Want to Be a Better Worker? Please Consult This Horse

Mixer isn't your typical business consultant. Sure, he's spent years coaching workers to personal breakthroughs. He also has four legs, hoofs, and a flowing mane.

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Horses have long been romanticized for possessing a mysterious innate intelligence, from the equine protagonist of the 1877 novel Black Beauty, to Clever Hans, the turn-of-the-century Trotter famous for pawing out answers to arithmetic questions. And of course, there was TV's Mr. Ed, offering lippy counsel to his clueless human owner, Wilbur. Over the summer, I encountered the latest variation on this theme when I attended a workshop provided by Wisdom Horse Coaching, LLC, a Minneapolis-based consulting firm that uses horses to teach people to run their businesses more effectively. Really.

Equine Guided Education is based on the idea that horses see things differently than people -- literally. Equine eyes are the largest of any land mammal, and they are set on the sides of the head, affording almost 350 degrees of vision. Whereas "hard" eyes of natural predators, such as dogs or cats--or humans--focus binocularly on their target ("eyes on the prize"), "soft eyes" are typical of prey animals that need to be alert to their larger environment. According to the theory, they offer a more big-picture view.

I visited Wisdom Horse with a seven-person team from Meyers, a Minneapolis printing and manufacturing business that was there for its second annual training session. The routine at Wisdom Horse--and in Equine Guided Education generally--does not involve riding or any part of what is familiarly known as "horsemanship." The horse is not expected to perform, but rather to be read, as a kind of emotional mirror and does not require any extra training to do this. Thus, Wisdom Horse owns no horses of its own but merely "borrows" them at the sites they use for the trainings. When I attended, the horse they selected from a paddock was Mixer, a jet-black gelding with a flowing mane who looks like he just galloped off the cover of a romance novel.

One of the first team members to embark on an exercise leading Mixer was Lesley, a planner and production manager who had expressed to the coaches a desire to take more "active leadership" at work. Lesley had a shy, almost timid demeanor, and Mixer dragged her around the arena a few times until, with gentle coaching by Romberg and Baskfield, she determined that she needed to be more "grounded" and assertive. When she achieved this state of mind, Mixer suddenly turned from wild horse to docile pet. Ann Romberg, the co-owner of Wisdom Horse, said this was the point of the exercise: When a client has a breakthrough moment, the horse responds, making the epiphany hard to miss.

Romberg and Lynn Baskfield, who founded Wisdom Horse in 2003, are both certified professional life coaches. Romberg has 20 years' experience in Information Technology at Fortune 500 Companies and Baskfield holds a master's degree in human development. The two women don't pretend that horses are psychic, or even able to understand human speech. Rather, they claim that horses' less structured, more instinctual intelligence can offer lessons that sometimes elude our own thinking. They're not alone in this belief: Equine Guided Education (also known by the names Equine Interactive Learning and Horse Initiated Psychotherapy, among others) is a growing field. Its industry group, Winning with Horse Power, has 40 listed members, which Romberg assures me is a small fraction of the overall practitioners. Nor is it limited to these shores: the European Association for Horse Assisted Education held its 7th annual conference in Hamburg in early September. Wisdom Horse itself currently serves roughly 30 clients, including Fortune 500 Companies and nonprofits such as The Catholic Charities. The Wharton Business School's Executive Education program even sends its students to Minneapolis as part of its curriculum.

Horses are social animals that communicate primarily through body language, and, having co-evolved with human beings for 6,000 years, are intimately familiar with our tics and tells. To underline the importance of this trait, Romberg cites the work of Albert Mehrabian, a communications professor at UCLA, who estimates that only 7 percent of human communication is verbal, the remaining 93 percent consisting of tone and body language. Horses respond to that language without guile or agenda--unlike, say, cats, which manipulate, or dogs, which act to please.

Wisdom Horse's goal is to provide clients with insights that they call "gem takeaways." And though many of these takeaways sound like inspirational posters from the SkyMall catalog--e.g., "breathe," or "our strengths balance each other"--the coaches insist that because they come out of experiential learning, they will "stick" better than lessons learned in a seminar room. The team from Meyers confirmed to me that a year later, they are still using the gem takeaways from last year's session.

Each client presents its own set of challenges, of course. I could only laugh in recognition when Romberg recounted a session they'd recently held for a group of academics from a nearby university. Their assigned task was to put a halter on a horse roaming around the arena. Normally, Romberg said, a team completes this exercise within 15 minutes. But in this case, the academics became so focused on the halter, how it worked, its correct placement, and so forth, that even when the horse walked over to them and put his nose into it, they removed it for further study--and never completed the task. The gem takeaway writes itself.