Achieve more with less

Steinbeis Seminar: “Development with Horsepower”

‘And now to the horses! Pick the one that you want to work with.’ This was the task Isabelle Chappius was faced with at a riding school in the Baden-Württemberg town of Sindolsheim after the first hour of the two day-long intensive seminar entitled ‘Development with Horsepower’. The seminar is offered through the Steinbeis Consulting Centre for Human Resources and Personality Development in collaboration with the Steinbeis Consulting Centre for Coaching. Three experts from the areas of personality development and coaching, as well as a professional in Equine Management competently guide and coach participants through the seminar with the goal of helping managers improve their effectiveness. Isabelle Chapuis tells us about her experience with the quadrupeds.

‘Come on, you can do it – just go under the ropes!’ I tell myself on my way into the paddock. ‘After all you are here to learn more about your leadership skills.’ Of course, I immediately lose courage when I think about the confined space and the wild steeds stamping around in it. Keeping at a safe distance, I sneak my way around the first one and stop at a mare with a beautiful, shiny coat. ‘Hello there. How would you like to be my partner?’ I ask bravely. It jerks its head and trots to the opposite side of the paddock. Not exactly love at first sight. I keep my eyes open and eventually move closer to another, rather unimposing horse. The same opening line seems to work this time – it stays still and even lets me brush it down.

The seminar promises to help strengthen my professional skills as a manager in a unique way: not in a classroom but in a paddock. As participants, we are not required to ride the horses; rather, we guide them with a lead rope and complete simple tasks together. While it mightsound like child’s play, for me it is a real challenge. Until now horses only had two qualities: huge and unpredictable.

As we lead the horses to a riding corral, we already notice that things aren’t as we expected. The horses either cut us off, stay standing or roll their eyes imperviously whilst digging into the muddy grass. We discover that a true social fabric exists within the group of horses, that there is a clear hierarchy and that each horse has its own personality. As long as you know their peculiarities and respect them, they cooperate. The gelding has to remain at the head of the group, followed by its partner. An intelligent but somewhat neurotically-minded mare follows steadily behind the rest. ‘Aha!’ I think to myself, ‘You guys are just as human as we are!’

In the riding corral we’re shown a few simple exercises such as leading the horse around obstacles as well as teaching it to stop or start to walk on command. ‘Nothing can go wrong here,’ I rejoice. My horse, however, does not seem to get it. I just about have to drag it around the practice posts. It’s clear that too much energy goes to waste through my personal management style – a sobering truth I have to come to grips with. The trainers and fellow participants watch your every move as you perform the tasks and give you direct feedback. It’s amazing how many different techniques emerge from this single exercise: one person pushes, the other pulls, the third leads his horse around so tensely that it ends up stepping on his feet. As an observer, you can sympathise with the horses’ reactions: after all, who wants the boss breathing down their neck all the time, never granting an inch of freedom? On the other hand, without directions from a superior, there is always the risk that the ‘follower’ might pursue his or her own interests.

Through the brief, theoretical input from our trainers, we learn that horses are like humans – only better; that’s what makes them such great practice for anyone with leadership responsibilities. Generally speaking, they are willing and happy to follow and work. They do not judge, tend to forgive easily, and always react immediately. And most importantly, the herd wants a leader to depend on – someone who knows what to do in dangerous or difficult situations.

After countless activities, we learn to instil the horses with enough motivation and security that they follow us trustingly. Towards the end, we witness a situation that makes an impression on us all – a mare is led from one group of horses into another paddock where there is a second group of horses. It is extremely fascinating: the lead gelding is excited about the new member, but the other mares try to ostracize the new recruit from the group. I instantly know I will think back to their intense reactions the next time we have a change of personnel. The horses make it clear that changes in growing team structures must be managed prudently.

I return home inspired, leaving my fear of horses behind in Sindolsheim. My hands-on training with the animals has taught me a valuable lesson about my interactions with humans. Thanks to a little horseplay, I have learned to embrace my role as manager with more awareness, clarity and conviction.

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