Belgium: Jonas De Cooman is trying to win a pay rise. Unfortunately for the Belgian marketing executive, he must do it by persuading a reluctant bay gelding called Jumper to budge.
In this corporate training scenario with a difference, De Cooman came out the loser. The horse showed a vague interest in the clump of grass being waved in its face before continuing to snuffle about in the ground. “The main trouble here is the inability to change strategy,” explained trainer Thierry Verwaerde, as De Cooman and two other colleagues from a multinational firm struggled to get Jumper to do their bidding at a paddock in the Belgian countryside.
Verwaerde and his wife Bernadette Delvaux are pioneering a corporate training technique they call “equi-coaching”, whose tool is the highly strung nature of horses.
If the maxim holds that you can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink, their method forces trainees to try a variety of tactics and ruses to win over the animal, and in doing so, understand their own workplace strengths and weaknesses.
The horses have neither saddles nor bridles. The exercises are largely unmounted, and designed so that experienced riders fare no better than novices. The trainees sometimes carry a longe whip—used to signal to the horse—but are not encouraged to use it with any force.
“The horse is prey. Its instinct is to flee. It has a well- developed emotional sense and we use that hyper-sensitivity,” said education scientist Verwaerde. “It also weighs 500kg.” Verwaerde and psychologist Delvaux devised the method according to the theories of ethology, the science of animal behaviour that developed in Europe in the 1920s.
While horses have been used in therapy in the US and elsewhere, they say their Equi-RH company, based in the small town of Wepion, is rare in using the animals to develop skills for the workplace. “What we offer here is strong on emotion. And when you have to deal with conflict, the emotional side is often the most important,” said Delvaux.
Many executives seen by the company show a lack of self-confidence which leaves them unable to express clearly what they want the horse to do, says Delvaux. Others face different emotional challenges.
“We had one man who exuded so much anger, he nearly had the horse go over the rails and we had to tell him to stop. But he changed in the end,” said Delvaux.
After a couple of hours, De Cooman and his colleagues become more adept at manoeuvring the horses as they are encouraged to use their “bubble”, a term Verwaerde and Delvaux use to describe a personal presence or aura which they say horses latch onto.
“Profound is the word. You feel as if you are touching your roots here,” said corporate talent scout Sofie Van Eemeren. In short debriefing sessions after the exercises, clients and trainers pick over performances and tactics. Talk fast turns to the corporate culture and weaknesses of their employer. “It seems to enable them to get to the heart of the problems in their business,” said Delvaux.
But are skills learnt with Jumper really transferable to the human environment of business? De Cooman questions whether there is a parallel between persuading a horse to trot round a paddock and devising a major marketing campaign, although he finally acknowledges that flexibility of tactics can help in both cases.