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Take the reigns

Emma Kirkwood and James Meurer have taken their passion and knowledge of horses and business to create a new leadership coaching program where the horses are doing all the teaching.

It was one of those moments in life where you can’t help but wonder at the synchronicity of it all.

Performance consultant Emma Kirkwood finally realised her dream of owning a horse and went to get lessons on how to be a better horse rider and handler, where she met James Meurer and ended up not only with a better-mannered horse, but a whole new business venture.

It didn’t take long for Emma and James to realise that by working together they had a lot to offer the wider business community, resulting in the development of Frontier Leadership, a corporate training business based in Sydney that involves working with horses.

“I had been wanting to do something around leadership and using horses, but didn’t really know where to take the idea,” Meurer, who has worked as a horse trainer for 20 years,

explains. “Then Emma, who works in this space, came to get some lessons with her horse.

“Each time she came for a lesson, we ended up talking about training and how this is an important, but often overlooked aspect of leadership.

“Horses, just like team members, need to know what is expected of them. People, just like horses, need clear guidance and it’s not just the words those doing the following are responding to.

“Good leaders understand how important their non-verbal communication is, and working with horses gives them a good way to instantly understand and develop their communication and leadership skills.”

Meurer says working with horses is a great leveller because they don’t care what your job title is or how much you earn; their concern is only about your interaction with them and that is focused on non-verbal communication.

“If we provide a horse with clear direction, we set them up to be able to perform in the manner we want, but you need to establish a connection and trust with the horse first,” he says.

“If a horse feels forced or intimidated, it won’t respond well, and people are the same. But if the horse is empowered and given clear guidance, it will feel and respond better. Exactly the same principles apply in the workplace.”

Kirkwood, who has a career history in workplace relations, HR, leadership training and recruitment, says she was struck by the way Meurer was able to create an environment where the horse became engaged and co-operative and “wanted to be with you”.

“To me that is what leading a team is all about,” Kirkwood says. “At the time, I was focusing on employment relations and dealing with some tough workplace grievances and I kept thinking there has to be a way to show leaders the impact they can have when they work well with their team.

“We have to prove to horses that we can be trusted and [are] worthy of following. That doesn’t happen by saying ‘trust me’. It comes from our verbal and non-verbal language and our behaviours.

“Using horses for leadership training strips away the power of a person’s corporate position, the authority they are given from their title and hierarchy within a team. What’s left is the one-on-one interaction between the participant and the horse, and that creates a dialogue where the leader must understand the messages that are being given to them.

“I have no doubt that being taken out of the office and spending a day or two working with horses raises your awareness of yourself and how you communicate. It brings you back to grass-roots communication very quickly.”

Frontier Leadership offers one- and two-day leadership training courses, as well as individual coaching and team-building activities. Frontier Leadership is aimed predominantly at business leaders and sales teams who are looking to refine their skills. Clients to date include The Commonwealth Bank, Shopper Tracker, Instant Insights Academy, Biosis and Redwood Consulting.

“When we lead our horse, we need to earn their trust and respect and we do that in a number of ways,” Meurer says. “When you are working with a horse, there should be no anxiety on our part.

“When applying this in the training context, we look at behaviours - things like gestures, firstly with the horse, and then we map these back to the workplace. We start to question how approachable we are, how focused we are, are we aware of the people around us, are our people intimated by us or willing to speak with us?

“Ultimately, your behaviours and how you engage with people will determine your relationships. Are our staff asking questions and are we giving them the answers they need?”

Kirkwood says working with horses is a more engaging experience.

“One of the powerful lessons you get from working with horses to take back into the workplace, is that you stop thinking it’s about you and start thinking that it’s about your employees,” she says. “To get where you want to go as a business, it’s about your team and that means you really have to park your ego. You can see the difference in the horse when the person makes the interaction about the horse and not themselves.”

And as for the neigh-sayers, Kirkwood and Meurer (pictured right) reckon they should try it out and will likely learn a thing or two about themselves and leadership in the process.

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