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What horses can teach us about leadership

In fewer than 10 minutes, I had become a horse whisperer. “You’re having a good conversation!” Sheryl Jordan yelled to me from outside a metal fence that enclosed Gent and me. I looked Gent in the eye and at that moment, I knew he understood.

Salamander Resort & Spa opened last year on 340 acres in the heart of horse country—Middleburg, Va.—just an hour outside Washington, D.C. The property is owned by BET co-founder Sheila Johnson, who is opening a similar resort in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains next year.

I had heard about the resort and its equestrian center, but it wasn’t until I began looking at the impressive lineup of horse-related programming—from traditional carriage rides to nontraditional yoga on horseback—that I considered what I could learn from a horse. So I signed up for two hours with Jordan, the equestrian director, for what she calls Equi-Spective ($125 per hour), a personal discovery that helps people learn more about their communication and leadership style by connecting with horses.

I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but I’m always eager to spend time in rural Virginia. Plus, I noticed that the spa offered a Riders’ Relief massage ($150-$230), so if things turned bad with the horse, I figured I could always find my way to the spa. (The fact that this particular program didn’t require any horse-riding was inconsequential to my backup plan.)

So I left Washington, D. C., on a drizzly morning in December, donning long underwear and Carhartt work pants. As I neared the resort, I passed wineries, polo fields, a bird sanctuary and a rabbit-shaped mailbox.

At the resort, I walked into the beautiful barn – which still looked brand-new and smelled like freshly cut pine. With only the faintest whiff of horsey aroma, it doubles as a rehearsal dinner venue. It may be unique among equestrian centers, with bathrooms that have monogrammed disposable towels and lavender hand lotion.

Jordan walked out—wearing jeans and a rhinestone “S” baseball cap—and offered a warm handshake. She had suggested postponing our session because of the weather, but I wasn’t sure when I’d be able to return. I thanked her for being flexible.

“The horses teach you to be flexible,” she said. “You go with the flow.”

To escape the rain, we spent the first hour in a small meeting room with a picture of a fox hunt on the wall. Jordan explained that she created the Equi-Spective program because after decades working with horses, she found herself teaching life lessons as well as riding lessons.

“Horses take us on many journeys,” she said. “They take us from point A to point B, but they also take us on deeper emotional journeys.”

At Salamander, Jordan has worked with executives, high-risk youth and domestic abuse counselors. Some people are intimidated by horses (they are, after all, 1,200 to 1,500-pound animals); others are awed by their beauty and power. “No matter who the person is, they are amazed what they learn about themselves from the horses,” Jordan said. “Horses don’t care who you are, what your title is, how much money you make. They give you honest feedback.”

She explained to me that these days, the equestrian community is shifting from fear-based leadership (as in “breaking” a horse) to respect-based leadership and said horses react as humans do to intimidating leaders.

“They detach,” she said. “It’s stressful to walk around on eggshells.” In order to lead a horse, she explained, you have to listen to the horse: be consistent and clear, and mean it. “You can’t let your horse – or your team – push you around. If you do not provide the leadership, the horse will.”

Jordan asked me to stand and lift my rib cage. “How do you feel,” she asked.

I took a deep breath. “A little taller – more open,” I said.

“Horses recognize if your ribs are collapsed,” she said. “They read energy and body language. So if I want a horse to come toward me, I will shut down and retract my energy. Buddhism says 50% of your state of mind is posture.”

Then it was time to meet my match. We walked through the barn and stopped in front of the stable of a horse named Gent – a retired show pony the color of dark brown sugar.

By now, it had stopped raining. We left the barn, and Jordan walked Gent into what’s called a round pen – used for training horses and establishing leadership; she also calls it the think tank.

Inside the pen, Gent began to trot, warming himself up, looking playful. Jordan stood at the center, making smaller circles, and showed me what she calls a flag, a long whip-like pole that she uses to show authority but not to hurt the horse. She barely touched him with it and demonstrated how by changing the direction of the flag, her body position or her speed, she could change the direction Gent was running or his pace. She also seemed to have extraordinary control of him simply by changing her voice. Then, standing in the center, she crouched over, resting her hands on her knees, making herself small – letting down her energy. Amazingly, Gent stopped in his tracks and filled the void, walking toward her.

I watched the duo in what looked like a dance – Jordan walking forward, Gent moving back. They were graceful and seemed to sense each other’s movements before they happened. And then it was my turn.

I was already comfortable with Jordan—she has an easy smile, called me “Honey” and every so often would thoughtfully read from a book of hand-written quotes to emphasize her points. But I wondered, could I really connect with Gent?

I walked into the pen and took the flag from Jordan. She reminded me to point it at Gent’s hindquarters. He began to trot around the perimeter of the pen while I circled the middle, keeping my eyes focused on his back legs. Jordan left the pen and nudged me along when I needed help—like asking Gent to change directions. I stuttered a few times with my “language” and looked to her for assistance. But mostly, I felt like the horse and I were alone. I slowed, he slowed. I sped up, he followed. And then, I stopped, lowering my head slightly and rounding my shoulders. When I peered up, Gent was approaching me, looking relaxed. I smiled.

Jordan said it’s possible to become a horse-whisperer—someone who has learned to read a horse’s language and communicate back—within five or 10 minutes. Today, we were learning the A, B, Cs, and with further work, she said, I could make words and sentences. Whatever Gent’s language, I felt like we had a dialogue, albeit brief.

I walked out of the pen. “You were in the zone,” Jordan exclaimed. As we walked back to the barn, I thought about how I could use my newfound leadership skills with my employees. Then I remembered that the only employee in my home office is a beagle, and our communication is already pretty solid. But as I left Salamander, I realized that any relationship could benefit from paying more attention to body language. Without sometimes glossing over our true feelings with words, we’d be more true to ourselves and each other; imagine the possibilities! The next adventure, I decided, was getting my beau in the round pen.

Salamander Resort & Spa offers equestrian programs for individuals, families, groups and retreats. Horsemanship 101 covers grooming, leading, equine safety and fundamentals of horse behavior. Equine Communication 101 is a short introduction to horse whispering. Equi-Spective allows participants to work hands-on with horses, while learning about their own communication style and leadership techniques. Most programming is $125 per person, per hour.