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Coaching with horses.

Coaching with horses

In ancient Rome, the sons of nobles who were too young for military service would prove their leadership potential by performing intricate drills on horseback at imperial funerals, temple foundings or in honour of military victory. The lusus Troiae, or 'Troy Game', was a display of communal skill, not a contest. It nevertheless highlighted qualities such as trust, respect, vision, focus, humility and empathy, which Rome considered essential in its leaders of the future.

Two thousand years later, in Volume 17, Issue 1 of E-Organisations & People, Duff reveals how horses are being used in a new form of leadership development. Her company delivers workshops for between eight and 12 participants, usually working with two horses and two facilitators. One facilitator has strong business skills and links the learning back to the workplace. The other has strong horse skills and ensures that all the feedback from the horses is noticed and understood.

After each activity, which could include working individually or as a group with horses at liberty or on a lead rope, there is an opportunity for review and then a discussion about how to take the learning back into the workplace. Tailored workbooks are produced for each workshop and participants are encouraged to record their learning and action points throughout the day. During each activity the facilitation takes the form of coaching questions and helping participants to notice their body language and intentions so that they can anchor them for future use.

'Horses fit the bill perfectly as training partners,' Duff explains. 'For most people they are uncommon and unfamiliar. Horses are acutely sensitive to our body language and intentions. They read people easily and give excellent feedback on the impact of our physical presence, acting as mirrors for us and indicating the changes we need to make to become more effective. However, horses are as individual as humans and so what works with one may not work with another. Thus by working with different horses, the participants are able to practise a range of styles that gives them the flexibility needed in the workplace.'

Training with horses is one of the more unusual ways in which a firm can reward its employees, and perhaps help to make them more committed and loyal. Fuller outlines a number of others, from private music festivals to an indoor golf course to personal financial advice in the March 2010 issue of Personnel Today. The author highlights their effectiveness in engaging and retaining employees. Meanwhile, in Volume 161, Issue 2 of Fortune, Kaplan and Keegan describe how a company that has promised not to lay off workers during the recession has won first place in Fortune magazine's latest 100 Best Companies to Work For.

Jim Goodnight, chief executive of business-analytics firm SAS, reassured workers last year, and again in January, that the company would not cut its workforce. This promise, say employees, makes them more loyal and motivated. Annual staff turnover stands at just 4% in an industry in which 22% is the norm. The average employee stays with the company for more than 10 years. This low turnover translates into long-term relationships with customers, knowledge retention, and low recruitment and training costs.

SAS, which has made the list all 13 years since it was established in 1998, was also named one of the best for health care, child care and work-life balance. Jim Goodnight commented: 'Too many companies worldwide sacrificed employees and benefits to cut costs in 2009. SAS took the opposite stance, and has been rewarded in employee loyalty and the overall success of the business. Maintaining this position throughout the downturn puts us in the best position to meet the expected market upturn.'

'In a tough economy, SAS did not waver from its commitment to employees and to the innovative culture that keeps them challenged and provides work-life balance,' said Jenn Mann, SAS vice-president of human resources. 'The company's continued success proves our core belief: happy, healthy employees are more productive.'