Horse sense: What horses can teach us about interacting with people
Twenty people watch as an 11-year-old girl named Shreya confidently puts a harness on a white, speckled horse — backwards. Standing beside her, Shreya's mother struggles against the urge to correct her daughter's mistake.
"It was so hard not to say anything!" her mother said afterward. "I actually did try to correct her, but she wasn't even listening to me."
Shreya and her mother are participating in an exercise with Gallop Ventures, a local "equine guided education" program, at the Stanford Red Barn on a bright Saturday morning. More than 20 people, including three students from Stanford's Graduate School of Business, a member of Stanford's equestrian team, a Red Barn employee, and this reporter, have gathered to learn about the leadership and teamwork development programs Gallop Ventures is offering at local facilities, including in Woodside and Portola Valley.
Tailored to suit individual goals, the programs use a series of exercises — no riding required — to address challenges, from marital and family issues, like that between Shreya and her mom, to leadership and teamwork dynamics at the corporate level.
Through its partnerships with the Flag Foundation, a nonprofit with a network of sanctuary ranches that extends to the Woodside area, and Horsensei, an equine guided education program that uses horses to educate medical students about the doctor-patient relationship, Gallop Ventures offers programs at a number of local facilities. They are: the National Center for Equine Facilitated Therapy (NCEFT) and Rocking C Ranch in Woodside, Webb Ranch in Portola Valley, Touch of Gold Equestrian Campus in Livermore, Equistar Farm at 6W Ranch in Sebastopole, and now the Stanford Red Barn.
For clients who would like to turn their sessions into a mini vacation, Gallop Ventures also offers a two-day retreat at a dude ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Traditionally, equine therapy harnesses a patient's interactions with horses as a therapeutic tool to help the patients recover from physical or mental disabilities, substance abuse, and behavioral problems, says Wendy Millet, a Menlo Park resident who founded Gallop Ventures in 2009.
Over the years, the therapy has evolved into a field of diverse applications encompassed by the term "equine guided education." Gallop Ventures, in particular, is extending equine therapy into the arena of executive training and personal development. It has attracted clients that include teams from Google, Apple, Sandia National Laboratories, and LaunchSquad.
Why are horses well suited to help people learn about how they interact with others? According to Wendy Millet, it's all about body language.
"Horses are prey animals, so they are extremely sensitive to their environment and anything that makes them uncomfortable," Ms. Millet says. "When horses see a mountain lion, they need to know whether it's looking for prey or just passing through. Body language is a big way they pick up on it."
Ms. Millet, who is an avid horsewoman and a member of both the Equine Guided Education Association (EGEA) and the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA), says she believes that horses' sensitivity to body language can help people recognize subtle or unconscious behaviors that affect their interactions with other people and their ability to be effective leaders.
The exercises, which are as (deceptively) simple as leading a horse around a ring without a rope, are designed to be open-ended and help people find their own leadership style. This philosophy is encapsulated in Gallop Ventures' motto, "finding your leadership stride."
"Everyone has a natural talent and passion they want to share with people, a natural style in which they lead when they're in their natural element. That leadership style might not show up in front of their boss," Ms. Millet says.
As part of the demonstration on the Saturday morning at Stanford Red Barn, Ms. Millet asked for a volunteer to participate in the above-mentioned exercise. A woman stepped up to the plate and shared her goal of launching a photography business. She was asked to focus on her goal as she led the tame, friendly horse, Comet, around the ring by a rope. After completing the circle several times, she had to remove the harness and, focusing on that goal, lead Comet around the ring without relying on the rope to pull him along. She tried, clearly uncertain that Comet would follow her of his own accord with a large group of people watching. Sure enough, Comet bent his head downward and sniffed the ground, flicking his tail from side to side.
"I'm really hungry! I'm pretty sure I'm not totally focused," she said, when Amy Hublou, a licensed marriage and family therapist and EAGALA certified instructor, asked her to explain what was going on. She added that she has been contemplating starting this business for a long time, and that she has had some uncertainty about the goal herself.
Centering oneself so that one can lead the horse from point A to point B is an exercise that can take days to accomplish, Ms. Hublou says. Ms. Millet adds that because horses are herd animals, they are experts at discerning a sort of focus and confidence that manifests itself in our body language as well as our words.
"Out in the wild, horses will only follow a mare that's 100 percent sure of what it's doing," she says. "They're very good at discerning whether our intentions and our actions are aligned or misaligned."
Gallop Ventures has gained standing with local business leaders, particularly after Gallop Ventures hosted a demonstration for the Bay Area Human Resource Executives Council for one of their quarterly events, which took place at NCEFT earlier this year.
"At the event, one woman commented that you might do experiential ed, you might do a ropes course, or you might give people the intellectual tools, but in this case you get them all together," Ms. Millet says.
At Stanford Red Barn, the group participated in some of the exercises typically used to help members of the business team find their own natural leadership style and work out kinks in the team dynamic.
In one activity, three people had to link arms and harness the horse as a unit, the two side wings prohibited from doing anything except as directed by the person in the middle. The "brain and appendage" exercise embodies some of the tensions aggravated by a hierarchical corporate structure, with the appendages struggling to wait for instructions and the brain (whose leadership style varied from extremely controlling to thoughtful and motherly) often struggling to find the words to communicate clearly.
The horse's reaction was also revealing — he responded by lifting his head to be harnessed for a unified, coordinated group, and was not cooperative with an uncoordinated group.
An exercise where five people take turns leading a horse around the circle also brought interesting dynamics to the surface — some led the horse forcefully, others were more focused on the people walking alongside the horse, and some were self-conscious, or a combination of all of the above.
Through these exercises, participants learn about their own leadership styles, how the group works as a unit, and how that unit is perceived by a third party, Ms. Millet says.
"People find happiness when they're connected with themselves," she says. "When they do, they're better able to serve the world and interact with other people."
Finding its stride
Harnessing horses and leading them around a ring may sound like a bit of a gimmick, which is, perhaps, why many of Ms. Millet's clients are people who have had experience with horses and "understand they have an uncanny way of interacting with people," Ms. Millet says. Asked whether there is any research behind the field of equine guided education, she says the programs are largely based on experience.
"There's a world of anecdotal evidence, but it's just starting to get hard numbers around it," Ms. Millet says. "We're hoping at Stanford there will be interest in the research community" now that Gallop Ventures has established a partnership with Stanford Red Barn, she adds.
"We have such an amazing community where people are so open to new ideas and so interested in being on the cutting edge," Ms. Millet says. "Helping people find their leadership stride in an area full of businesses that are hoping to change the world is a really ideal situation."
Visit gallopventures.com or call 218-2222 to learn more about Gallop Ventures.