Straight From the Horse’s Mouth: Leadership Lessons From the Field

By Brittany Adams-Pope

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Brittany Adams-PopeBrittany Adams-Pope is an Assistant Professor in the Equine Industry Program in the College of Business at the University of Louisville. She completed bachelors’ degrees in Animal Science-Equine Management and Psychology and a masters in Agricultural Leadership Development, all at the University of Georgia. She obtained her Ph.D. in Agricultural Leadership Development at the University of Florida. Her research has focused on authentic leadership and other forms of positive leadership theory, equine-assisted activities, and most recently, the equine industry. She is a lifelong horsewoman and spends her “free -time” with her husband, Anthony, their daughter, Everly, and their many animals.


Experiential learning can take many forms. This article seeks to describe how to bring leadership studies and horses together in education, or, more formally, Equine-Facilitated Learning (EFL). Horses are natural leaders, yet many times they seek leadership in those around them — human or animal. Equine-Facilitated Learning is an amalgamation of a horse’s physical attributes, their natural information-seeking abilities, and a student’s leadership potential. All interactions are done on the ground and rarely feel like work or education. I believe that using horses as an educational tool opens students’ minds to seeing leadership in themselves and the environment around them.

Straight From the Horse’s Mouth

Horse lessons

When it comes to thinking outside of the box, leadership educators are normally up for the challenge. To keep our students engaged in today’s ever distracting world, we seek more and more tools — both in and out of the classroom — for our pedagogical toolboxes. I have been challenged, but my favorite pedagogical technique — Equine-Facilitated Learning (EFL) — has been a shining star.

Throughout my college education I’ve tried to incorporate my love of horses — perhaps that was the experiential educator in me before I even knew the definition! As part of my doctoral dissertation, I decided to research equine-facilitated activities specifically. It was this undertaking that led me to one of the most beneficial tools for my toolbox. Researching EFL, and its many monikers (e.g., Equine-Assisted Learning/Education, Equine-Facilitated Education, etc.), was both a large and small undertaking. In the following paragraphs, I will explain the pedagogical structure of EFL.

The Pedagogical Structure of EFL

Horse Lessons

Most EFL research focuses on the psychological impacts of using horses. Yet, there is very little research that focuses solely on using them (i.e., horses/equines) as an educational tool. Ewing, MacDonald, Taylor, and Bowers (2007, p. 60) describe EFL as “an experiential methodology that uses a ‘hands-on approach.’” Due to the physical attributes of the horse, this method requires going in to the horse’s environment (Ewing et al., 2007) where the sheer size of the horse can be a benefit and a barrier.

For example, there are many students that are simply terrified by horses. Whether I have elementary school students or adults, I always have someone who is scared of horses, but the beauty of this approach is that no one rides the horses — everything is done from the ground! If a student is worried, the EFL process allows me to go at their pace with minimal or maximum interaction with the horses. If a student needs actual separation from the horse, they can stand outside the round pen and be an observer, either until they are comfortable enough to join or indefinitely. Just seeing the horses and the other students interact allows observers and participants alike to glean the intended outcomes. During a recent workshop, for example, a participant was too nervous to go into the round pen, but still watched his peers complete the task. When finished, he was able to add just as much insight during the debriefing about the interactions he saw between both human and horse as the active participants.

Brittany Adams-Pope

Horses are great exemplars of leadership and followership. Most horses do not want to be the herd leader and are always looking for a leader in the horses and people around them. The horse will follow that leader who will make decisions for the herd on whether to flee or fight; where to drink or eat; and which horses, people, or animals to accept into their space. However, if horses cannot find a leader, they will become the leader themselves.

Arguably, working with horses lends itself to a type of authenticity that may not be found in other experiential educational forums. When teaching authentic leadership, I use Bill George’s True North Compass (George & Sims, 2007) and associated activities (which I describe in the video interview above) to address each of the five parts of the compass. Using the horses as the tool, participants are asked to accomplish different tasks that represent each element.

One advantage of an EFL program is that it is very malleable. For example, I have run short sessions for Master’s level students in a three-hour block, two-day sessions for undergraduate ambassador retreats, and multiple weeks-long programs for community organizations (both youth and adult). While each activity the students do with the horses is intentional, each student may walk away with a different feeling because of their unique interaction. This is why debriefing is a critical component of EFL. Assisting participants in vocalizing or wrapping their heads around what they actually learned is a very large part of EFL. Participants often say things like, “I didn’t feel like I was actually learning anything but now that we are talking about it, I guess I learned a lot!”

Using EFL in the classroom isn’t what most leadership educators are ready for. Most of us cannot bring a horse into our classrooms; I get that. Nonetheless, finding a farm in your area that practices equine-assisted anything may be easier than you think. There are quite a few organizations that have resources for educators or practitioners who will facilitate EFL with groups. You may even be able to tailor your program to a specific leadership theory you teach; it is not just limited to authentic leadership, although it is my theory of choice.

One of the most important things I’ve learned through doing this work is that students (and facilitators) can find leadership in all the things around them. It doesn’t necessarily have to be horses that create learning. If horses are impossible to use, try more traditional activities like ropes courses, obstacle courses, or any other thing that brings outside stimuli to the process. Getting our students outside the classroom or even just away from traditional lecture-based methods is where a lot of amazing learning happens.

Brittany Adams-Pope with Horse

The last and most important thing that I need to address is please “do not try this at home” without a trained facilitator. Just because you own horses or have been around horses does not make you an equine-assisted facilitator. I have learned firsthand that regardless of your equine knowledge, you cannot be enough eyes and ears to run a program alone. It takes hours upon hours of training to be able to run a safe and successful program with horses and humans together. Please, only try this method with trained facilitators at reputable facilities.

Additional Resources

The Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) has been around for almost 20 years and they have many members with programs all over the globe. Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH International) is another program that is branching out to Equine-Facilitated Learning. They were originally founded as the North American Riding for Handicapped Association. They too have programs and practitioners all across the globe.


Adams-Pope, B. L. and Stedman, N. L. P. (2014). Horses and At-Risk Youth: An Equine Facilitated Learning Program Focusing on Authentic Leadership Skill Development. Journal of Youth Development, 9 (4), pp.89-100.

Equine-Facilitated Mental Health Association (2003). Equine-Facilitated Mental Health. Retrieved January 12, 2013 from http://www.pathintl.org/

Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (2012). Fundamentals of EAGALA Model Practice Untraining Manual, Seventh Edition. Santaquin, UT: EGALA

Ewing, C. A., MacDonald, P. M., Taylor, M., & Bowers, M. J. (2007). Equine-Facilitated Learning for Youths with Severe Emotional Disorders: A Quantitative and Qualitative Study. Child & Youth Care Forum, 36, 59-72.

George, B., & Sims, P. (2007). True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

About PAUSE for Pedagogy

PAUSE for Pedagogy aims to connect leadership education theory to practice and seeks to take lessons learned in the classroom to expand our theoretical knowledge of teaching and learning. Written for both the experienced educator and those new to the profession, this column will add tools to readers’ pedagogical toolboxes. Most columns are accompanied by a video interview with the author exploring the ideas raised in the article in more detail. The series is edited by Lisa Endersby and Dan Jenkins, members of ILA’s Leadership Education Member Interest Group. Have you implemented an innovative practice in your leadership education? Contact Dan and Lisa at pauseforpedagogy@ila-net.com

Dan Jenkins Photo Dan Jenkins is Chair and Associate Professor of Leadership & Organizational Studies at the University of Southern Maine. He received his doctorate in Curriculum & Instruction (Higher Education Administration) from the University of South Florida. Dan has published more than 30 articles on leadership education and assessment and is an associate editor for the Journal of Leadership Studies. Dan is also a past Chair of the ILA Leadership Education MIG, Co-Chair of the ILA Leadership Education Academy, and enjoys numerous volunteer roles with the Association of Leadership Educators. Follow Dan @Dr_Leadership.

Lisa Endersby Photo Lisa Endersby is a speaker, educator, and storyteller exploring the intersecting realms of technology, leadership, and assessment in higher education. She has recently begun her doctoral work, investigating professional development in online communities of practice. Lisa is also National Chair for the NASPA Technology Knowledge Community (TKC). Lisa enjoys numerous volunteer roles with ACPA and ILA and can be reached at lmendersby@gmail.com.

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