HorsePowerment is an Equine-Assisted Learning Program in Coventry
Horses can help us communicate more effectively and improve our leadership skills; this innovative program shows us how.
We’ve all heard of pet therapy, a.k.a. animal-assisted therapy, a.k.a. people relying on animals to help them recover from or better cope with various health issues ranging from cancer to anxiety (thanks, mayoclinic.org).
So it’s understandable why people might assume that Tamarack Farm HorsePowerment, with its horse-driven sessions, falls into the same category. They’d be wrong.
“Therapy is more about dealing with the past and learning coping strategies; HorsePowerment basically picks up where therapy leaves off,” says owner and founder Carol Allen. “Our mission is to supply skills for the future, help people develop their leadership and communication skills through tailored equine assisted learning programs.”
We’re sitting at a folding table in her classroom, an open red barn on the edge of Tamarack Farm in Coventry’s village of Greene. Allen and her husband, Ron, are on brand — she in a fuzzy zip-up embellished with wild horse illustrations and he in his workman jeans. (The most country thing about my attire is my sturdy boots; I was warned to wear shoes I wouldn’t mind getting dirty.) We also have some company: A sweet cat named Sammy purrs away on my lap and two muzzles poke out from the stable behind me, overseeing our chat.
Allen, a Pennsylvania native who grew up riding horses and later driving and training them, started HorsePowerment last year while getting ready to retire after twenty years in education.
“I knew that I wanted to continue helping my kids, my special needs population, during retirement,” she explains. “Then, one day, I was reading through a horse magazine and there was an article about programs that help humans understand, based on the way they interact with horses, how they can improve their communication skills, team-building skills, leaderships skills, confidence and more.”
But what’s so great about horses?
“Horses are prey animals, so their number one concern is safety,” Allen explains. “They naturally work best in teams, as a herd, and they react immediately to what’s in front of them — that’s what’s kept them alive for millions of years. They can perceive what you are thinking before you even decide to act on it. If you’re nervous, not having a good day or not giving the task at hand your undivided attention, they’re going to pick up on that and think that they can’t trust you as a leader. They will keep their distance. Through their reactions, horses are able to show us when we are being clear, focused and effective. It gives people the opportunity to experience immediate, direct and unbiased feedback.”
Allen already had the horses: Arie, a twelve-year-old Arab-Paint, and Rollin, a thirteen-year-old Morgan. Regularly calling them her “boys,” Allen likens them to the odd couple as Rollin is messy and Arie is neat (but neither is immune to a treat or two, I learn when they gobble some up from my palm). She also had more than thirty years of experience with the gentle giants, and had her spacious property, Tamarack Farm, to set up shop.
“I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to get this training,’ ” she recalls. “It’s amazing how when one door closes, another door opens.”
Allen went on to get her certification in Equine Assisted Learning through the Equine Experiential Education Association, or, as she calls it, the E3A. The association’s certification course not only taught her how to be a facilitator, but also helped her establish a business model. HorsePowerment is the first and only of its kind in Rhode Island and there are other examples in Utah, Arizona, Vermont and Texas. In addition to keeping her up to date with the EAL world, Allen’s E3A membership allows her to keep in touch with other such members.
“They all have their own piece they focus on,” Allen says, “There’s one down south that focuses on helping firefighters because first responders have to be able to build as a team and work together in stressful situations.”
And though her own emphasis had centered on special needs populations, Allen has started to expand her reach. She recently hosted a group of camp counselors who wanted to better connect with their newer, more diverse group of campers, including those with behavioral challenges and those on the autism spectrum. Allen especially wants to work more with corporate teams interested in professional development.
“A group of car salesmen reached out because they kept losing customers after the initial meetings,” Allen says. “As it turns out, some of the younger employees were finding that they were spending too much time on their phone and their focus and attention weren’t on the customer, whereas the older sales reps were more personable and had those relationship-building skills. And that all came out with the boys. They weren’t able to establish the connection in the session. So, we took the observations and applied it to the real world: If you’re talking to someone and you’re fidgeting or you don’t look them in the eye or you’re not focused, the person is going to feel like they aren’t valued or worth your time. They’re not going to want to work with you, just like the horses didn’t.”
When I joke that her programs might even be good for couples, Allen agrees wholeheartedly. “Yes, it can benefit anyone!”
How does it all work? Those interested in booking a HorsePowerment session can sign up directly through their website, horsepowerment.net. From there, depending on the type of program (personal development and wellbeing, corporate leadership or youth development, for example) you’re interested in, Allen will ask participants to fill out a simple, confidential questionnaire so she can plan and customize the upcoming session to the individual or group’s needs.
She shows me an example of an agenda for a corporate session, which takes up half a workday (“Most like to schedule it in the morning, but we’re flexible,” she says). The agenda kicks off with getting to know the horses, and then leads into a sit-down review of what the participants can expect that day. The group will go over a summary of the questionnaire results and everyone involved will come up with one to three goals they’d like to achieve through the program (i.e. learning to delegate or building up confidence).
She also highlights the importance of horse communications and safety (read: how to avoid startling a horse). Then it’s time for an activity.
One example is “Balls in the Air.” In this exercise, five people usually participate, with one person hanging back, taking notes, while the other four interact with the horse. Two stand at the front to lead while the other two stand on either side and hold three grapefruit-sized balls (labelled with team goals) each against the horse’s flanks. Together, the four must successfully navigate a winding obstacle course without dropping any of the balls. The target? Assessing the group’s ability to employ creative problem solving, prioritization, teamwork and effective communication.
Afterwards, Allen and the group will go over what happened during the activity, what worked and what didn’t, and how the observations and skills can apply to the real world or, more specifically, in the workplace. They then break for refreshments before engaging in another activity with the horses. Finally, the group will do a recap to identify the day’s takeaways, assess any achievements and finalize an action plan for moving forward.
Sounds way more fun than your typical professional development day sitting in a conference room, right?
“We’re hoping businesses will turn it into an annual outing,” Allen says. “We usually have repeat visits with all of our other participants. Once they come out here, they want to come back. Because every time you visit, you’re learning something about yourself.”