Why Leadership Development with Horses?


A brief excursion into the world of leadership skills and horse sense.



What skills does a leader need?


Leadership is requested everywhere in our life, e.g. spiritual leaders, family leaders, sports leaders, communal leaders, politicians, managers, teachers etc.


The generally accepted view of leadership in the corporate world is that it represents one function of management: planning, organizing, controlling, executing and leading. Leadership thus is part of comprehensive management.


What is the core distinction between managers and leaders?


“Managers do things right but leaders do the right things.” Warren Bennis


Managers accomplish goals and have subordinates. Leaders develop visions and have followers.


If we agree to this distinction it is obvious that leaders need different skills than managers: the skills to enthuse people and to create visions.


But whereas the management skills needed for good planning, organizing, controlling and execution are widely taught and practiced, leadership skills are somehow presumed as being there naturally. This, however, is not the case.


What is the specific skill set needed for good leadership? Let’s approach this question by looking first at what leaders do in order to create visions and attract followers on their path of their vision.


Visions are created by a strong passion for something, mostly for something purposeful, bigger than ourselves, e.g. quantum-leap technological breakthroughs, equality, environmental protection, understanding the universe, educating our children, living a healthy live, generating a superior service to clients, etc. Visions also encompass individual values.


Many visionaries, famous or normal people, feel a strong drive to create awareness and eventually create a movement to bring their vision to life. They start sharing their vision, communicating it with peers, earning credibility and trust, experiencing failure and showing courage to stand up for what they are passionate about.


Good leaders dedicate a lot of time communicating with people in order to share their vision and inspire others. Once the spark ignites, leaders dedicate time to empowering people to become knowledgeable partners of their vision by helping them to understanding and owning it. Leadership is about supporting and nurturing people for their cause.


If we presume the vision is already in place, leadership skills boil down to




What does it take to communicate excellently, earn credibility and be respectful and respected?



                            Active listening (also to the un-said) - Curiosity


                                    Clear messages

                                    Courage (stepping out of the comfort zone)

                                    Allowing failure

                                    Self-correct and self-manage

                                    Making Choices




                                    No judgment


                                    “You are ok - I am ok” (transactional skills)









When was the last time YOU received training on these skills?



And if, e.g. communication skills are so vital to good leadership, why don’t we study it like mad? (see Tom Peters: “The project leadership excellence 42”)


How can horses help developing leadership skills?


Horses by nature have several characteristics that form a perfect leadership skill-training platform, mainly because they ‘force’ us to challenge our default behavior and focus instead on strategies for true understanding, authentic action and mutual respect. The table below lists –exemplarily for the skill ‘communication’ - horses’ and human default behaviour and points out the benefits of horse-assisted leadership skill training.












Horses “listen” and “talk” through body language.

Humans overestimate verbal communication and underestimate that 90% of human communication is conveyed with body language.


Focusing on body language instead of words boils us down to the nucleus of our message.


Horses are naturally curious.


Humans need to be curious in order to learn about and deal with the horse.


True curiosity is required trained and rewarded.


Horses are always in the here and now.


Humans tend to multi-task and find it hard to truly be in the present.

Training to be in the here and now. Increased sense of interaction, effective communication.


Clear messages

Horses react only to clear messages. Mixed messages are countered by turning away.


Before acting we rarely stop to reflect on what we want to convey!

Self-manage and to consciously send messages.


Horses only follow courageous humans/leaders.




We tend to avoid danger and failure. We potentially consider the horse as dangerous.

Train to overcome fear of danger and step out of the comfort zone. Here, expansive learning happens.


Allow failure

Horses don’t know the negative concept of failure. They just try again.


Failing for us often implies negative consequences. We avoid failure and miss out on learning from failure.

Learn to learn from failure. Horses always give a second chance or even as many as needed.



Horses do self-correct naturally as they want to comply with the leader’s request.


Humans do self-correct naturally if they have the time and space to do.

Self-correction happens in the very moment and creates success. Experimental learning at its best.


Making Choices

Horses make choices instinctively in every moment.


Humans make choices after a “thinking” process (in non-threatening situations)

Humans learn to trust their inner voice and decide on the spot. This is crucial for good leadership under stress.



Horses are always aware of everything around them.

Humans often ignore what’s going on inside and around them and simply stick to their agenda.


Humans learn to listen to themselves first and only then act congruently. They learn that everything has an impact.


The table shows that horses are mirroring our default communication style.  It also shows that we will not succeed in leading a horse if we do not change our default modus.


As an example, let’s look at Presence. We all know how it feels to being only half present: Your subordinate enters the office while you are typing an important email. You ask what you can do for him still continuing thinking about the next sentence of your email. You feel somehow disturbed and unwilling. Eventually you look up and start dealing with the matter. On the other hand, your employee feels he’s disturbing, feels unimportant and unappreciated, fears a negative reaction from you, finally gets your attention and leaves the office slightly perspiring. Even if understanding is eventually reached, respect, curiosity, trust, credibility, empowerment, awareness, self-management are lacking. The result is most unsatisfactory for both parties.


In a leading exercise with a horse the lack of presence luckily does only have one single impact and this is on you: The horse will ignore you. No pretense of interest, no cooperation, no hard feelings. Left alone and unattended by the horse, its no-nonsense behaviour will very quickly propel you into the here and now: You will focus and try everything to get the horses’ attention.

In a human-to-human relationship this un-judgmental reaction of the horse is hardly possible and so isn’t our learning from it.


Besides the horse being a mirror for our action, horses are also mystical creatures that allow us dreaming and stepping out of our normal pattern of behaviour (Gerhard Krebs, Founder of HorseDream). Horses ignite emotions in us and make us feel truly connected. Leadership thrives on connection.


To summarise:

Leadership training with horses is a highly effective way to intense experimental learning and training of core leadership skills.


Additional remark:

The feeling of leadership we develop during the exercises with the horses will stay with us as a tangible and retrievable memory of how leadership feels. And on top it is a lot of fun.


The Art of Leadership training helped me to deepen my insight into different leadership styles and how to effectively employ them. The instant feedback provided from the horses in this training, supports the learning in an exciting way.” (Risk Manager, Insurance, 12/2014)




Thank you for your presence during this excursion.























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