Horses Help us Turn Diversity into Wholeness

Last month, I facilitated a horse-assisted leadership development workshop in France. The journey from diversity to wholeness that I witnessed that day inspired me… here’s what happened.

The idea of ‘wholeness’ in this article refers to the state of forming a complete and harmonious whole; of unity.

Here’s some background: Last month, I had the privilege of facilitating a horse-assisted leadership development workshop in France, together with my colleague Stephane Wattinne from Equilibre coaching. The journey from diversity to wholeness that I witnessed that day inspired me. And so I asked one of the participants, Pascale Thorre if she would like to contribute to my next blog. I am thrilled she accepted because she leads diversity and inclusion at NOKIA. Pascale will provide a glimpse of the “Inside experience” throughout each of the sections of this blog. 

The participants were a delightfully diverse mix of women from different companies. Some leading talent, leadership development, diversity and inclusion and compensation and benefits at their companies. Others from top-notch human capital consultancies. They were also from various cultural backgrounds – French, American, Greek, Polish and Algerian. 

They all had one thing in common. They came with a passion for human development, and an openness and curiosity to learn what horses can teach us.

The four horses we were working with by chance happened to represent a similar range of diversity: different ages, breeds, sizes, colours and of course – temperaments! The workshop began with a warm, friendly round of sharing why each of us came to the workshop that day. After a quick review of some safety rules around horses and essential setting of intentions, we started moving to the arena to spend the rest of the time working with the horses. However, just as the weather was forecasted, it started pouring down on us. This did not deter anybody, and soon we were all in the arena with four beautiful horses -- Samba, Toscane, Alteau and Spidal -- ready to learn what they were about to teach us that day.

Image Courtesy- Stuart Bishop-Shutterstock

Lesson # 1: Becoming fully present, together, connects diverse individuals at an energetic level

Given the dramatic rainstorm outside, the horses were agitated when they entered the arena. As we stood around in a circle of humans and horses, they were moving about, uneasy about being in an enclosed space with people they did not know and therefore did not trust. This unease was complemented by us humans, as we also had very different levels of comfort being around horses. Some had not been in such close proximity to a horse before, So it was natural for there to be some levels of anxiousness and movement.

The first exercise was about meeting the horses and ‘becoming present’, using our breath and guiding our attention to our present selves – body, energy, feelings and sensations. As we became increasingly present to ourselves in a non-judging way, the movement in the arena reduced -- both that of the humans and the horses. As the group began to notice their breath, their body, and their energy together, the four horses began to stand still - one by one.

By the end of the exercise, there was a sense of stillness in the arena. In the participants’ words, the moment felt “Grounded, Connectedness (‘complicité’ in French), Peace and Presence”. As the group trustfully began expressing deepest and most authentic feelings of the moment, we noticed that the horses began to droop their heads, stand still, ease their ears and start to lick, chew and yawn – all signs of horses releasing tension and starting to ‘feel safe’. Horses only feel safe when the humans around them feel safe, connected and harmonious. 

Inside Perspective by Pascale Thorre:

“The horse I paired up with was calm and reflective, requiring inner peace as a prerequisite to connecting… the power of this quiet introvert! For the strong extravert as I am, the horse acted as an accelerator of my understanding about the best way to interact with him/other introverts: start by observing to get come cues on the person’s needs, then continue by connecting using a style, an energy integrating the other person’s needs.”

- Pascale Thorre breathing with Alteau

The diversity of emotions in the room had been transformed into something bigger and connected at the group level. We were now ready to move into some deeper learning with the horses.

Lesson # 2: In a diverse group of people, there is no ‘right way’ or ‘wrong way’. There are only different truths that belong to different people and they are all ‘Good’.

The second exercise was done in pairs. Each pair had to lead one horse along a journey chalked out for them. They had to start the journey with one of the pair leading the horse with the other giving feedback and then change the order midway. The group of people not doing the exercise in that turn but ‘observing’, then had to feedback what they noticed of the groups.

What was noticed was magical.

Whilst each of the pairs eventually completed the exercise, each of them had a different experience with the exact same journey. The differentiator was their leadership style.

Each participant led the horse in a different style that worked for them. For some, it was important to feel a close connection to the horse so much so that they barely had a few inches of distance between them and the horse. For others, they left a long rope, look forward with confidence as they took their steps

At the end, what mattered was that each one successfully led their horse in their style, openly embraced the different style of their partner, without telling each other what to do. Each participant not only got a reflection of their personal leadership style, but they also got to witness what it would be like to do the same thing differently. People inspired each other as they watched how to do it differently from themselves, and in partnership with those who adopt a different style to them

Inside Perspective by Pascale Thorre:

“My way is using an alignment of mind, heart and body towards one intention: the leadership journey. This includes motivating the horse to follow by constantly speaking to him while inviting my pair colleague to support the action. ”

What if we stopped thinking of ‘the right way’ or ‘the wrong way’ of doing things, and embraced each others’ unique ways? What if we encourage each other’s strengths and trust that we would all achieve the common purpose In a way where we learn new ways of doing and being?

Horses teach us that intention matters most.

Lesson # 3: Diverse thinking can break barriers and open up blockages just when we think it is impossible.

The last exercise required the entire group of six participants to lead the horse through an obstacle course to end at a ‘goal’. They had to do this without touching the lead rope (the rope connected to the horses’ halter) or the horse. It required them to be harmonious and move in the same direction – embodying the energy of the herd.

The group picked a horse called Samba to work with. A gorgeous white mare, with a very curious personality. They began the task after a little discussion, and they succeeded right away – a testimony to the harmony and alignment they had already created amongst themselves about their roles and positions. Having completed the challenge at level 1 so quickly, they moved to the next level. They had to repeat the exercise, but this time they had to remove the headcollar from the horse, giving the horse a sense of complete ‘liberty’. A horse that has the headcollar on them, even if they are not being led by a rope attached to it, still feels the headcollar as a form of ‘physical human leadership’. This causes the horse to ‘follow’ a bit more easily than if the horse has absolutely no headcollar on them. A horse at complete liberty will only go along with a group if's/he ‘feels’ a connected energy of the entire group. This connectedness replaces the physical lead rope and requires full trust and interest from the horse to follow.

They started off very well, picking up speed. Then, as they approach the second turn in the course – a sharp turn to the left - the horse began to walk away from the group and start fiddling with the ropes nearby. This threw the group off. Samba walked away from them. They did not seem to like that feedback. Then, as we do, they began to discuss various ways of getting the horse to move in the direction they wanted. Each person felt that they knew what was wrong. And each of them had different, perhaps colliding ideas. So each of them tried to ‘fix’ the problem, it did not seem to work. They began getting quite agitated and impatient with each other. At one point they even started considering the option to ‘change the goalpost’ and end where they were.

Then at one point, one of the coaches suggested that if they had opened one door where they did not find the answer, they could close it together and open a new one again. This seemed to shift their perspective. They all decided to notice the feedback that the horse was giving them. They first noticed that Samba was a curious horse. They spoke about the distractions she was being drawn to. At which point, one of the group leaders decided to engage the horse’s curiosity with the book in her hand. The horse responded. Immediately the rest of the group picked up their energy towards a much more connected effort. There was not much discussion. There was a sense of "flowing together".

What followed was a fun and engaging exercise where they were all moving forward like a synchronised herd, guided by a book in the hand of the one who was leading from the front – the horse’s nose not very far behind! They completed the exercise with a lot of laughter and joy. A sense of joined success.

Inside Perspective by Pascale Thorre:

“What a delightful experience to revisit different leadership styles in this third exercise:

- Collaboration with the team, where each had her own space to express what she wanted to do, the role she wanted to take.

- Engagement to the team by moving along the horse to find the spot where one is most useful to the team’s overarching action.

- Motivation of the horse to choose to be part of our collective walk.”

Then, something beautiful happened. Just as they started walking away from the goalpost after completing the final exercise for the day, Samba - who was at complete liberty to go wherever she pleased at that moment - chose to start walking back with them. This time, no book.

What a feedback to the group at the end of the day! They had achieved harmony and wholeness.

I would like to thank Carola Euziere and Haras Des Vignes for allowing us to work with four of their most amazing horses!

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.