What can horses teach us about ourselves as leaders, team members, and as individuals? 

In 2023, the WildChina Corporate Services team launched a new experiential equine leadership training program that combines nature and animals with executive development. While a first of its kind in China, animal-assisted learning is one of the most natural interactive learning experiences known to humans from the beginning of our companionship with our four-legged friends. Human communication is 80% non-verbal and much of it is subconscious. It’s safe to say that we are often unaware of the messages we are sending out into the world beyond our words and deliberate gestures and poses. Animals on the other hand rely, sometimes almost exclusively, on non-verbal communication. Charles Darwin, in his studies of the animal kingdom, found that mammals in general use the same set of facial muscles for expressions and emotions. And this is why horses have the uncanny ability to read our faces and our body language. The horses’ reactions, immediate and unfiltered, serve as a mirror, reflecting our emotional state and communication style, providing us with a deep insight into our inner selves, often elusive in traditional training settings.  

For example, a hesitant leader may find their horse reluctant to follow cues until they exude confidence and clarity. Likewise, a team struggling with communication gets to reflect on their team dynamics by observing the harmonious interaction of a horse herd. 

This understanding has spawned a plethora of equine-assisted programs around the world in various forms ranging across executive development programs, social skill training, mental well-being, and PTSD therapies.  

How it works 

Working with horses can be a profound learning experience

Research shows that people learn better, and faster with experiential learning that connects cognitive processes and physical movements. By combining outdoor experiential learning with the added magic of interacting with horses, participants are required to communicate, problem-solve, and collaborate. As a result, these equestrian-assisted learning programs have the potential to be more effective transformational experiences than in-office training.

Equine leadership training programs are based on very simple premises. Each participant is assigned a horse. Over two days, the participant is in charge of caring for the horse and undertaking a number of tasks with the horse. The main steps that everyone follows start from getting introduced to their respective horses and getting briefed on safety. 

All participants then follow thoughtfully structured activities designed by WildChina experts. Trained facilitators, who are business coaches and horse trainers, lead participants through all the stages from interacting with the horses to reflecting and processing their experiences and insights. Each interaction session with a horse is followed by a reflection and guided discussion session designed to assist participants in transferring their new-found insights to real-world situations in their personal and professional lives.  

Here are some of the various benefits of equine-assisted coaching programs: 

Enhanced Self-Awareness 

Interacting with a horse provides participants with a deeper understanding of their communication styles, emotional triggers, and leadership qualities. This meditative introspection is enhanced by being off-grid in nature, bringing added digital detox benefits. 

Improved Communication Skills  

For leaders, providing clear, unambiguous instructions and communications to their team is a vital skill. Horses provide immediate feedback on non-verbal cues, pushing for clearer and more effective communication skills.  

Strengthened Leadership 

Through interacting and engaging with horses, and leading the horses through various obstacle courses and tasks, participants cultivate essential leadership skills such as empathy, resilience, and decisiveness through experiential learning. The program also challenges participants to experiment with various conflict resolution and negotiation skills including active listening, problem-solving, compromise, and assertiveness.  

The social dynamics of the horse herd can teach us much about teamwork.

Team Cohesion  

Horses are herd animals with a complex social hierarchy. Many aspects of herd dynamics and individual horse behavior mirror leadership and teamwork in organizations. As participants work with horses, they get to observe and reflect on their role in the organization and how they contribute to, promoting trust,  camaraderie, and synergy within their team.  

Conflict Resolution  

Observing herd dynamics helps participants navigate conflicts and foster healthier relationships in the workplace. Horses immediately react to human emotions, whether they be negative and nervous emotional energy, or calm and focused energy.  By interacting with horses, participants learn techniques for managing stress, frustration, and anger, which can often be triggers for unnecessary workplace conflicts.  

Long-lasting Impact: 

The experiential learning method of equine-assisted coaching programs coupled with off-grid natural settings can be profoundly transformative experiences with long-lasting impacts on personal and professional development. Many participants report that equine-assisted leadership learning has achieved in two to three days what office-based learning could not achieve over many weeks or months.  

Stress Reduction / Digital Detox 

Engaging with horses in nature, off-grid promotes relaxation and reduces stress that comes hand in hand with today’s hectic urban lifestyles.  

It should be noted that WildChina’s equine-assisted learning is named “Nature as a Mentor” for a reason, as the equine interactions and off-grid natural settings come hand-in-hand. By creating a learning environment in which the participants can fully immerse themselves in nature, we create a hyper-focused learning experience that brings the most development benefits.  

As with all WildChina programs, our “Nature as a Mentor” program can be tailored to fit the needs and goals of specific organizations and teams.  Interested in this transformative experience for your team? Get in touch with your WildChina contact to integrate this experience into your next team-building retreat