I went to a leadership workshop where 2 ex-race horses are the course facilitators — here’s what it was like

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You may have been to conferences and seminars about leadership where you’re put in a flourescent-lit classroom or lecture hall for a day, two or a few.

You may be taught about how to be an effective leader, and may even role-play with other participants to try and see how the theory may apply in the real world.

But the hardest thing is taking what you’ve learned and applying it in real-life outside a controlled environment.

Business Insider recently attended a leadership workshop called Hooked on Leadership that is probably very unlike any leadership seminar you’ve ever been to, and has one very special main difference.

The course facilitators don’t talk. They do chew grass, neigh and have metal shoes stuck to the bottom of their feet.

Hooked on Leadership is a 2-day seminar held in Oceanview Estates and Winery about an hour north of Brisbane, where two stunning ex-harness horses called Fez and Red are the course facilitators.

Rebecca Livesey and Angela Koning run the training and met a number of years ago when they worked at the same company. Their love of leadership but frustration at the lack of interactive and immerse training programs led them to develop this very unique equine-assisted learning workshop.

Here’s what it was like.

Driving up to the entrance, it’s clear this is no ordinary leadership seminar.

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Continue down the path, and you come to this Spanish-style setting with a view over the vineyard.

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The location is just breathtaking.

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To the left, is a brand-new conference facility, where the workshop is held.

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Let’s head inside and get started.

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The classroom is light, bright and airy. We spend less time in here than we do outside.

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In the classroom, it’s all about learning the theory. But it’s also super important to retain and apply it in real life.

It’s a pleasant walk through the vines down to the paddock where the horses are kept.

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Here they are! Fez and Red are the stars of the show.

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You don’t ride the horses at all in this workshop. Riding a horse is a very different experience.

Just like people, the horses have different personalities. Fez here is a people-pleaser. He’s keen to be liked, loves to be told he’s doing a good job and responds well to being rewarded.

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Red on the other hand, is a bit more stubborn and sometimes need to be reminded who’s boss. He’s a big loveable boofhead, though.

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We introduce ourselves to the horses, to get them used to us, and see how they react towards our non-verbal communication.

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It’s an interesting dynamic that Livesay says is part of each person’s own DISC profile, which is attained via personality test similar to Myer-Briggs.

There are 4 styles — the Dominant (competitive, outspoken), Influencer (chatty, social) Stability (calm, loyal) and the Conscientious (precise, logical). Participants are asked to complete a test before attending the seminar to find out their DISC profile, and how they can use it to their advantage.

A person is usually a mix of 2 styles. Other styles can be adapted when needed, and this training shows how to do that. I’m an IC profile, which is called a ‘communicator’ combination. I’m told I need to adopt more D and S to be a fully effective leader.

The whole aim of the program is to get you using the 2 profiles that don’t come normally to you. This helps you become a better-rounded leader.

Time to break for morning tea! The restaurant is right next door.

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One great aspect of the course is the incredible food that included in the package. Freshly baked coconut scones are heaped with jam and cream for a sugar hit, as well as big fruit platter.

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We head back to the classroom for a debriefing session about what we learned with the horses. It’s an incredibly supportive environment, with no judgement, and participants are encouraged to share any thoughts and feelings about all of the excersises.

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Lunchtime! These are beef cheeks. No sandwiches here.

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Heading outside again, we start a series of exercises involving on-harness work that progresses to off-harness ‘liberty work’, which is incredibly challenging.

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You need to invite the horse to ‘hook on’ to you. You need to tell it that the work you will be doing with it is purposeful and meaningful, and need to keep reminding it that you are the boss, but also be in tune with what the horse needs too.

Some participants feel right at home, and step up immediately.

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Others are a little more hesitant, and stand back to watch how the others interact before they approach.

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So that’s day one. After a big day, everyone’s invited to share some cheese platters and wine-tasting.

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The cheese selection is spot on, and it’s a full course of 6 wines to taste. I end up buying 2 bottles to take home.

There are 2 cottages on-site. Let’s take a look inside.

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This is the one-bedroom Cabernet Cottage.

What a view to wake up to! The outdoor spa looks inviting.

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Head through the doors…

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…and there’s a full kitchen. Notice the glasses and chiller on the table? Hint hint: you’re staying a winery.

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The restaurant also provides gourmet breakfast hampers with everything you need to make your own breakfast.

The bedroom and bathroom are down the hallway.

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Day 2 — and we’re up bright and early to recap. Today we will ramp it up to get more out of our comfort zones, and to challenge the horses with something new.

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The horses had a good rest but are still in a playful mode, eating grass and chilling out. Kel here is unsure how to let him know who’s boss, and he can read that from her body language and emotional state. We go through some excersises to ground ourselves and remind the horses who’s the boss.

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The horses know instantly you become uncertain of yourself. It’s a great lesson to think about what success looks like, and to not let your energy or your sight of the goal drop, otherwise you lose the horse’s attention.

Morning tea break! Today is a sweet treat of rich brownie, fresh heavy cream and tangy salted caramel sauce.

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Hello Doggo! I found this guy roaming around outside the restaurant, maybe hoping for some brownie.

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A few minutes into the next session and… hey guys, what are you doing?

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Sometimes the horse will disengage, and walk away, or walk over to the other horse to say hello and see what he’s doing. This means that the horse isn’t being kept interested, or has become too confused with instructions and gives up, or can see that you have lost your certainty in your leadership. This happened during an excerise where we were trying to get our horses to ‘hook on’ and follow us around a complex obstacle course.

Enough of that.

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This was a clear moment that they needed to be reminded who was the boss.

After a big second day, its time to say good bye to the horses, and Koning and Livesay.

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To thank the horses for all their hard work, we give them a good brushing down. Apparently this feels amazing for them. Horse hair flies every which-way. Keep your mouth shut while you do this unless you want to chew on a clump of horse hair. I learnt this the hard way.

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Before everyone parts ways, they’re encouraged to stay for a final gourmet treat — a cheese and charcuterie plate with a glass of champers and listen to each other’s main takeaways from the course.

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Before I go, I take a moment to say goodbye. I learned so much in such a short amount of time.

a brown horse standing on top of a grass covered field© Provided by Business Insider Inc

Each horse, just like each person, has its own personality and way of working. It’s a fantastic exercise in being flexible and learning to adapt your style of working with others.

I took Fez aside to thank him for his energy and for working with me. It’s a strange and sad experience to say goodbye. I felt like I was saying goodbye to a great friend.

The training really taught me how to adopt all the different elements of the DISC profiling, which made such a difference when I really applied it to the training exercises with the horses. It was such a supportive environment.

I feel really confident that I’ll be able to adopt it in real-life working situations to become a more effective leader because we learned about the theory in the classroom and then went straight out to apply it with the horses, which was awesome, challenging, nerve-wracking, grounding but ultimately so fun.

Here are Ange, Bec, Fez and Red on our Facebook Live video as they talk us through what Hooked on Leadership is like.

The author was a guest of Hooked on Leadership.

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