Equine studies for executives

This programme brings together business leaders and horses. Here's why.
Jude Jennison stands with Mr Blue, left, and Gio, two of the horses she uses in her Leadership With Horses course that helps executives develop their leadership skills.
Jude Jennison stands with Mr Blue, left, and Gio, two of the horses she uses in her Leadership With Horses course that helps executives develop their leadership skills.

Jude Jennison works with leaders — and horses. Five of them. Kalle, Opus, Tiffin, Mr Blue, and Gio. Horses, like humans, Jennison said, are looking for "transparency, authenticity, congruence in your behaviour". They also want someone to keep them safe, "which, of course, is what people want, too. We just don't always talk about wanting to be safe."

The work involves no riding, which makes for a partnership of equals. "If [the horses] don't want to go with you, they just plant their feet and refuse to move," she explained.

Horses respond to humans' nonverbal communication and, according to Jennison, "cut through all the masks of who you think you should be or who you like to think you are. ... So if somebody is anxious but is pretending to be confident, the horses will not engage with them because it's a mixed message. If you're anxious and you're honest about it, they will engage with you because you're honest and you're transparent."

Jennison started to coach business leaders eight years ago, and early on had a lightbulb moment. "I was challenging a group of directors that I was working with to be more courageous in their leadership, and I asked them to overcome their fear of something to understand what happens when you come out the other side of overcoming your fear."

"I thought, 'What am I frightened of? — horses.' So I decided to go and overcome my fear of horses. And found myself face to face with a horse. In five minutes, I overcame my fear. And in two hours, I learned so much about my leadership." Recognising the potential benefit for others, she trained formally in equine guided leadership and bought her first horse.

Default behaviour

For business leaders, being clear and confident and engendering trust are essential qualities, and horses can help here, too. "Horses also require clarity. ... So they show you very quickly what are your default patterns of behaviour. So how quickly do you build trust? How quickly do you build mutual respect?" Jennison said.

One of her clients working in financial services said, "All my default patterns of behaviour have shown up, all my strengths, and all the places where I derail my career."

The work in Jennison's Leadership With Horses course is about bringing out strengths and using them to overcome people's vulnerabilities. There are also common themes: self-confidence, presence, clarity, teamwork, and alignment. (See "Heightening Awareness of Strengths", below, for an HR professional's assessment of the beneficial effects of Jennison's techniques on one company's high-potential senior leaders.)

The solution is not a cognitive one. "It's something else that's much more complex and more subtle. Because, of course, leadership behaviour is ... massively complex and, yet, very simple," she said.

Before launching her own business, Jennison worked for IBM in Warwick in the UK's Midlands for 16 years. "I tended to be given jobs where somebody would say, 'This is not defined. We don't really know what we need to do, but we need to do something,'" she explained. "And I would go in and I would work out what we needed to do, put in the management system, the governance, work out how to do it, define the strategy, and then hand it over to somebody else to deliver."

This ability to lead through uncertainty is increasingly becoming part of today's executives' skillset, and the Brexit referendum decision in June 2016 was a pivotal moment in this trend in the UK. "At that point, everybody started to talk about uncertainty and be more comfortable with the concept [of] uncertainty ... and to recognise that, actually, we've always lived through uncertainty," Jennison explained.

In addition to geopolitical shifts, change has been driven by digital disruption of traditional businesses. "It's challenging for them to certainly change the way they operate when they've got legacy systems, old ways of doing things, and hundreds of thousands of employees to leverage and manoeuvre in a different direction," she said.

These changes, she suggested, require a different style of leadership, for which people aren't necessarily equipped and are left feeling "anxious, stressed, polarised because they are unsure how to lead through it".

Solutions she offers could be flatter management systems and more collective leadership styles. "People are used to collaborating using technology. So people are used to operating in a more systemic way, and they're wanting to be engaged and inspired. And people no longer expect to have a job for life. So they vote with their feet if they're not engaged and they're not inspired, and they leave."

CEOs have a particular role in creating certainty from uncertainty. Certainty could take the form of guidelines for how employees operate together as a team, company values, or a specific goal or objectives that are the must-dos.

Jennison's diagnosis of what middle managers are feeling is not a positive one — she said there is much fear and uncertainty in organisations, which creates stress. "If you're repeatedly pushed out of your comfort zone, eventually you get more and more stressed until you hit overwhelm and burnout."

Part of her solution, which she details in her book Leading Through Uncertainty, is to "slow down to speed up". This is essential to increase two things: collaboration and creativity. "To truly collaborate, we have to slow down enough to be able to listen."

She added: "So, creativity doesn't occur in moments where we're going at 300 miles an hour. Creativity happens when we're in the shower, when we're out for a run, when we're playing squash, or doing something where we're actually just being and slowing down."

Heightening awareness of strengths

Kristy Rowlett is talent, leadership, and development manager at insurance and financial services provider Wesleyan Assurance Society, based in Birmingham in the UK Midlands. In October 2017, as part of the company’s “WeLead” talent development programme, she took a group of high-potential senior leaders on a Jude Jennison Leadership With Horses course. Rowlett shared her thoughts on the key lessons from the course and the benefits she has already noticed:

What were you and your team required to do?

Rowlett: We participated in individual and team activities, leading horses to achieve a specific goal, which replicates how we typically lead people to achieve results in the workplace.

What problem or issue were you trying to solve?

Rowlett: I wanted to heighten our leaders’ awareness of their leadership strengths to boost their poise and gravitas, as well as raising awareness of any behaviours that may be “getting in the way” of leading others effectively. As strange as it may sound, the horses are astounding at giving behavioural feedback — and because it’s a visceral experience, the learning really sinks in and sticks with you.

What was the outcome?

Rowlett: All of our leaders came away with clear actions to enhance their leadership impact and put these into practice. After three months, the group fed back that they were experiencing less conflict, found it easier to influence, and were seeing more engagement and development within their teams. A number of the group were also promoted into more senior leadership roles.

Oliver Rowe is an FM magazine senior editor. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact him at