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Not so long ago, I wrote a piece about the fallability of HR. In that piece I was quite sceptical of certain practices and fads in business and in HR. One of those fads is horse-assisted coaching. In general I think interventions done by coaches and trainers should be as close as possible  to the experience people have and to their work context. Introducing exotic items into the intervention might create a certain learning experience which is difficult to transfer into the everyday life of the coachee. Moreover, I believe you need to try and stick to practices that have a certain body of evidence. But I am not too dogmatic about that: if something works it works. So it’s not because something has not (yet) been scientifically validated that it cannot have value.  Some pragmatism is never wrong.
Not long after the publication of that blog, I was contacted by Meredith, who has a coaching practice (Triangis) in which she also uses horses when appropriate. She invited (challenged) me to join a session of horse-assisted coaching to experience how it could work. I accepted the invitation and we met in summer. I had decided to go there with an open mind, and not as a sceptical judge. I had no clue of what it would be like. I was just hoping it would not be the esoteric kind of coaching (the horse speaks with you, it is telling


It’s about the horse?

you stuff you don’t know about yourself…) as that was the stereotype I was carrying around..
I got to work with three horses: Wasabi, Donna and Raissa. Especially the third horse was a challenge. She was a sport horse with a lot of energy. She turned her rear towards me, a rude (and dangerous) thing to do. And that was the horse I had to lunge without a rope.  Of course she did not do exactly what I wanted her to do. But at the end she kind of accepted me.
It’s about coaching
So I survived the experience and I got to appreciate Meredith’s approach. And  in the end, the horses did not matter that much. It’s about coaching. The active element is not the horse. It’s the coach. The horse provides a context in which something happens.  And the questions he or she asks create reflection and learning. So horse-assisted coaching might not even be the right name – although Meredith will not agree with me on this one.
Other coaches will not use horses because they are unable to. But they might use other techniques to enhance the coaching process, some of which relate to a skill or a passion. Maybe someone will refer to music, another might refer to sports, gardening, … Coaches look for handles to do what they do: enhance awareness, responsibility and progress.
I was happy that Meredith proved to be a coach and that there were no spiritual, esoteric ingredients ;-). So the prejudice was not at all confirmed.
We discussed how she could improve. I had only three things to say:

  • make sure that the coachee understands what he or she can expect and how the horse will be used. This should be done before the coaching starts
  • try and apply evidence-based approaches to evaluate when horse-assisted coaching can be appropriate and when not
  • underline the importance of the coaching element in the communication towards target groups
  • use the horse-assisted coaching in circumstances where the horse has a clear added value (in any case you need a stable …)

It was a good day because I had an experience I did not have before. I could learn something and the feedback I received was valuable.
So you see, I am able to change my mind and open up to things I do not know.
David Ducheyne
P.S. In the same article I also referred to the practice of walking on hot coals. If a coach who uses this technique reads this; don’t even bother to contact me, because I will not accept an invitation to try it.

David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.

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