Horses Building Teams? Yes!
By Dr. Mildred L. Culp

Horses Building Teams

What's new in team-building? Horses.

About eight years ago, Angela Masini, a psychologist for three decades in Knoxville, Tenn., revived her childhood love of horses. She subsequently learned about the Equine-Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA), a nonprofit in Santaquin, Utah… developing a full-time corporate clientele, according to Greg Kersten, EAGALA founder and chairman. "This is a new, emerging field," he says, already reaching industries as diverse as financial services and the professions. Its training facilitates change through ground exercises, not horseback riding. Masini co-founded Equine-Person Connection (EPC) with Arabian horse-breeder Pam Salem about two years ago…Masini wanted to make the most of the special bond between horses and people.

At Work

EPC's three program tracks for corporations, small businesses and nonprofits focus largely upon workshops and seminars. Teams that come to her seek cohesion, greater motivation and increased trust -- "goals not that different from other team-building objectives," the psychologist remarks. Training begins with small-group discussion about the desired outcome. Each session of six to eight hours spans multiple exercises, debriefing and the development of an action plan with which to return to the workplace. It costs $800 to $1,500, depending upon the number of participants and the length, although retreats, with greater equipment and transportation costs, are higher.

"Before we let people go near a horse," Masini explains, "we show them horses in the pasture so they can see them as social beings. We also demonstrate safety procedures, including applying gentle pressure to get a horse to move. Then we pat the horse and get it to move forward through body-positioning." This exercise, a building-block to several others, requires at least five to seven participants per task, such as getting a horse to move over a one-foot log resting across two pedestals. At any point, anyone can request time to regroup. The team plans the strategy, determines where team members will stand in a "u" around the horse and learns to guide it without riding, touching the horse or speaking. If there are five people, the "driver" (leader) selected by the team usually stands behind the horse, with two guiding it on either side, to motivate the horse to reach its goal. An individual who feels safer beside the horse, three feet away, is free to stand there, "making his or her presence known to the horse," Masini adds.

Some of the other exercises involve conversation among team members. The overall experience transfers to the workplace, beginning with a team member's request for time-out to discuss the task with other team members. "We are simply making a conflict management model more real by having them solve a problem," Masini explains. Because the problem involves an unfamiliar component (a horse) in an unfamiliar setting (a ring), individuals are challenged to think creatively, for example, if an idea fails. Then the group de-briefs and prepares the action plan for the workplace.

Special Bond

"Horses are big, powerful, sensitive and social," the diminutive psychologist explains. "In some ways, they mirror our emotions. Before the training, when I rediscovered horses, I was less flexible and a little stiffer, fighting traffic after a day's work." She'd arrive at the barn in this condition, where she greeted her "living biofeedback machine." "My horse would get indignant, pace, swish his tail and swish his ears," she continues. "I'd slow down and breathe, which I tell my clients to do... (These animals) communicate wonderfully, if non-verbally. In another sense, they're like an archetype of something very powerful that we have to be careful with. We learn about our own power by working with (a creature) with that amount of power."