Working with workhorses

Nikki Kagan, founder of HorseSense International, says equine workshops effective in addressing challenges in the workplace.

HorseSense (photo credit: Courtesy HorseSense International)
(photo credit: Courtesy HorseSense International)
I stand among nine women in a large circle. Each of us is blindfolded, and except for the occasional muffled noise, silence surrounds us. I feel a softness on my arm, and my lips turn upwards in a smile. I open my eyes under the blindfold and see white legs passing.
And I know that this can only be Amani.
“OK, take off your blindfolds,” Nikki Kagan says, breaking the silence. “What did you feel?” Gracefully, Kenney, brown with patches of white, and Hamami, dark brown, drift to corners of the arena, while Amani, the playful white horse, rolls around in the sand, making happy sounds as she creates small clouds of dust.
The tension is broken as the women, suddenly filled with laughter, try to guess which horse touched them.
And thus began Women and the Way of the Horse, a workshop offered by HorseSense International.
Kagan, a corporate facilitator and management consultant, founded HorseSense International in 2005. Using the methodology of Equine Assisted Professional Development (EAPD), which guides participants to learn by creating their own unique style of leadership and interpersonal communication, Kagan “helps businessmen and women address leadership management and teamwork challenges in the workplace.”
Following 17 years of work in corporate consultancy in the United States and Israel, “I started doing research, and realized that people were doing versions of EAPD in Israel. I set out to learn as much as I could about it by attending workshops around the world to see what they were doing and how they were doing it,” Kagan says.
“What I found was that there were a lot of people doing the work but not successfully bridging it to the corporate workplace,” she explains. Workshops, she said, were run from a spiritual and emotional base, which is not attractive to people from the corporate world.
So gathering together all the information she had gained, Kagan decided to combine her two passions – her corporate work and horses – and she created a program through which participants can learn about their inner selves, and also learn how they interact with others, through their interaction with horses.
Back at the Tlamim Riding Center at Kibbutz Magal east of Hadera, during the four-hour workshop the participants of Women and the Way of the Horse begin their journey of self-discovery by discussing how they can uncover parts of themselves they are not aware of, and work through the blocks that get in the way.
The obvious question is: why horses?
“Horses are prey animals and everything about them is wired to pick up on their environment,” says Kagan. “They can see 320 degrees; their ears can swivel all around; their hooves are shaped to feel vibrations in the ground; and their skin is so sensitive they can feel flies on them.”
A series of exercises geared towards interaction and reaching a level of comfort with the horses followed the group discussion.
In a “get to know the horses” exercise, the women, some of whom had never been near a horse, pet, groom and talk to Kenney, Hamami and Amani.
Holding the horses with ropes, one by one we attempt to lead the horses through a maze formed by props arranged on the sand of the picadero.
Some walk through the maze with ease, while Amani and I go in different directions.
“Do you know what you want her to do?” Kagan asks, indicating that my lack of certainty is confusing Amani.
“Horses can also sense us,” she explains, “so when we are around them, if we are not being honest with ourselves, they cannot pick up on the emotion, but rather they can pick up on a lack of congruency between our heads and our hearts.
“People try to be their best selves when they are around the horses,” Kagan says. “When a person tries to be his best self, he has to be aware of the things that he is doing that are not in integrity.”
She relates the story of a client who could not get the horse to walk with her.
“She stood alone, with her back to the horse. I told her to silently talk to the horse from her mind and heart, and to ask him to go to her. Finally, after taking a few steps and looking around, he walked to her. She didn’t see him coming.
When she felt his breath on her, she started crying,” said Kagan. “It’s such an honor when they come to you,” she says, smiling.
“The results with the horses have significant impact because people experience their shortcomings firsthand, and they also experience what it’s like to change something in their behavior or intentions and see immediate results. That has lasting impact,” she explains.
“It’s different from simply discussing it around a conference table or even doing other types of exercises like rock climbing,” she said. “Working with horses gives people the chance to work with another feeling, living presence that gives honest, immediate feedback.”
However, the work with horses never stands alone. Group discussions are an important aspect of Kagan’s work.
Kagan accepts all types of groups, and designs the exercises according to their needs. The challenge might be communication or a conflict between two departments at work. Her exercises make use of props such as hoops, logs, flags, streamers and tires to create metaphors that represent challenges that her clients face.
“For corporate groups, it is often about being able to see the impact of team dynamics at work and about recognizing that leadership is much more about heartfelt intention,” she says. “If we are solely task-focused, we are less effective because we have not considered or honored the importance of people – with all of their feelings, emotions, motivations, desires, and intentions.”
Kagan relates the experience of another client who was in management who could not get the horse to follow her.
“The horse went to the corner, and she could not get him out. In her frustration, she became aggressive, which did not help at all, and the horse continued to ignore her,” she says, adding that the client started to cry when she realized that this was the same thing that happened to her at work.
“When she was not clear about what she wanted, her co-workers did not understand her, and she would become frustrated with them. Interacting with the horse allowed her to realize what no one was willing to tell her,” explains Kagan.
FAMILIES CAN also benefit from such workshops, says Kagan.
“Families are truly unique. They learn to appreciate and understand one another in new ways. Working with the horses gives them a chance to step out of their typical stereotypical roles and assume different places.”
Children often take the lead, feeling more comfortable and excited about the horse, whereas the parent may be more intimidated or fearful.
The challenges that women face are different from those of men, she says.
“Women’s issues are typically around stepping up and being more present – asserting themselves, understanding their own power and learning to use it in a way that feels consistent with who they are,” says Kagan.
She has held many sessions for women, and finds that the dynamics of the group are different when it is just women.
“The women are always so gracious and supportive of one another. Every group bonds in some way,” she explains.
“I am excited about this group,” she says, referring to her latest group of women, “because it is diverse with a diverse set of expectations.”
The final exercise, the Dance of Influence, is the time for each woman to shine, and express the unity between herself and the horse.
Fear grasped me as I enter the picadero to “dance” with Amani.
Intimidated and unsure of myself, my moves with Amani are clumsy.
“Decide what you want, and let her know,” encourages Kagan. Taking a deep breath, I let down my inhibitions, and talk to Amani. Soon we are proudly running around the picadero together.
“I’m out of my box!” I shout, excitedly.
The lesson learned: I am able to successfully leave my comfort zone, but first I must know what I want, for only then I can clearly express myself to others.
Each woman, encouraged by the rest of the group, “dances” with her preferred horse.
“Success,” says Kagan, “is not about doing the right thing. There is no right or wrong. It is about being in harmony with the horses.”
Each woman echoes Kagan but uses different words.
“It was a great experience,” says Dorit, smiling. “The horse really felt me. When I chose to deal with my feelings the horse was with me. It felt so warm, and it was what I really needed at that time!” Zehava, who, at the beginning of the workshop was afraid to touch the horses, leaves her fear behind and walks Amani back to her stall at the end of the workshop.
Ahuva says that she made a new friend, and Minda “learns that she does have a presence, and her self-esteem is strengthened.”
And Robin, who has prior experience with horses, is grateful for the opportunity to be with horses again.
“I really enjoyed being a part of HorseSense. It is sometimes too easy to run around and get caught up in day-to-day stresses and tasks. Too often I forget to honor the mind-body connection. Being around the horses, the wonderful participants, and the facilitators reminded me how much I miss horses. I miss the deep connection to the intuitive that horses bring me to.”
What about Kagan? She feels good, too.
“For me, the work is all about making a difference,” she says with pride. “The most satisfying moments for me are when people share their epiphanies – when their faces reveal their pride, selfconfidence, their joy in trying something so unfamiliar and finding that not only did they do it, but they learned something very personal that will impact their personal and/or professional growth and development. The connection they make with the horses brings out something deep inside – almost permission to be themselves in all their glory.”
As the workshop comes to an end, and the doors of the stalls close behind Kenney, Hamami and Amani, new doors open in the lives of each of the women, all because of a few hours spent in the presence of horses.