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Horses, Leadership, and Inclusive Excellence

While we struggle and juggle to keep our organizations, communities and families afloat, these turbulent times call upon us to adapt, innovate and experiment with new approaches to our most enduring challenges.  This kind of creative response can be especially tough to explore when resources are constrained and organizations are coping with emerging industry, global and technological pressures.  As a result, fear is in the air, which hampers our very creativity, collaboration, and learning, when it is needed most.

Skye Ward and Doug PaxtonOne year ago I met Skye Ward in a spontaneous meeting at Saint Mary’s College, where we discovered we had some shared passions around horses, leadership, social change, and making our college a more just and loving place.  We wanted to explore some new approaches to bringing staff and faculty together across differences.  We had this crazy idea… to combine the idea of working with horses, leadership development and inclusive excellence, and Skye named it Healing Hearts with Horses:  Inclusive Excellence in Action.

Our question:  How might we be creative, collaborative, and experimental in taking action to heal differences and create a more loving, inclusive, just and equitable campus climate at Saint Mary’s College?

How:  We proposed a one-day workshop at a ranch with horses.  Small teams we called “herds” brushed, saddled and guided the horses through intentional exercises that helped people work with fear, empathy and compassion for self and others.  The design included short video assignments, and a follow-up debrief session.

Dennis BrightWho:  We specifically aimed to invite employees from all walks of campus life to connect across our functional silos.  We wanted to create new “herds” across our job classifications and varying roles.  In terms of instruction, Dennis Bright and his extraordinary team in San Martin, CA were the perfect partners to test our new idea and conduct our inquiry.  While equines had been used for leadership development and team building for years, we couldn’t find any examples in the literature of adding inclusive excellence and diversity work to the leadership/equine mix.  We were excited to forge a new trail!

group at the stables

Initial Learning Goals and Outcomes:  We imagined that if we were to blaze a new trail in linking leadership, inclusivity and horses, we would need to have some clear goals and outcomes to ground the work and get people to travel this path with us.

  • Explore self-identity in relationship to others, and how our blind spots can show up when we are working in unfamiliar terrain;
  • Develop stronger self-awareness and understand new approaches to teamwork and inclusive excellence that can support your life and leadership;
  • Improve communication skills (verbal and non-verbal) that foster trust, respect, and inclusion;
  • Develop and deepen relationships across campus silos, departments and job classifications;
  • Gain experience of value of working with a diverse group towards a common goal;
  • Elevate morale and have fun with an “out of the box” experience; and
  • Identify positive steps toward creating and maintaining a respectful community for all and make commitments for future action.

The first pilot of the experience took place on October 14, 2016, and a second pilot was run on March 28, 2017.  We are still assessing the learning and impact on our larger campus system of the Healing Hearts with Horses intervention.  To be clear, racism and oppression are challenges we face that require many different and ongoing remedies; working with horses is not a substitute or replacement for other institutional inclusive excellence efforts.  Our hope was to create another tool for our collective toolbox for building inclusive community.  Four initial main themes were reported by participants as learning and outcomes of the experience, which have encouraged us:


“There is something non-negotiable when you are dealing with a horse.  Emotional intelligence, and authentically being honest–the horses keep us there.”

“I went home and shared the experience with my kids, and with everyone who came by my desk at work.  I’ve been here 15 years and [until now] I’m largely unknown.  Thanks to my herd for helping me be seen and known!”

The combination of watching the videos about vulnerability and empathy with the experience of working with horses for the first time made this theme a big one for many people.  For example, after the workshop, one participant attended a tense meeting and thought to herself:  “I’m going to be vulnerable right now.  I [then] talked about feeling overwhelmed with everything.  Just my opening up to an authentic story opened the door for everyone else to do the same.  It created connection with others, just as the Brene Brown video suggested, and our experience within our teams/herds proved.”


Fear of making mistakes was seen as an impediment to having better conversations about race and inclusion, so being able to work better with identifying and taking action about fear was helpful.  One person explained it this way, “Using horses was such an effective way to deal with fear—real time.  How do I act with fear in a non-horse environment?  Be aware, especially when you think you know what’s going on with others.”

“Program was so phenomenal.  I was terrified of horses.  I had a great time with the herd.  A few take-aways:  (1) Self-talk as prejudice against others.  Being in the ring and getting comfortable with the horses, it helped me stop listening to the fear-based prejudice in my head.  I rode a horse!  24 hours later, I see I can be lighter with myself.”


Horses and the herd culture of equines were powerful metaphors for many of the participants.  As one person put it, “My experience was big with the herd.  We had to be in tune with one another to get the horse to do as we wished.  [Coming back to work] last week, I noticed I had been working without getting in tune with the herd!”

“[Coming back] I want to expand relationships on campus.  [The workshop] gave me one of my best days at SMC… to be present in the moment.  Wonderful to be so focused on herd!”

“Being able to accomplish something as a [new] herd—horse and humans joined together.  [We got] confident after the brushing exercise.  The horses changed too, as we became connected to their herd, and known.”


One thing that was clear about the day was how much people enjoyed it.  “I haven’t smiled this big in a while.  All my senses came alive.”  Two other people explained that it had been their best day at Saint Mary’s of their whole career.

group with horses outside the stableIn the end, we are still assessing the impact of such a program on our campus community.  Our founder Skye Ward has received two campus-wide awards, in part for her work on this project.  The videos and photos have been shared widely.  In a recent campus incidence of hateful speech, examples from the Healing Hearts with Horses program were brought to the attention of the wider campus community, as tools for moving forward.  We hope this example encourages others to push the envelope of leadership, collaboration, and innovation to keep working on our toughest challenges.

Gratitude for Sponsors:  Many thanks to Campus Committee on Inclusive Excellence, Human Resources, Office of the Provost, and the Leadership Center.  We invite you to check out our experience this spring through a video that Skye created.

Photo Credits:  Top photo “Fillies,” courtesy of New York Times and Neil Latham and Steven Kasher Gallery, New York
Other Photos:  Skye Ward and Franz Ressel

About Doug Paxton, Ph.D.

Doug Paxton, Ph.D.
Doug Paxton is a learner, educator, writer, and artist who is passionate about what humanity has to learn from reconnecting to our values and the natural world. Doug is Co-Director of the Leadership Center at Saint Mary’s College and faculty in the MA in Leadership program, currently focusing his teaching in the area of Values in Action, Leadership and Sustainable Organizational Change.

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