Welcome to a New World of Learning

By Gerhard J. Krebs, Germany

“Better a boss who’s always nagging, grumbling, exploding and mistreating us than a boss who has mutated into a horse whisperer.” That could not be true! It was 11th March 1998 and we were reading the summary of our carefully formulated press release in the local newspaper, having just successfully completed our first open “Motivation Seminar for Managers” with horses as medium and we were excited by the prospect of interest from not only hundreds but thousands of new participants in the future.

What was it that upset “pat”, the columnist? Why should his boss not “learn from horses”? Why by no means from “Friesians, possibly East Friesians”? He did not want to be compared to nags. He did not want to “always take higher and higher hurdles of work motivation and job performance, like these highly-bred willing four-legged animals” and “at the end gratefully eat from the palm of somebody’s hand! No never!” Was he not right?

He could not know that even more renowned press and TV journalists would approach this topic in much more detail in the following years. For example the seminar reviewer Baerbel Schwertfeger who published six pages in the German HR magazine “wirtschaft + weiterbildung” (“The seminar is an impressive experience”), or the journalist Dagmar Deckstein who wrote a three-quarter-page in the business section of the “Sueddeutsche Zeitung” with the sub-heading “The Rediscovery of Intuition”.

And we ourselves could not know that neither the mocking contribution of “pat” nor the well founded articles in the national press and the professional journals would be helpful to bring managers to our horse seminars at this early stage. Then, when even the famous news magazine “Der Spiegel” and the second channel of German broadcasting “ZDF” came we simply had to guess: Now we have got it! But no – it took four more long years for the prediction of a marketing magazine chief editor at one of our seminar evenings to come true: “It takes exactly seven years to get such a new concept into the market.”

In fact we never claimed that we had developed anything really new. One can already read that the horse is a mirror in the writings of the old masters on the art of riding. Observations that horses are skilled in extrasensory perception were already published by Henry Blake (“Talking with Horses”) in the 1970s. The fact that human beings were not able to imagine a life without horses for thousands of years is reason enough to think about the increasing distance between mankind and horses over the last sixty years.

“There is nothing good, unless you do it,” Erich Kaestner says. So let’s do it. Let’s take the horse back to the development of human beings, back to their raising of consciousness, their character building, their way of behaviour, and their leadership concepts.

Why the horse? Because it combines reality and vision. Because it is a mirror. Because it requires one hundred percent presence in every moment. Because it shows up boundaries. Because it opens horizons. Because it can be a medium to the universe.

We were not the only ones thinking these thoughts. From the year 2000 on we found similar approaches on web pages in several countries. The number of seminar providers working with horses in management seminars in Germany increased. Sometimes we detected sentences just copied and pasted from our HorseDream homepage on new websites. As a consequence in 2003 we decided to teach other trainers our seminar approach and to give them permission to use our concept and anything we had written on our website. One year later, in August 2004, we founded the European Association for Horse Assisted Education (EAHAE) together with seven other European trainers and coaches. When we started with our G&K HorseDream GmbH in 1996 we did not imagine that there would be more than 200 trainers, coaches and seminar providers with us, sharing the “vision to establish and develop Horse Assisted Education as a general form of personal and professional development in (not only European) enterprises, organisations, institutions, societies, and for personal purposes”.

But it becomes even more exciting. Nearly at the same time that the first horse assisted seminar providers in Germany, England, Austria and Switzerland dared to go to market, similar concepts were developed in the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

In January 2005 Ariana Strozzi held her first annual conference of the newly founded Equine Guided Education Association with participants from three continents. Shortly before this she had published her book “Horse Sense for the Leader Within. Are You Leading Your Life or is it Leading You?” Horse sense means common sense. In the meantime this term has been used as a book title or company name many times. The Austrian management trainer and leadership lecturer Fritz Hendrich gave his book “Horse Sense” the subtitle “How Alexander the Great first conquered a horse and then an empire. Three steps to the charisma of leadership.”

Well, we don’t have anything in mind about empires and their conquest. And actually we don’t think about charisma. In HorseDream seminars normality plays the lead. Our subject is reduction. Reduction to the essentials of leadership. And for us this means authenticity. Our horses accept the participants just as they are as long as they express themselves as they are. Our horses don’t engage in play-acting. There are extreme examples.

Peter stood together with Benetton in the picadero. Peter is a key account manager in a large telecommunication company. Benetton is an athlete; high and upright, muscular, glossy black, big – actually too big for a Friesian horse.

Picadero, a square pen of about ten by ten meters, comes from the Spanish language and means “small riding arena”. The exercise is called “Distance and Nearness”. Leading with distance, leading with human nearness. What is it like to push somebody to a distance? Am I able to do it? Without overacting? Am I a hurrier? Peter waves the flag, the “leadership instrument”, or better the “tool of power”. Benetton is moving around him in a circle. First walking, then he trots a little bit. The whole thing lasts for one or two minutes. Peter follows the instruction for the exercise and drops the flag behind him. The pressure is gone. Benetton stops. He looks towards Peter. He turns his head forward. Peter steps up to the horse. He holds a long lead rope, the “leadership structure”, in his hand. He hooks the rope to the halter and waits.

Maybe the horse follows you, at the loose rope, without pressure, without pull, without a word. Only based on the trust you gained in the first phase of the exercise – the phase of distance, respect. Because you did not play the boss, you did not need to prove your power. You just asked for distance, quietly and easily. And then you got intuitively that respect is present; that out of distance may come nearness. Without distance there is no nearness. Whoever wants nearness must be able to demand distance. Whoever wants distance must be able to allow nearness.

Peter is still waiting. Benetton stands in front of him like a statue. No muscle is moving. Peter’s hand moves to his pocket. Carrots are not required. We want the horses to follow us out of free will, not because they get something to eat, but because they like us; they trust us; because they love to be with us; because they know that we know where we want to go.

Peter pulls a tissue out of his pocket. He puts out his open hand toward Benetton. No reaction. Peter takes one step back. Then one step sideways. No reaction. The rope hangs loose. Once it is taut, the exercise is finished – that’s the agreement.

Peter steps up to Benetton. He takes off the rope from the halter, moves to the middle of the picadero and takes the flag again, his leadership instrument of power. He points the flag at Benetton and the horse begins to move. Round and round he trots. From time to time he throws his mane with a short head movement towards Peter who holds the pressure constant, walking with a firm tread in a small circle in the centre of the quadrangle. Then he drops the flag abruptly. Bennetton stands still.

Peter walks up to the horse, fastens the lead rope to the halter, makes an inviting gesture and takes a first step. Benetton stands still. Immovable. No reaction. A key account manager who sits facing his customer? Distance works but nearness does not? Ability is present but willingness is not? I hear the message well but lack Faith’s constant trust?

What is it that the horse wants to tell Peter? We don’t know. We cannot look inside the heads of our horses. We don’t interpret. We leave the situation as it is. But we know one thing very well: The experience with Benetton in the picadero will trigger something in Peter. Maybe it will come up in discussion during the seminar; maybe he will take it home, to the next customer conversation, or to the next sales meeting.

What is it that is so extreme in this example? “By the way, I was trained as an actor and was onstage for two years. A bad income. Too less to live, too much to die,” Peter tells us during the smoke break. Short silence. Then the question: “Well, could it be that you just played a role in the picadero? Did you wear a mask?” “I think I did,” Peter says.

We are used to acting behind our masks. We are even recommended to do so. Just do not let anybody come too close. Business is really tough. Who reveals themself is already lost. Authentic leadership! For sure!

“In the army I did not have any problems with acceptance from the very first moment,” Mayer tells the seminar group. The audience listens with interest. “It started with the clothing. With my name badge. My first name Christopher was too long. So it was just C dot Mayer. Know what? The newbies always thought this meant Captain Mayer.” Everybody is laughing. The moment Christopher is in the picadero together with Benetton nobody is laughing any longer. He holds the flag diagonally upright to the croup of the horse and runs. Accentuated paces. Benetton trots with a high knee action, like a Friesian who is being presented by the so called Monsterknecht at the stallion licensing. He loudly puffs the breath from his open nostrils so that everybody can hear it. The seminar participants back off involuntarily, expecting the horse could be driven across the borderline. The giant Benetton gallops through the ten-meter quadrangle. And Captain Mayer keeps up the pressure. Shortly before we give the signal to end the exercise when the flag is dropped. Benetton stops from full speed and turns his mighty body towards Christopher in the middle of the picadero, tossing his head, snorting wildly at him. You’d almost think Benetton is a dragon who spits fire.

Christopher does not even try to fasten the rope to the halter. What nobody considered possible in this moment happens: Christopher starts walking – and Benetton follows him. The horse now holds his mouth at head height of the man at maybe a foot distance. Christopher walks – and Benetton follows. No uncertainty on the horse’s part, no doubt, no resistance. Just nearness. “Typically capricorn,” Karin says, “hard on himself and hard on others.”

This is authentic leadership. The horse accepts the human being if he acts like he really is. We have experienced a lot of such examples in the last 14 years of horse assisted trainings. We saw men full of self-doubts and those pretending to be omnipotent. We experienced arrogance and humility. “Be yourself,” Karin shouts into the picadero as man and horse are facing each other stockstill for two minutes. “Then I would have to hug him now.” And precisely at this moment, the horse moves towards the human.

We don’t know any better way to let leaders experience the difference between distance and nearness. The picadero exercise is the emotional highlight in all of our trainings.

Emotional learning is deep learning. It is effective learning. And it is learning in a very short space of time. Emotional learning is also motivation and self motivation. Very often, the motive of leaders to attend a horse assisted leadership seminar is curiosity. The outcome of such a seminar, very often, is the insight that you cannot learn leadership because leadership is learning.

“When I was back at my company on the Monday morning after the seminar, the people in my team were totally different,” Maria tells us on the phone two weeks after the seminar. She is a manager in a large automobile company. “Actually I just wanted to be around horses once again for a day. And now all of a sudden everything has changed!”

In our seminars it is not the point to realise how many parallels there are between horse and human socialisation – that the lead mare is in charge and that she forms a dual leadership with the lead stallion. It is not about all the metaphors. Not about the symbolism from thousands of years history of horse and mankind. There is nothing wrong with all this.

“The map is not the territory.” The horse is reality and an explanation model. We take the horse as an “As If” and we place it in the centre of an emotional recognition process. Whether there results any change potential for the participants – and if so, in what way – stays consciously outside our influence. We try to enable instead of generate. The basic work with the people is done by the horse. Welcome to a new world of learning!

Gerhard J. Krebs, born 1949, holds a university degree in political science and contemporary German literature. He has been working as an entrepreneur since 1983. He started IT-Trainings in 1986 and founded G&K HorseDream GmbH in 1996 together with his wife Karin. They both started with horse assisted leadership seminars and team training in 1998 using Friesian horses as catalysts. Gerhard & Karin initiated the EAHAE in August 2004. Besides corporate training they provide national and international ‘train the trainer’ seminars addressing coaches and educators, who want to get into the Horse Assisted Education business, as well as HorseDream Partner License Workshops.

G&K HorseDream GmbH
Zeidlerhof Oberbeisheim
Lichtenhagener Straße 8
D-34593 Knüllwald

Phone: +49 5685 9224233
Email: gerhard@horsedream.com

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