What can working with horses offer that other ‘experiential learning’ activities can’t?
Experiential learning is ‘learning by doing’ – having an experience which provides you with raw data to process and learn from. Working with horses is just one kind of experience that can be set up to learn from, but the fact of interacting with a horse has some advantages over experiences in which you interact only with other people.
Horses have two key qualities which mean the feedback you get from them is different from feedback you will get from other people:
- They respond immediately to changes in their environment;
- They make no effort to hide their responses and reactions.
Horses are herd animals and prey animals, so in order to survive they have to be extremely sensitive to their surroundings and to those around them. Horses have a well-developed language of movements, gestures and facial expressions with which they communicate between themselves. In addition, they can detect and identify pheromones, the chemical scent indicators which provide information about the hormones being generated by bodies around them. So horses are tuned to pick up even slight changes in the external behaviour and internal state of those around them, and because in the wild these changes could be life-threatening, they respond immediately.
Horses are also completely honest. They have no sense of political correctness – they certainly won’t hide their response because you’re the CEO, or because you’re wearing a suit – and they aren’t worried about offending you. If their senses tell them not to cooperate with a person, they won’t. And they don’t have hidden agendas, either. They won’t refuse to cooperate with someone to make that person look foolish in front of the boss… or cooperate with the boss just to get that promotion they’ve been after. They simply respond to what’s around them, instantly and in the most appropriate way to keep themselves safe.
Having access to this immediate, agenda-free feedback on our non-verbal communication is a unique experience for most people. It forces us to look at ourselves first if we have a problem with others rather than push the blame onto the other person. When we work with other people, it’s easy to blame their lack of cooperation or hostility on them, but with horses, we have to look at ourselves first to see how we’re affecting their behaviour. It can be a bit of a wake-up call!
“They say princes learn no art truly but the art of horsemanship. The reason is the brave beast is no flatterer. He will throw a prince as soon as his groom.” Ben Jonson