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How to Choose an Instructor

The Power of the Herd explores how nonpredatory, horse-inspired wisdom can help you handle life, career, and community-building challenges with greater ease and success. This book represents over fifteen years of research, experimentation, and experience teaching advanced human development skills through working with these powerful animals. If you increasingly avoid the Four Stone Age Power Tools discussed in chapter 12, while practicing the Twelve Guiding Principles explored in part 3, you will experience significant positive changes in your professional and personal relationships.

However, as I discussed early in Chapter 3, there's only so much of this knowledge that can be translated into words. (Research shows that about 10 percent of human interpersonal communication is verbal.) If you're interested in boosting the nonverbal skills associated with leadership, social intelligence, assertiveness, and mutually-supportive relationships, working with horses is an incredibly efficient, empowering, and fun way to master the elusive "other 90 percent" that distinguishes truly great leaders, innovators, and communicators.

The field of equine-facilitated learning (also known variously as equine-facilitated human development, equine-assisted learning, equine-guided education, or equine-facilitated mental health) has been growing internationally since the late-1990s. Several professional organizations for sharing information have arisen, as well as more in-depth programs for training facilitators, including Eponaquest Worldwide, Adventures in Awareness, Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, Equine Guided Education Association, and European Association for Horse Assisted Education, among others. A few universities also offer degrees or concentrations in equine-facilitated therapy and experiential learning.

Increasingly, we see professionals combining techniques and principles associated with more than one of these programs, in addition to a variety of skills learned through conventional and innovative horse training disciplines. Some facilitators are diligent in gathering the latest research on emotional and social intelligence, horse behavior, and other related topics. Over time, these people tend to develop new activities and approaches, and the field continues to evolve as a result.

Still, there is tremendous variation in the interpersonal skills, teaching styles, and philosophical orientation these instructors exhibit. Some treat the horse as a partner in facilitating this work; others treat the horse as a tool subservient to human needs and whims. Some facilitators respect the integrity of the client's experience, offering a supportive, non-shaming environment for learning; others use activities that put people on the spot, stressing humans and horses alike, sometimes creating a confrontational environment, occasionally endangering participants as a result.

And finally, some facilitators promote a mutually-supportive approach to the continued development of the field; others are highly competitive, seeking to boost their reputation by degrading other professionals, engaging in the age-old practice of using others' vulnerabilities against them for personal gain.

You must therefore be somewhat vigilant in finding the right instructor for your needs. I highly recommend interviewing several prospects before choosing the one that feels most aligned with your personality, learning style, and goals. Yet because of the significant nonverbal elements involved, you must also experience the instructor's work to get the full picture. After looking at websites and talking with the most intriguing candidates by phone, the next step involves attending an introductory workshop or a private session, not only to sample the facilitator's techniques, but also to observe the instructor's presence and effect on others.

It most certainly behooves you to watch how the horses respond to your teacher. Are they engaged, bright-eyed, willing, and relaxed? Or are they disconnected and nervous. (The latter is a red flag, unless the instructor is a guest facilitator at someone else's farm, in which case, watch to see if the horses warm up to the instructor during the clinic---a good sign. If the horses become increasingly nervous or shut down, your teacher may be overly attached to a method and less responsive to the needs of individuals from moment to moment. How he or she treats the horses most certainly translates to how he or she will treat human clients, especially under stress.)

When you or your fellow students ask questions, need assistance in performing a task, or challenge the instructor for some legitimate reason, does your teacher act dismissive or dominant, shame the client outright, make more subtle sarcastic comments, or perhaps even demean the client verbally or nonverbally for not "cooperating" with the method? If so, his interpersonal skills are sorely lacking. This instructor may actually be a decent horse trainer, but equine-facilitated learning demands people skills as well as horse skills. Great instructors spend significant time developing both.

And just as innovators like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Steve Jobs were self-taught in their respective fields of expertise, advanced academic degrees and certifications do not guarantee greatness in the field of equine-facilitated learning. A balance of experience, training, mindfulness, compassion, high ethical standards, curiosity, flexibility, ingenuity, and constant self-improvement are needed to for instructors to truly excel. However, if you are a trauma survivor, I highly recommend working with a facilitator who is also a therapist experienced in working with the kind of challenge you are facing (war-related PTSD, childhood sexual abuse, adult physical or emotional abuse, etc.) Due to the personal nature of these issues, equine-facilitated therapy sessions should always be separated from teambuilding activities, though you will sometimes find an instructor qualified to do both.

On the Eponaquest Worldwide website, for instance, instructors trained in our approach are listed geographically with their specialties, degrees, certifications, and other areas of expertise next to their names. Some are counselors specializing in trauma, addiction, or family and relationship issues. Others are educators offering personal development or creativity-boosting programs. Still others specialize in leadership training. Instructors with the "POH" (Power of the Herd) designation have done advanced training in how to teach the 12 Guiding Principles presented in this book. Additionally, while nearly two hundred people graduated from our multi-week apprenticeship program between 2003 and 2012, the only instructors with contact information presented on our website are those who have agreed to uphold the Eponaquest Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice, recently updated by a representative group of experienced instructors, and overseen by the Eponaquest Ethics Committee. (These standards can be accessed on the website at www.eponaquest.com)

For leadership training, I offer an additional caution: People with psychological or psychiatric degrees and experience do not necessarily make good leadership and team building facilitators. Some techniques used in therapeutic contexts, including group therapy, bring up personal issues that are not appropriate for the workplace. Any facilitator who has a dual counseling and leadership training orientation should be able to clearly state the difference between her therapeutic practice and her team building programs.

The results of blurring these two indiscriminately can be destructive. Over the years, I've talked with a number of people who felt their reputations and already-tenuous work relationships were damaged by attending company-sponsored events designed to boost emotional intelligence, led by counselors trying to break into the lucrative corporate training market. These activities sometimes got too personal too quickly. Other times people felt deeply humiliated by activities that were promoting confrontation or confession in the name of authenticity. Some people felt publically shamed---and lost the respect of their team members as a result. This is not only an occasional problem in the equine-facilitated learning field. Bob Wall's Coaching for Emotional Intelligence offers a number of examples of the detrimental effects he's witnessed in other leadership and team building contexts.

Whether horses, ropes courses, hot coals, wilderness, or other off-site experiences are involved, too many of these programs do little more than put people in frustrating or somewhat threatening situations, and discuss participants' reactions afterward. This is usually done under the guise of making people conscious of unproductive attitudes and interpersonal habits, or encouraging people to "face their fears" and experience some sort of catharsis. Such programs, however, are NOT well-developed enough to truly be productive. The best programs teach specific skills in addition to inspiring self-awareness of previously unrecognized challenges and hidden strengths. Masterful programs help the participant translate those skills to human situations. In evaluating any equine-facilitated leadership program, ask what your employees or team members will learn, how they will learn it, and how it will benefit them in the workplace. If the program still sounds too vague, sensational, or confrontational, it probably is.

Finally, it's important to understand why you would select equine-facilitated leadership training over other options. If the horse is merely being used as an obstacle to overcome, "why bother the horse?" as my friend and colleague Barbara Rector, founder of Adventures in Awareness, asks. Treating any living being as a tool or obstacle reinforces the all-too-common practice of objectifying humans. Our culture already suffers from this antiquated practice. Even if you're interested purely in the bottom line, it's important to note that cynical, disengaged, or apathetic employees whose talents are never tapped, who give up and "retire in place" because they're seen as replaceable cogs in a wheel, block everyone's ability to get the job done, let alone excel. Furthermore, those managers and workers who release the resulting frustration through sarcasm, aggressive, or passive aggressive moves create a toxic corporate and political environment precisely because they don't know how to use power effectively and collaboratively.

As highly social, intensely mindful, nonpredatory power animals, horses are quite simply best equipped to help our species master the nonverbal nuances of leadership and social intelligence. Choose an instructor who understands how to draw these long-neglected skills out of the shadows and into the light of day, through activities that respect the client's and the horse's talents and integrity, and your goals for an off-site, leadership or teambuilding training will be met, and most likely exceeded.


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