Discover a Whole New Approach to Leadership Training

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The University of Guelph Kemptville Campus offers a leadership training course with a difference: they use horses.

What’s most valuable to participants is that the leadership skills they develop in the program can be transferred to both their professional and personal lives. - Maria Sowden-Weingarden, Facilitator

The general consensus is that leadership training is vital to any business and that American football player and coach Vince Lombardi was correct when he stated that “Leaders aren’t born, they are made.”

So it’s not a question of whether front-line managers should have leadership training, but what form it should take. With a unique training program known as LEAD – Leadership through Equine Assisted Discovery – the University of Guelph Kemptville Campus is offering an alternative to the typical classroom setting: the horse barn.

“Horses are particularly suited to leadership training programs because of the feedback they give,” explains Dr. Katrina Merkies, who facilitates the equine component of the program. “Being keenly aware of their environment, they respond immediately to what we are communicating, recognizing tension in our bodies and reading all of our non-verbal messages. Their responses give us insight into how effectively we lead, how consistent we are in communicating, how we manage our emotions, and more. If you demonstrate true leadership, a horse will willingly respond to your requests.”

LEAD, next scheduled to run April 22 through 26, 2014, is a five-day experiential learning course with both an equine and a leadership theory component. Mornings are spent in the arena interacting with the horses to understand and influence their behavioral responses; afternoons are spent in the classroom. Through a series of carefully constructed activities, participants develop skills in four main areas: management and leadership, communication skills, team building, and personal development. All of these skills can be transferred to the workplace and also taken into everyday life.

The LEAD program is recommended for new leaders, managers currently leading a team of people, or individuals looking to do personal development. Experience with horses is not necessary.

Equine-assisted training began in the US in the 90s and is gaining popularity as a new and insightful way to help people excel as leaders. The Kemptville Campus LEAD program is the first university-accredited equine-assisted leadership program in Canada; participants receive a University of Guelph certificate on successful completion of the course.

Merkies is a professor in the Department of Animal and Poultry Science at the University of Guelph and researcher of equine behavior and welfare. Maria Sowden-Weingarden facilitates the theoretical component of the program. She is a human behavior specialist, trainer, facilitator and certified coach with more than 25 years of experience providing corporate training and coaching.

Sowden-Weingarden is thrilled to be involved with Kemptville Campus’ unique LEAD program. “What’s most valuable to participants,” she states, “is that the leadership skills they develop in the program can be transferred to both their professional and personal lives.”

“In our program, you have to develop a relationship with the horse that you’re working with,” says Merkies, “and you have to gain its trust through clear communication.” Sowden-Weingarden explains that this lesson carries over into the business world, where an important trait of great leaders is their ability to build relationships based on trust and to inspire people to follow them. The program prompts participants to look at the relationships they have developed in the business world as well as with friends and family.

Participants in the LEAD program learn that it’s important to be assertive when dealing with horses – acting either aggressively or passively will not produce the desired result. “It’s the same in our interactions with people in the workplace and in our day-to-day lives,” says Sowden-Weingarden, “we need to be assertive, stating our needs clearly and appropriately through direct, open, and honest communication.”

Sowden-Weingarden notes that some of the concepts in the course, and perhaps working with the horses themselves, might take participants out of their comfort zone. This is not a bad thing, she says, because “being out of your comfort zone facilitates learning and growth, when it takes place in a safe environment.”

Merkies notes that it is quite common for LEAD participants to have a healthy respect for the half-ton animals they are working with. And this fact is not lost on the horses. “Horses have a unique ability to reflect back to you what you’re thinking and feeling,” says Merkies, “including fear.”

Sowden-Weingarden talks about her own experience being in the ring with horses for the first time, in preparation for the LEAD program. “When Katrina invited me into the ring with a horse, I encountered my own fear. I knew I needed to trust Katrina. I entered the ring, followed her lead, and before long I was leading the horse and was able to get him to change directions. We have a choice when we’re afraid: step into the ring or hold back.” The LEAD program encourages participants to reflect on the fears or obstacles that might be holding them back, both in the workplace and in everyday life.

LEAD uses a variety of tools to facilitate the development of leadership skills and personal growth, including a series of self-assessments. These include personality assessment and emotional intelligence, defined as the ability to perceive, control and evaluate emotions. Participants learn to recognize their own personality traits and to recognize and adapt to different personality traits in others; back in the workplace and in their personal lives, Sowden-Weingarden explains, this knowledge will help them develop a better rapport with others and adjust their leadership style where appropriate.

“For some people, this will be the first time they’ve taken a real look at themselves, supported by facilitators and peers,” says Sowden-Weingarden. “It can be very transformational.”

Sowden-Weingarden also notes that a very tightknit community develops over the five days of the course. A recent LEAD participant agrees, stating, “It was one of the most informative weeks of my life. We shared, we learned and we bonded.”

Another recent LEAD participant had this to say about her experience: “I learned so much about myself. Because of a horse’s innate ability to mirror our insecurities and core strengths, if we know what to look for (how to read horse body language), we experience real, immediate feedback about how we are ‘being’ at any given moment.”

A third participant praised the hands-on approach of the LEAD program. “Working directly with the horses is the best approach for learning these types of skills,” she said. “When we weren’t practicing a skill ourselves, we were watching and discussing when the other participants were practicing, and providing feedback to them. This practice/feedback loop is very effective, and possible in a safe learning environment, such as we had.”

Kemptville Campus’ LEAD program provides an exciting opportunity to acquire the skills needed for leadership and personal growth through experiential learning. The use of horses, which are attuned to non-verbal cues and reflect the participant’s leadership style back to him or her, gives the program the power to transform lives. The combination of equine-assisted and theoretical learning means that participants can take their experiences interacting with the horses and transfer them to the workplace and their everyday lives.

For more information about taking part in LEAD, contact admissions clerk Angela Rodger Casey at arodgerc(at)uoguelph(dot)ca.

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Dr. Katrina Merkies is a professor in the Department of Animal and Poultry Science at the University of Guelph. She developed the curriculum for the only equine undergraduate degree program in Canada, and has over 20 years’ experience teaching a variety of equine courses. Dr. Merkies also has a research program exploring equine behaviour and welfare, particularly how human interactions affect horse behaviour.

Maria Sowden-Weingarden has more than 25 years of experience providing corporate training and coaching. She has worked in a wide variety of industries from the public, private, health, educational and non-profit sectors in addition to starting her own business. Maria is known for her entrepreneurial spirit as well as her compassion, understanding and unique insight into human behavior. Master subjects include communications, team-building, leadership, navigating change, work-life balance, personal empowerment and stress reduction.

About Kemptville Campus:
For more than 95 years, Kemptville Campus has delivered life-changing learning opportunities at the undergraduate, diploma, certificate, and continuing education levels. We are proud to offer a wide range of applied research and instructional programs addressing the science and business of agriculture, equine, food and related skilled trades. As part of the University of Guelph’s Ontario Agricultural College, Kemptville Campus carries on a long tradition of innovative and high quality life science education. Located some 30 minutes south of Ottawa, Kemptville Campus offers students a friendly, active, and well-rounded campus life with all the amenities and activities normally found on a much larger campus.

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