Fresh from a natural horsemanship class with her ex-racehorse, Tracey Evans cast her eyes upon the “good, the bad and the ugly” of the leadership and teamwork taking place in her corporate finance position, and she got an idea.
What if instead of PowerPoint presentations in a room blinded by florescent lighting, leadership techniques could be taught in the fresh air of the great outdoors, where, rather than learning leadership principles from by-the-book jargon and hackneyed catchphrases, it could be acquired by working out real world problems, and with the instincts of a horse.
Forget words like “metrics” and “ownership” and think instead of how you would handle a hands-on problem of leading a 1,200 pound animal past obstacles, while blindfolded, and attached to a colleague wearing sound-canceling earphones. Learning this, she says, can be far more illustrative than 15 minutes of slide shows in a stuffy corporate room.
Race name: Public Mischief
Barn name: Oliver
Sire: Regal Remark
Dam: Client Development
Foal date: Jan. 26, 1998 “The horsemanship lessons I took to better understand my horse actually helped me to better understand people’s motivations, how they learn, and how they respond to your request,” says Evans, cofounder of Dreamwinds Equine Assisted Learning Centre in Ontario. “Recognizing peoples’ individual strengths and how they respond to leadership, and how they learn” was so similar to how she learned to work with her Thoroughbred that it formed the basis of her facility, founded with partner Dirk Tews, to teach leadership on the ground. With horses.
“I took the horsemanship clinic in 2004, and when I got back, I was sitting with a colleague at dinner in New York telling her about my experience with teaching the horse to work for me, and want to work for me. I told her how I looked for the ‘try’ and as I was explaining how successful I’d been with my horse” it occurred to me that similar techniques might go a long way in corporations.
For example, while working with her OTTB in the clinic, it took only 15 minutes to establish her role as the boss, and the moment was life changing. “When I first got my OTTB home, he was nervous, spooky and lacked confidence,” she recalls. “At the natural horsemanship clinic, where the first thing they have you do is back the horse out of your space, and create boundaries within our own personal bubble, I felt my horse take a deep breath after 15 minutes.”
After that, a horse she could barely lead out of the barn without having him rear and spook, was taking her on long, rambling adventures on trail rides through the woods. Her horse just needed a leader. A kind, collaborative leader.
When working with horses, there’s no way to lie or flub your way through the exercises.
“If you have a team leader who is anxious or uncomfortable, or someone with a negative attitude, the horse reacts to that,” she says, explaining that many corporate types have had many “ah-ha” moments when they put their leadership styles to practice with a horse. “Horses don’t care if you’re a CEO or the janitor. They’ll pick up on something not being right, or if there’s a problem with the team.”
A typical exercise may involve asking a group of colleagues to work together in a problem-solving scenario. They’ll be asked to lead her OTTB Public Mischief, whom she calls Oliver, through an obstacle course. Someone on the team will be blindfolded, another will wear noise-canceling earphones, and a third may not be able to speak.
Each teammate must work around their limits to effectively communicate with each other, and with the horse. “When we’ve blindfolded people for the first time, we’ve had some very strong leaders struggle with the loss of control,” she says. “It brought a lot of issues to light for them as they had to rely on their partners to help them.”
Since opening Dreamwinds this year, Evans’ program has drawn many clients, including those working on marketing teams, with technology corporations, and with financial services. Going forward, she plans to offer her services to school boards for at-risk children and youths facing challenges, she adds.
And it goes without saying that the most important teammate in all of this is her ex-racehorse Thoroughbred.
She stumbled across the darkly handsome horse in 2003 while on the search for a “been there, done that” riding horse. She wanted safe. She wanted bombproof.
To this day, she can’t figure out why she answered the advertisement to go see her Thoroughbred.
“I still have the advertisement, and if I saw it today, with the description ‘great project horse’ I never would have done it,” she says.
But she went to see him anyway. And as she first took him in, standing elegantly on his cross ties; she swears there was a “magic about him.”
“He draws you in and he communicates with everyone he meets,” she says. “Here he was at age 5, and he had this huge heart, and he so clearly preferred to be around people rather than his herd. He was just happy to be there, and be fawned over.”
While they had trying times together, no doubt, their relationship changed dramatically for the good when she learned to be his leader. “Once I learned to be that for him, we were unstoppable.”
After a successful and happy 10 years jumping in the low-level hunters, her partner is now equally happy to help her teach leadership to people who don’t get much time away from their fluorescent boxed-in environments.
“Oliver is our star instructor,” Evans says. “He has been a catalyst for my most recent life changes, allowing me to marry my two passions and build a business. My ‘crazy OTTB’ is the most incredibly patient instructor as he helps people build their leadership skills, and he is happy to share his wisdom with everyone he meets.”