How to train managers: lead a horse to water

How to train managers: lead a horse to water

Executives try horse whispering to understand how to deal with staff

David Cohen

Of course you are a brilliant company boss. Everybody says so. You even have an MBA to prove it.

But what would a horse tell you

More than you might want to know perhaps, but possibly as much as an honest team leader needs to hear. it offers executives [the chance] to put their skills to the equestrian test by swapping the briefcase for a bridle, the boardroom for the tackroom, and the corporate hard sell for a picturesque day of heavy horse-whispering.

At the very least the programme also represents some thing of a turnaround on the usual relationship between horses and the country’s businesses which usually show up in droves to sponsor virtually all of the country’s major horse sport events.

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Directors learn leadership lessons straight from the horse’s mouth

“If you can’t lead a horse, you shouldn’t be leading people,” so says the director of Impact Leadership, a company dedicated to upskilling New Zealand’s leaders through experiential training.

But what can horses tell you about the way you lead your company? More than you might expect. Impact director, Janine Sudbury, says she has seen leaders emerge in just one day of working with a horse.

“Horses can be brutal,” says Janine. “Their special qualities make them superb training tools and you are guaranteed a one hundred percent honest evaluation of your leadership style. For some, that can be hard to handle.

“I don’t know where you could get such effective and immediate feedback as you get working with the horses. They pick up on your energy and can even match their heartbeat to yours. They are innately designed to read your body language and as such, can’t be fooled. In return, they won’t fool you back; they won’t ingratiate themselves or flatter you. Such is the honesty of a horse’s reaction in giving you instant feedback that you very quickly become hyper sensitive to every message you communicate consciously or unconsciously.”

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The Story of Clever Hans

Clever Hans was an arab stallion from Russia. In 1900 he was purchased by Wilhelm von Osten, a retired schoolmaster. Von Osten was convinced that animals possessed an intelligence equal to that of man and spent much of his time trying to prove his point. He had started by trying to teach a cat, a horse and a rather troublesome bear how to do simple arithmetic. Neither the cat nor the bear showed the slightest inclination to fill their heads with math, but the horse, Hans, was of a different calibre altogether.

Von Osten taught the horse to recognize the numbers one to nine, first with the help of skittles. Hans would tap out the correct answer with his hoof. Von Osten then replaced the skittles with numbers on a chalkboard. A sum was drawn up on the chalkboard and Clever Hans tapped out the answer. In a short time Clever Hans could work out reasonably complex calculations including some square root. Scientific observers were astounded and they could see no signs of trickery. After some tests by eminent mathematicians, the horse was considered to have the math ability of a 14 year old schoolboy.

Clever Hans and his owner enjoyed world wide acclaim, but the scientific community remained sceptical and a group of leading professors was asked to subject the horse to five weeks of intense scrutiny, on every test Hans got his sum right. Then one of the scientists, a psychologist from Berlin named Pfungst, had an inspiration. Could Clever Hans get the right answer if the horse alone could see the numbers?

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