4 Leadership Lessons from Horse-Guided Coaching

Patience important horse meme Deb Cherokee

What can a 1200 pound horse teach you about leadership? In 2010, I found out as Cherokee walked up and chose me in an experience that has forever changed the way I relate to both people and animals in my professional and personal work as a coach and consultant. The photos below reflect my early experiences working with horses as a learner and a future coaching partner.

What I learned, from Horseplay and mindfulness practices included:

1. Slow is fast *

2. Be Present

3. Pause, Reflect, Choose

4. Less = More

5. Small = Big

As of today, years later, I am fully convinced that horses offer us a powerful gift in their role as coaching partners, helping leaders and learners develop professionally and personally in ways that compliment what professional coaches do. Ariana Strozzi, a pioneer in the field of Equine Guided Education says,

Horse greeting at Maple Ridge Farm, Holly, Michigan 2014
Horse greeting at Maple Ridge Farm, Holly 2014

“…Many people feel safer with an animal than they do with other people. The client’s willingness to trust the horse and accept its feedback occurs in minutes, as opposed to coach and therapist which could take months. People intuitively understand that the horse has no agenda with them. The horses reflect the inner workings of the human, moment by moment, and relate differently to us in each situation. Horses accept all aspects of us, even the more embarrassing …parts of us.” 1

Working with horses helps you quickly build trust in yourself as well as with your selected horse partner. No horse experience is needed for the lessons learned to be lasting and memorable.

Below are four lessons I have learned that may be useful to leaders, learners and horse-guided coaching colleagues, taken from my association with Horseplay, From The Ground On Up, and their partner equestrian centers in Michigan in the last few years:

In working with horses as coaching partners, leaders and learners:

1) Slow down and become “present

Connecting with your horse, 2014, Horseplay
Connecting with your horse, 2014, Cavallo Equestrian Center and Horseplay

It is a challenge in American society to just “be.” Research has shown that both those with and without horse experience become calmer and are able to be more present and ready to learn in the presence of a horse. The body calms down and becomes relaxed, the heart beats slower and blood pressure decreases. Human and horse interactions also raise oxytocin levels in the blood, known as the “trust” or sociability hormone, and lower stress hormones. This creates a ready stage for learning and working through challenges among horse and humans.2

The human coach assists by interpreting the behavior of the horse in the moment, helping the person being coached learn cues from the horse, noticing body language, posture and horse action or inaction. For example when the horse feels comfortable with a situation it may stand calmly, ears forward (showing interest), and graze or have its head up looking at the person being coached. When a horse feels uncomfortable in a situation, it turns and walks away. A horse may also be attracted to client while discussing particular subject, and walk toward her, or stand with a relaxed leg posture. The client eventually starts noticing the basic horse signs of comfort and discomfort herself.

Deb, left, horse Dylan and a teamwork horse experience, with Jackie, a horse advocate for safety, on the right
Deb, left, horse Dylan, a personal and teamwork experience with a horse advocate for safety, on the right. Horseplay 2012

Even those who have a fear of horses, but are willing to try out the experience can gain just as much from horse-guided coaching sessions as those who’ve grown up with, or have had extensive riding lessons. In horse-guided coaching, you do not ride the horse. Instead, you build relationship with the horse, which allows those with fears to work through these feelings and build a sense of safety along with their work on their learning goals.

There may be a person designated as a horse advocate, as pictured above (Jackie in the red jacket) who has a primary role is to watch for safety of the person or team involved in the coaching experience. This can be set up in advance, which can reassure those who are tentative about a horse coaching experience.

2) Gain Clarity

Getting clear, including getting clear feedback, is a main benefit. In the workplace, leaders and learners often count on nuanced feedback from colleagues and their network, using others’ experience and interpretations to guide their decision making and planning. The book, Think Fast, Think Slow (Kahneman, 2011) highlights how this human perspective can be a problem as well as a help because of human cognitive bias in interpretation and decision-making. Horses do not have this issue. In contrast, horses do not consciously interpret their experiences like humans do—they do not seek to label or categorize events or to create meaning.

Scientific investigations show that the brain of the horse does not have the resources to interpret an act or experience. ( Lehman, 2009, p. 23) Instead, horses react immediately to their experiences, and in this, they can reflect what they sense around them, including the deeper, sometimes hidden, emotions of the humans who are working with them. This can be a pathway to renewing and developing leadership behavior and cultivating greater authenticity between thought and actions.3

3) Surface held, but hidden knowledge

Teamwork, developing a plan for success with their horse partner, 2012, Horseplay
Teamwork, developing a plan for success with their horse partner, a non-profit leadership team, Horseplay

“When you are in it, you cannot see it.” This is a consulting maxim that I’ve used quietly for decades in working with clients.  A leader or group member may seek assistance for a variety of reasons– for a retreat, project implementations, data gathering, or a presenting problem within a group—yet a facilitator, consultant or coach may uncover deeper issues that can be the root causes of what is slowing progress in an organization. Once a person is a part of a group, the tendency to see things a certain way, similar to “group think” can occur. Leaders may overlook things or defer a difficult decision or action that eventually becomes hidden away in an internal space. Work with a horse also provides an opportunity to build trust to review hidden messages.

The horse also inspires the use of metaphors and parallels while observing oneself from the outside.4  This can also help uncover blind spots or barriers. When hidden knowledge is brought closer to the surface voluntarily, such as when a person is building a relationship or accomplishing a task with a horse, there is often a shift or an “a-hah” moment that spurs new action.

4) Remove barriers to desired wants and goals

Horses are highly sensitive to a person’s leadership and learning energy—they can interpret body language, tone of voice, as well as other nuanced behaviors. In turn, horses give simple feedback—they communicate through their body language when something is out of sync for them. They can sense when a client is holding on to limiting beliefs as well as working on challenges to overcome. (O’Connor and Lages 2004 p. 65) For example, a person who is changing directions with his career and is procrastinating about reaching out to key people in his network may experience feedback from his partner horse that mirrors his state of mind.   His coach may ask questions about what may be presenting issues for him that are mirrored in the horses behavior, helping him clarify next steps and actions with the horse that may mirror his own desired wants and goals for his next job and career progress.5

Gestalt Body Brain Whole Brain - From a coaching conference
Gestalt Body Brain Whole Brain – From a coaching conference discussion

Coaching is an action-oriented profession, so working with horses also speeds developing actions toward a goal. A horse gives direct cues on the degree to which the leader is leading, so that learners and leaders try new things, and take away plans and strategies. Horse-coaching experiences also add kinesthetic or grounded-ness to ongoing coaching relationships among leaders and their human coaches who help their clients open up to the experience, and get in contact with their inner truths, develop what to do, and feel confirmed in it.6 Horse coaching is a way of balancing our tendency to over-rely on our thinking (head – brain) and tuning into our sensing energy and emotions (body – brain.)

Working with horses also helps participants define concrete steps and “take-aways.” As preparation for horse-guided coaching events, I’ve been asked to use Open Space Technology as a tool for both building practical learning actions (head – brain) and especially for tuning in to energy (body – brain) in working with horses.   Horse-assisted educators and coaches have become ever more skillful using horse-guided learning for rapid development and action planning assisted by learning from non-verbal communication, a powerful and primary form of communication.7

For example, leaders and learners, upon summarizing their experiences either in a horse-guided coaching demonstration or a half day learning experience have mentioned the following take-aways:

  • Take the time to listen, then respond
  • [Use] the power of patience
  • Respect energy and space
  • Establish a pathway, for clarity to lead
  • There are many ways to lead, others can lead from the front while I lead differently
  • I can be an effective leader when I convey the vision clearly
  • You do not have to talk, to lead

To find out more about horse-guided coaching experiences, see our horse coaching page here to review our safety and horse orientation handout.   We are also scheduling local horse-guided coaching demonstrations for 60 to 90 minutes this fall, which is the best way to experience the power of the the horse.

“Horses change lives. They give our young people confidence and self-esteem. They provide peace and tranquility to troubled souls; they give us hope.”

Toni Robinson

Thanks for stopping by.  As always, you topic relevant comments and questions enrich the conversation and learning. ~  Deb

* A newer post on REVELN updated the “Slow is Fast” concept to “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.”


1 – Strozzi, A. (2004). Horse Sense for the Leader Within. AuthorHouse.
2 – Guttormsen, K. (2008). Hestekur (”Horse Remedy”). Dagbladets Magasin 23, p. 49
3- Lehmann, U. (2009). I Harmoni med Hesten. (“Horse in Harmony”). Borgens Forlag, p. 23
4 – Ferrucci, P. (2004). What we may be. Penguin Books. Sills, C. et al. (2006). Gestalt Counseling. Speechmark Publishing Ltd.

5 – O’Connor, J. & Lages, A. (2004). Coaching with NLP. Element
6 – Andersen, Vibeke. (2009). Equine Guided Coaching – A Critical Exploration of the Use of Horses in Coaching, Dissertation, University of Portsmouth Business School, UK
7 – Hogan, K., Stubbs, R. (2003). Can’t get Through 8 Barriers to Communication. Grenta, LA: Pelican Publishing Company.

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Published by dnrevel

Change & transition, Leadership team & organization development. Executive Leadership team coach. My LinkedIn profile: http://www.linkedin.com/in/dnrevel

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