photo: Susan Griffith Jackie Stevenson

Horse squeals broke the quiet of a grazing herd 30 miles outside Cleveland as a mare nipped the rump of a colt crowding her space. The dust-up was over in seconds, and both went back to eating as if nothing happened.

"Horses don't hold grudges," said Jackie Stevenson (SAS '78), founder of the ranch-retreat center Spirit of Leadership in Novelty, Ohio, and an adjunct instructor at both the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences and Weatherhead School of Management. "But how much do humans fester before the argument, during the argument and afterward?"

For more than a decade, Stevenson has used the behavior of horses as a metaphor and teaching tool for self- and group-improvement at the retreat center. Her clients have included corporate executives, police, hospice counselors and even commanders from the Israel Defense Forces.

Stevenson's method is an integration of philosophies. She draws lessons from animals to address human dilemmas. She also weaves in concepts from the Weatherhead School, such as appreciative inquiry, that encourage problem solving by focusing on strengths and opportunities.

Workshop attendees don't ride the horses, but they do talk to them. The humans try to guide their charges through tasks, including an obstacle course they construct using cones, poles and tires. Along the way, the participants learn that the code of the herd is built on trust and the well-being of the group. From there, they consider ways the horses' approach could apply to their workplaces—and possibly even their homes.

For new leaders at Ericson Manufacturing, a Willoughby, Ohio-based maker of electrical products, Spirit of Leadership provided an opportunity to improve teamwork and build trust during a time of transition.

Working in teams, the 12 employees had to corral eight horses in a field and lead them back to the barn using only flags and words. Reading the horses' body language was essential to the task, said the company's president, Jeff Schad (CIT '79, MGT '82). Since then, he added, the participants have been more aware of their own communication and set fewer boundaries in the workplace.

"The experience gave us confidence we can accomplish goals in a non-hierarchical way," he said. "Our time with the herd brought us closer together."

—Daniel Robison

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