had started 'living' in the moment, they ended up taking both H and Olly on the journey! That's what the moment had presented to them. And they had received it gracefully. From the outside, it looked like harmony in nature.

They were all fully present, tuned in to each other, ‘listening’ to each other’s non-verbal cues and looked fully connected to each other’s needs from the group and themselves. Most importantly, they were having a lot of fun, fully engaged in play. We enjoyed watching them actively taking the guidance of each other through body language. It worked because each one was looking out to the rest who could ‘see’ much more of them in the herd dynamic, than what they were able to ‘see’ themselves.

In those 10 minutes or so, I had numerous flashes from various previous workshops on emotional intelligence, self-awareness, trust building in a team, healthy conflict, giving and receiving feedback and other team off-sites. So many conversations and whiteboard sessions had not achieved the magnitude of team learning that this team had received in less than an hour today.

My friend Lou Whiting (Founder/Director at Waves Training Solutions) sent me a white paper on emotional intelligence in which they have made a strong statement. I would like to share it with you and ask you to reflect, “Organizations of the future will no longer question whether there is value in providing Emotional Intelligence training for their leaders, they will focus on which EI program will provide the highest return on investment for their company.' 

I don’t claim (although I do believe from my personal experience) that Horse Assisted Education is the most effective educational approach today for complex learning and development requirements. But I do want the corporate world to know that it exists and is an accessible option they are not yet fully aware of, so they can make an informed choice. I feel frustrated that the dearth of awareness around such a powerful and accessible tool slows us down from creating that better humanity and corporate culture we envision for tomorrow. But that is a discussion for another time.

Going back to how it all ended that sunny day in October, as the team arrived at the end of their course with the two horses, there were beaming ear to ear smiles, watery eyes, massive “Thank You” hugs and scratches to the two coaches (Olly and H). I guess they were existing in a space of marvel that is far too big to be put into words. They bounced out of there in a happy silence and shared a sense of wonder. I felt blessed to have been a part of it.


Riddhima Kowley

Riddhima Kowley

Jeevoka member since Sep 2019

A trained HorseDream Licensed Partner and a member of the International Association of Horse Assisted Education – the largest worldwide community of horse assisted educators, I am Coach, Consultant and Facilitator at Nirsara. Born and brought up in Pune (India), I now live in London (UK). I left India to study abroad in 2002 and have ever since garnered a deep understanding of various cultures. This understanding, in combination with a strength-based approach anchored in positive psychology, has helped me create highly inclusive spaces for diverse individuals and teams across various sectors, especially corporate, to learn and develop.