Saturday, April 3, 2010

Equine Assisted Goals for Leadership Enhancement (a.k.a. The Horse Course)

This time last week I was already getting dirty. I was out on a ranch in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in Central Texas, and I was awaiting the arrival of the facilitators of the day-long course I had signed up for.

Anyone who knows me very well at all would be surprised by all of the above. Even though I live in Texas, I seldom go to ranches. I live in a suburban town (Temple) and am NOT an outdoors person. I love gardening, but I even do that in moderation. I usually don't like to be outside much because 1) I don't like to get dirty, 2) I sunburn VERY easily, and 3) the heat usually exhausts me. But one of the main reasons I don't like to visit ranches is because, (sorry to all my ranch-owner friends) -- they are smelly. I have a heightened sense of smell and I get a headache easily if smells are overwhelming.

Yet the course I signed up for and was ready to participate in last weekend was a personal growth workshop and it utilized horses. I NEVER would have signed up for a course like this except for the fact that my dear friend, Tim Manson, was the man leading the workshop. A fellow Toastmaster, we see each other once a week and Tim has always been supportive of my speaking endeavors and my children. We can always count on Mr. Manson to buy Boy Scout popcorn and when Alex's robotics team went to the international competition, Mr. Manson was one of the team sponsors. So when my friend, Katie Thieme, asked me to take his workshop, I decided I would be supportive of Tim and endure a smelly, hot, dusty (or muddy) day.

To my delight, my father, my best friend (Janet Scherer) and a number of other Toastmasters had decided to join us. Frank was out of town, so I was without my better half, but I was determined to make the most of the day. I believed it would probably be a once-in-a-lifetime workshop.

Here is Janet, Dad and me standing by the gate holding the saddles for a later activity.

Naturally, since Dad was driving and I was also in the car, we started the day by getting lost. Never mind I gave Dad a GPS for Christmas a few years ago. Ranches like the one we were looking for aren't on the GPS! But thankfully we have cell phones and with one call, we got turned around in the right direction and found our way to the ranch. This actually seemed to foreshadow this whole experience for me.

I didn't really know what to expect with this workshop but I hoped I would gain some vision about what I need to do with my life and my business. Everything is about to change for me. I only have 4 more semesters to homeschool Alex and then he will be ready to go off to college. He is chomping at the bit to leave! He has his heart set on Franklin W. Olin College in Massachusetts right now and that's a far cry from Temple, Texas. Instead of being a teacher, driver, principal, etc., I will be an empty nester. I know I need to lay the foundation now for me to be busy when he's gone or I'll be driving Joey crazy by visiting him too much at Southwestern.

When the horses first came into the corral I was amazed at their beauty, their spiritedness and their grace. This was the first time for them to be in that particular corral and they curiously explored everything (including the tents, tables and other human paraphernalia). They brought a child-like quality to the workshop that was perfect. Innocent, unassuming and trusting, I wonder if they had any idea what paces they would be put through on our behalf. Tim told us that horses live in the moment. I think we can learn a lot from horses just in that regard. How many minutes a day do we waste worrying about tomorrow or mistakes we've made in the past? There is something to be said for living in the here and now, being totally focused on only what is right in front of you and savoring the moment.

Unbeknownst to me, the horses would teach me much more than that. Our first task was to catch and halter a horse. Tim was ready to just let us go do it, but I had no clue what I was being asked to do, so I asked for help. Even if I caught the horse, I had no idea how I was going to put that halter on the horse and secure it. Tim kindly showed all of us what to do -- once. Janet, Laura and I formed a group and were told that each of us had to catch a horse and halter it. We noticed really quickly that if all three of us approached a horse, it would get spooked and run off. We decided to divide and conquer. Janet owned a horse years ago, so I knew she'd be fine, but I wondered how Laura and I would fare.

I wandered off in my dad's direction. To my surprise, he'd gone for Jack, Tim's miniature horse. Jack, we were warned, was a biter. He seemed to be the most spirited and curious horse in the pen. He knocked over the trash can and seemed to get into everything. He tried to be the leader of the pack, but Sky, the biggest horse amongst the group, put him straight. Everyone seemed a bit afraid of Jack after hearing how he'd bitten Tim in the backside just the week before and left a mark! Everyone except for Dad, that is. I watched as Dad bravely went up to Jack, spoke gently to him and easily put the halter on.
Dad actually putting the halter on Jack

Dad walking a caught and haltered Jack

Even after watching Dad catch and halter Jack, I didn't know if I could do it. I grabbed Tim and told him I still did not understand how to put the halter on. When he looked at Dad's halter, he laughed and told Dad that he'd done it wrong. Dad got credit for catching and haltering Jack, but he'd done it wrong. He released Jack and to my surprise, Jack let me catch him and halter him. (Meanwhile Dad caught and haltered another horse!) With Tim's help, I did it the right way. But I wanted to be able to do it myself (like Dad). I released Jack and looked for another horse. To my delight, Cherokee seemed willing to let me try to do it with him on my own.

Tim taught me to sling the rope around the horse's neck and catch it in a generous loop -- enough to "hold" the horse without actually being a lasso. My problem was how to hold the horse with the loop and still be dexterous enough to put the halter on. Somehow, Cherokee was patient enough with me to let himself be haltered.

While Cherokee eats, I attempt to put a halter on him

Here I am happily smiling after the deed is done!

Delighted I could do it, I looked for the other members of my team. Janet, of course, had caught and haltered her horse.

Here's Janet with Smoky, the horse she caught and haltered

But, as I suspected, Laura hadn't fared as well. She was still upbeat, but I could tell she was a bit frustrated at not being able to catch a horse. I told her about Tim's trick of using the rope to kind of lasso the horse and we worked together to catch her horse.

Here is a smiling Laura, after she haltered Easy

Laura and I take the halter off Easy

With our entire team successful, we headed back to the tents and discussed the activity. The main points I learned from this activity were: 1) you must confront the horse head on. If I tried to catch the horse from the side, it would just run away. I also couldn't touch the horse and expect him to stand still unless I had a rope around his neck, 2) once I had the plan in motion, I had to believe I could halter the horse and trust I could make it work and 3) I had to let the horse go when I was done.

This transfers to activities we must accomplish in real life. So many times I am more successful with the task at hand if I just confront it head on, believe I can do the task and actually trust my plan and then, when I'm done, let it go. I sometimes am hesitant to let go of a task and will try to perfect it. That is frequently a mistake and a time waster. I think I need to hold these lessons from this equine activity in my heart and let them guide me.

Our second activity sounded like it would be harder than it was. "Leadership in a Box" was the name of the activity and our goal was to create a team to catch a horse, guide him to a "box" -- which was a set of PVC pipes laid out in a rectangle on the ground -- and keep him there for 6 seconds -- without a halter or ropes of any kind.

My team consisted of Dad, Janet, Laura, Joan, Nancy and me. Dad immediately took charge of the group and decided that we needed to have 4 people stay at the box to stop the horse once they'd guided it to the box and only 2 to "catch" the horse. The goal was for everyone in the group to be responsible for getting the horse in the box. Our group was pretty successful. Four out of six of us were able to do it. The last two people had trouble catching the horse -- I think partly because the horses had tired of the activity.

Here you see Nancy with the horse in the box

Here are Dad and Joan with the horse in the box

I learned a number of things from that activity. The first thing I learned is that the leader doesn't always have to lead from the front. Some of our leaders wanted to catch the horse, guide it to the box and keep it there. Others knew that Dad was really good with the horses, so instead of doing everything themselves, they used our group's strengths to make the task achievable. Dad and Joan seemed best at catching the horse (although Janet and I did it, too). Laura and I were pretty good at bribing the horse with freshly picked grass. Laura and Nancy were good at helping to stop the horse. We all discovered that our task was much easier when we played on each other's strengths. I think we were successful because we all had the same goal, we were happy achieving the goal by whatever means necessary and we rejoiced in each other's successes.

Communication was key. Luckily, everyone in our group is involved with Toastmasters, so we practice communication on a regular basis. I think that really contributed to our ease with communication of ideas and how we felt we could comfortably rely on one another.

By this time, we had peeled down from 3 or 4 layers to just one. The wind had kicked up enough that we had to quickly stake the tents down before they blew away. We had eaten a bit of food and we were all getting pretty tired. The clock was ticking, too. It was closing in on 4:00 and many in our group had plans for the evening. Tim decided we had time for one more activity.

Saddle Up -- we had to split into groups of 3 and link arms. The center person was the "brain" and the other two people were the "arms" and here's the tricky part -- the arms couldn't do anything unless they were told to do so by the brain and they could only use their outermost arm! This was quite a challenge.

Nora, Tim and Joan demonstrate how we have to link up for the Saddle Up activity

Before we began saddling the horses, we had to clean them. It looked like our horse had been rolling around on the ground. He had a lot of dirt in his coat and much of it was dried mud. There were three different kinds of brushes to use. Only the softest brush could be used on the head and the legs. Stiffer brushes were used on the back, stomach and rump -- although we had to be careful in that area!

Here I am cleaning Sky

Janet and Nancy also clean Sky

After the horse was clean, we had to put a blanket on the horse and then the saddle. Laura and I (the arms) were arguably the smallest people at the workshop, so Tim took pity on us and gave us a light saddle to hoist on the horse. Jack had been put away earlier, so our horse was still pretty tall compared to Laura and me. The hard part was getting the saddle straight and in the right position. It seemed like each time we did it, it was either too far forward or too far back. When we finally got it on right, it didn't look crooked, but I'm glad no one had to get in that saddle to test it. I'm afraid it might not have been the best ride.

Janet and Laura pose with Sky after he's been saddled

The lessons from this activity revolved around being flexible and patient. Janet was a good brain, but she kept wanting to point to things and to help us out. It was a real challenge for Janet to simply give verbal commands. Laura and I, however, were persistent and in the end, it paid off. It delighted me that even though Laura and I were small, we were able to lift the saddle onto the horse together. Still, I am humble enough to know that we might not have achieved success had we been required to use a much heavier saddle.

After the final lesson was discussed, we started to clean up and get ready to go home. I was very tired, a little sunburned and extremely satisfied. I had been able to complete every mission with my team and I had a newly-found confidence. I was amazed I had been able to catch a horse, halter it, guide it to a box and finally saddle a horse. These are all activities I had never done before. I wasn't sure, at the beginning of the day, if I would be able to do everything Tim had planned, so it was a great delight to me that I achieved success. Clearly, I didn't do it on my own, but in real life, we don't have to accomplish all of our goals independently. In fact, it feels better when there is someone there by your side helping you achieve your goal. Then you feel a sense of community even as you are accomplishing your goal. And better than that, you have traveled along a road together, have experienced frustration together, worked out problems together and grown together. Because of this, I will always feel a certain "kinship" with my other workshop participants -- whether we were on the same team or not -- because we have weathered the storm together.

I can't believe how much I have gained from this workshop. As if the lessons themselves were not reason enough, it wasn't until the next day that I felt the full benefit from the workshop. Going home exhausted, I still managed to cook some spaghetti and homemade meat sauce for Laura, Alex and me. I was too tired to do the dishes until the next morning, but I had the most restful sleep I've had in a long time.

Usually I only sleep about 5-6 hours a night (although I really benefit from an afternoon nap when I can pull one off!) but after the personal growth workshop, I slept for 9 1/2 hours! When I awoke I felt more than refreshed. I felt revived. I awoke with a sense of clarity of purpose that surprised me.

In the week since the workshop much has happened. I wrote to a professor at UT about starting my Ph.D. after Alex goes to college. I am still waiting on a formal response from him. He remembered me and wrote to tell me he wanted to think more about my letter before giving me a formal reply.

What I realized, upon awakening, was that I didn't simply want to work on my business after Alex goes to college. While I love what I've done, and I know that I still need to work on marketing the books, my heart is not in publishing. My heart is in writing, speaking and doing research. I could spend the rest of my life trying to market my books, but that wouldn't make me happy. Helping other parents help their children to communicate better so they can lead a quality life like Alex -- that is what I want to do.

Upon awakening I felt a new sense of urgency to finish revising my HLHS Handbook, work on a new book that has been brewing in my head for the last couple of years and prepare myself adequately to enter a doctoral program when I finish homeschooling Alex.

I wish everyone could experience this once-in-a-lifetime leadership workshop. I think it would benefit everyone. There are so many lessons we could learn from the horses. This is one way for people to gain confidence in their own abilities and to prove to themselves that regardless of age, you can try something new and succeed!

To contact Tim Manson for more information about his workshops, visit his website: