CME dean Julia Christensen Hughes leads a horse.
CBE dean Julia Christensen Hughes guides a horse.

Horses, as Rita Raso will tell you, are big — and scary. “When I found out we were going to do this Horse Sense program last fall, I tried to find all possible ways to get out of it,” says the administrative assistant in Marketing and Consumer Studies. “I am so afraid of horses.”

On top of that, she couldn’t figure out what horses could teach people about leadership and team-building – the purpose of this all-day experience for administrative assistants in the College of Business and Economics. As dean Julia Christensen Hughes explains: “CBE’s administrative assistants are geographically dispersed across campus. This day gave us a unique opportunity to explore common leadership and communication challenges, and how we can better support each other.”

Despite her fears, Raso joined the rest of the group on the farm located just off Highway 6 south, where the workshops are facilitated by trainer Sharon Quarrington. Jennifer Brayshaw, administrative assistant for executive programs, says that “starting out, everyone was kind of nervous, but it was a fantastic day. It was definitely one of the best leadership training events I have ever been involved in.”

She explained that the opportunity to work with the horses made the lessons practical rather than theoretical. “To talk about some aspect of leadership is one thing, but to see it happen is another,” she comments.

Raso was pleased — and relieved — that Quarrington let her go at her own pace. Although she was scared of the horses at first, she learned how to approach them and read their body language with Quarrington’s help. “You had to be very attentive to the horse to try to understand what he was thinking,” she says. When she was able to make that connection, the horse was willing to follow her through an obstacle course.

Each participant had to make adjustments to their approach to get the horse to respond, and they each took home a different lesson. Raso says she learned how to enhance her ability to work with others. “I learned from my experience with the horse that your tone and the way you ask a question can get a person’s back up. I think I’m now more sensitive to how people are feeling.” She adds that the new skills she learned don’t just apply to a work environment – they can help you listen to your partner or children better as well.

Brayshaw says she gained a lot of insight about coaching others, something she does often in her work. “It helped me to see that I need to step up and be clear and concise with people. You can’t fake it, you have to step up into leadership. Horses know if you are really in that role, and people do as well.” She also ended the day with more confidence after working with horses in a way she had never expected.

During the second part of the workshop, the focus was on teamwork. The participants were divided into two teams. The first team had one member blindfolded and riding the horse without a saddle, while the other team members led the horse through an obstacle course with no reins or lead ropes. The goal: to get through the course in two minutes or less with the rider still on the horse. “We did have to ‘freeze’ at one point because our rider was not in a very safe position, but Sharon made sure we didn’t lose her,” says Brayshaw.

When the second team had a chance to try the exercise, Christensen Hughes volunteered to be the blindfolded rider. Having observed Team One’s mistakes, Team Two made it through with few problems.

“It was a fantastic team-building activity,” says Christensen Hughes. “We learned how to direct a blindfolded colleague on horseback through an obstacle course as well as how to direct a horse without pulling on the reins – essential skills in a university environment!” She also enjoyed the chance to interact with staff in an informal environment and recommends the Horse Sense program “most highly.”

Reflecting on her day’s experience, Brayshaw says, “it wasn’t easy, but it was fun – a very good day.” And while Raso is clear that she still will never ride a horse, she says she surprised herself by overcoming her fears and working with those big scary animals. “It was a great way to learn some important concepts about leadership and team-building. I would encourage anyone to do it.”