THE BLOG

Equine-Assisted Learning for the Office - Lessons from Argentina

12/05/2015 11:21 BST | Updated 11/05/2016 10:59 BST

2015-05-11-1431382324-1637383-IMG_1901.jpg

Inteligencia Emociónal con Caballos is a Buenos Aires based company that offers one day equine-assisted coaching for businesses. Since 2012, founders Nia Ayanz and Alejandro Amadeo y Videla have organised workshops for hundreds of companies based in Argentina, including the French supermarket chain Carrefour. Nia is a psychologist who speciliazes in emotional intelligence, and Alejandro has an extensive knowledge of horses. Born into a family of polo players, he worked for many years as a breeder and trainer of polo ponies.

I visited their facilities in Pilar, a farm called 'el Paradiso' - which translates as Heaven- during a coaching day, attended by Carrefour employees. Although it is now fairly common to see horses used in coaching and therapy, I had never witnessed the use of horses in a corporate setting before.

IEC sessions cover themes such as team building, communication and negotiation skills, and talent and creativity boosting. Through working with horses, participants receive immediate feedback on their communication styles, for instance whether their verbal and non verbal modes of communication are consistent with each other. They are also made aware of their emotions and their impact on others, their leadership styles, and the importance of nurturing trust in relationships in order to achieve optimal results.

On the day of my visit, the employees were set to work on leadership skills. Over the course of the day, they took part in a series of exercises which called for gradually increasing levels of physical interaction with the horses. 

The first exercise involved watching the horses coming in the from the field and commenting on the dynamic within the herd. Like clockwork the horses filtered through the gates of their corral and into a circular enclosure 12 metres in diameter. They chewed on their feed and watched the newcomers with at least as much curiosity as the humans were displaying towards them.

The horses by now quite obviously know their job, and as the day went on I was increasingly astounded by how tolerant and relaxed they were around this particular group of adults. It is well known that horses generally mellow around children, but I had never seen horses put up with so much awkwardness from adults before.

Initial warnings as to horses' unpredictability, and in particular not to stand in their blind zone, were ignored by at least one third of the participants. They walked and brushed past horses' bottoms, completely unaware of their own body language and how it could be interpreted by the animals. I could not help but think of a clumsy delegation being sent to a country without studying its customs. It was in many ways incredibly funny.

It was also, however, very touching. One of the participants started out the day saying he hated animals. Another that she only enjoyed animals as food. And yet when it came to the exercise where they had to sit around in a circle, the dominant mare walked around sniffing, inspecting - basically kissing - almost every single member of the human delegation - including the animal-haters. It was almost as if she was healing them in some bizarre way. I watched the animal-haters' faces transform from indifference, to extreme surprise, before beaming with gratitude.

A beautiful roan ex-polo pony, the mare is apparently famous with human resources teams throughout Argentina for being able to sniff out 'conflictual types'. She apparently bites them. This probably offends the billions of health and safety subsections of the millions of health and safety rules which litter UK legislation, but here, in a land in which people and horses coexist more naturally, it's a perfectly acceptable means of detecting a problem. (I believe horses have a role to play in dismissing political candidates, but that is perhaps the subject of another article.)

To paraphrase the dutch coach Peter van Domele, who is quoted on the IEC website, horses respond to humans in a way which helps us to understand who we are in the various spheres of our social relations, including in our professional lives. It is common knowledge that horses 'smell' fear. But less known is their capacity to read us, and assist us in our own development.

The IEC horses are perhaps particularly good at their work because they live in an environment in which they are well catered for. Alejandro practices natural horsemanship, or non violent methods of starting and relating to horses, as does his cousin, Martin Ochoteco, a gifted natural horsemanship practitioner, who has his own National Geographic series. One of the best moments of the day came when the participants were invited to interact with a horse one-on-one, eliciting movement and changes of direction.

These sorts of exercises are usually reserved for experienced riders, and it is of great credit to the IEC team that they offer novices the opportunity to attempt this sort of interaction. 

Nia and Alejandro are reaping the rewards of their ingeniousness, and hard work. They have trained people to replicate these sessions in France. For more information, visit http://www.iecaballos.com.ar/#about, or contact nia@iecaballos.com.ar