The Power Of Horse Sense: Leadership Through Values

Interview with Beate Hausmann by Gudrun Porath

Arriving in Moisburg, a little village in Lower Saxony near Hamburg is like entering another world, light years away from the fast-paced, stressed out beat of business life. It’s all so peaceful and picture-postcard idyllic here that the old half-timbered farmers’ houses and the huge ancient red brick church seem preserved in a time warp. Even the contemporary house and functional riding hall with its modern paddocks on Beate Haussmann’s horse ranch don’t strike a discordant note in such deep harmony. Her company is called Epona-Coachings and it offers horse-assisted training for company managers and business leaders. The energy and insights released in these sessions between manager-trainer and horse have already profoundly changed many lives and are closely bound up with authenticity, respect, consideration, appreciation and trust – all values and principles we often lose sight of in our day to day work, even though without them sustainable leadership can’t function.

The horses themselves have no special training; when they’re not busy putting managers through their paces, they gallop around in herds on meadow land or give therapeutic riding lessons. But there is one special distinctive feature – Beate Haussmann’s horses can “say no” if they don’t want to take part in an exercise.

Beate Haussmann
… holds a master’s degree in education (Diplom-Pädagogin). As CEO of a management consulting company, she has a solid track record in advising and coaching human resources developers in major corporations. As a qualified riding instructor she also has many years experience in training horses. She brings her many-sided talents to bear on horse-assisted training and education for teams and managers.


Gudrun Porath:
When trainees, some of whom will be senior managers, first arrive at your ranch, it’s a pretty safe bet to say that many of them will be pretty skeptical. What makes them change their attitude? When do they open up and lay their skepticism aside? When does that moment of epiphany occur?

Beate Haussmann: It doesn’t come from me, it has  purely and simply to do with the horses themselves. And it’s always fascinating to watch. When the horses trot into the riding arena and the music starts up, it’s so overwhelming that people forget everything else and are carried along by their emotions. It really grabs you by the heart, and it doesn’t matter if the horses are big or small or if they’re bucking, standing still, rolling on the ground or gamboling about. Watching the videos and reading the texts just doesn’t give you any adequate idea of just how moving it all is. It’s something you have to experience for yourself to understand how truly impressive it can be and what kind of impulses such an experience can trigger.

Gudrun Porath:
What’s the point of this exercise?

Beate Haussmann: People have to watch the group of horses and find out which of them is the leader. We always ask them what particularly grabbed their attention, which horse was the first to lie down.


Most people bet on the biggest horse, our champion, as the leader. So when we tell them that it’s the smallest and most innocuous looking horse who’s the real boss, they’re always completely flabbergasted.


Gudrun Porath:
Is there any connection made at this point to the business world?

Beate Haussmann: Well, if it doesn’t happen here, it’s bound to happen in the next exercise. This involves participants putting large rings around the horse’s neck. And that’s not as simple as it may sound because the horses aren’t haltered and can move away at any time. You have to find the right balance between distance and closeness. And while someone’s struggling with the exercise, we closely monitor the reactions of the group watching. For instance, if the other group members start to laugh about what their colleague’s doing, we make an instant talking point about their reaction and ask what it shows about the way their company works. Does it have a corporate culture that allows for mistakes? Usually, participants themselves are pretty quick in putting their finger on the weak spots.

Gudrun Porath:
Many people must surely think that if they’ve had some experience with horses the training will teach them nothing new and that they’re going to be at a clear advantage. Is that really the case?

Beate Haussmann: Not at all. We’ve had experienced riders and even riding instructors who’ve succeeded neither better nor worse with the exercises than other participants who’ve never been near a horse in their lives. You really need to be authentic to establish contact with your partner and arrive at a common understanding. Only in this case your partner’s a horse. The horse’s reactions are no different to those of a person except that it doesn’t bother what you look like or talk like and that it’ll be quicker to give you a second chance and doesn’t bear grudges unless you mistreat it. If you start to play roles, it won’t work. And the same applies to almost all situations where we interact with one another – and to ourselves as well! You always have to be yourself. With or without a horse.

Gudrun Porath:
In another exercise participants have to lead a horse around four stands in the hall. What’s the point of this, what can they learn from it?

Beate Haussmann: The point of the exercise is to lead the horse with a loose halter. There are some participants – men for instance – who you wouldn’t particularly accuse of having a sensitive nature, who come back and say “That was great, really heart-warming” and the other group members all look thunderstruck because they’ve never seen their colleague in such a light before. Then we ask them how they assessed the situation and what they’d felt while watching it. One typical answer is “It looked really harmonious” or “He did it really well”. Then the next one comes back from the ring and says “Oh that was really great!” Sometimes I let them lead two horses at the same time, but that doesn’t work with everybody. So perhaps what people learn about themselves is that they’re much better at leading one-to-one than at group leadership, and that some people need more leadership and others less. What’s important is that participants themselves can select “their” own horse. Some of them choose a more difficult horse where things probably won’t go so well. That’s another situation you can apply to real life.

Gudrun Porath:
After each exercise you discuss what the participants have observed and the person who’s just been working with the horse talks about what they felt. How important is this feedback?

Beate Haussmann: What’s really important is that this direct kind of feedback takes place. Actually you can say that it’s a three track feedback. First of all you have the immediate feedback from the horse, then from the other participants. And a great number of them have told me that they’ve never before experienced such an open and honest type of feedback in such a short time. That comes from the horses who are always honest. And the third type of feedback is the video replay where people can see themselves in action and discover quite a lot about their own characters. For instance, whether they’re holding the halter too tight or giving it too much slack, quite unconsciously because this is not something they’re aware of at the time as they’re far too occupied with getting through the exercise. Or even that they don’t recognize themselves at all and say things like “But that can’t be me!” In this way people pretty soon get to realize that something could be wrong in their own lives.

Gudrun Porath:
You give people the general framework of the exercise, but you don’t necessarily tell them exactly how it should be done.

Beate Haussmann: That’s intentional because we want to give people the widest scope for intuitive action. This releases creativity and independent thought. A momentum starts to form when you enter into a relationship with the horse and you notice that it can only work if you are completely yourself. It’s also very highly emotionally charged due to the special situation and the animal itself. And it can trigger an impulse which starts a process which as it unfolds can change the whole of a participant’s life – but which can also end in the participant handing in their notice. Before they send their employees to us for training, we tell companies that they should be aware that for some employees the outcome of the training could well be that they realize they’re a square peg in a round hole.

Gudrun Porath:
The next exercise involves getting the horse to follow you without it being held by the halter.

Beate Haussmann: This exercise is designed to teach participants that there’s no trust without respect and that you have to find the right balance between these two elements. This exercise takes place in the picadero, a fenced in rectangular area where the horse can freely move about and escape from the trainer which it couldn’t do in a circular arena. It can stand in a corner and buck at anyone coming to it from behind. Participants have to make the horse follow them voluntarily. At the start of the exercise you’re told to make the horse follow you without touching it. To do this, for instance, you can use your arms and wave them up and down which makes the horse respect you. The art is to get closer while still having respect for one another. The horse shows that it respects you by following you freely without any need for a halter. When the horse does freely follow you, once more the feeling is overwhelmingly moving and brings tears to the eyes even of grown men.

Gudrun Porath:
Is it really so necessary to keep on emphasizing how important consideration and respect are, how important it is to listen and respond to one another? It all seems so obvious.

Beate Haussmann: Yes, it might seem self-evident, but in fact it isn’t at all obvious. And we see this very clearly when it comes to our training exercise for leadership from behind. This is the exercise that reduces many people to despair and the one for which they need the most time. The exercise is so constructed that you get a horse in harness as though it’s going to be harnessed to a buggy. Only without the buggy and its shafts. So the participant stands behind the horse and holds the long reins to move it forward. Generally, I explain the various leadership positions beforehand and ask participants which position they consider to be a dominant leadership position – in front of the horse, by the side of the horse or behind it. Most people find that a very difficult question to answer. In fact the truly dominant leadership position is when you’re standing in front of the horse and showing it the direction to take. Applied to day to day leadership, this means that you hold the power and your employees have scarcely any chance of asserting themselves. And that really clamps down on any kind of creativity. But when you’re standing behind a horse, this is when it has the biggest chance of asserting itself and all you can then do is support it. So if the  relationship between you two doesn’t have the right kind of chemistry, you can do what you want but nothing’s going to happen. On the other hand, if you’re standing next to the horse, then you have the possibility of cooperation. We believe that the ideal boss can switch between these three positions and recognize which one of them he or she should adopt to keep the company moving forward. It’s even better if the company can move forward on its own steam. Hear everything, see everything and be there when you’re needed. To be able to do this, means continually working on yourself. What you’re good at, what you’re not so good at, what you’ve got to work on – you learn all these things pretty quickly when you’re working with a horse.

Gudrun Porath:
Meeting targets is one of things company employees are constantly urged to do. How does this apply to horse training?

Beate Haussmann: Meeting targets is the last exercise on the one-day training course. On it you work with the horse to negotiate obstacles on the way to your goal – which you set yourself. What’s more, the barriers and the goal are all given particular meaning, so the goals can be individual goals, group goals or company goals. Then we sit down and give each obstacle a meaning and it often happens that the barriers themselves are the real challenge. One striking example of what we do here was a training session designed to represent a change process after the merger with a much bigger partner. The goal was to get the employees to go along with the change. Many of them were anxious that change would mean they’d lose their jobs yet obviously their bosses wanted them to keep on producing motivated work. And the outcome was that directly after the session the employees said that they’d give their very best no matter whether they had a job at the end of the day or not because they were worth it and they owed it to themselves and to the company as well. They said that they were a team and would tackle this process shoulder to shoulder no matter what the outcome was, no matter whether they were made redundant or not. It was all very emotionally charged but at the same time they learnt a great deal about themselves by reflecting on the kind of effect they had on the horses.

What A Little Nuance Can Do! (Itay Talgam)

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