Horseplay: B-School Takes Students to the Barn

Posted by: Louis Lavelle on January 19, 2011

Anybody who has worked in an office knows that co-workers can sometimes seem less like colleagues and more like, well, barnyard animals. So it was probably only a matter of time before some enterprising business school decided to find a place in the curriculum for actual beasts of burden. That time has come.

Students in the MSc in Management Consulting program at the Grenoble Graduate School of Business in France (Grenoble Full-Time MBA Profile) now interact with a herd of horses—in a barn, or what Grenoble calls “semi-liberty”—to explore “fundamental notions of respect, trust and non-violent communication.”

The learning activity is based on “The Seven Games of Natural Horsemanship,” a home study program developed and introduced in Europe in the 1980s by Pat Parelli, a horse trainer, rodeo rider, and cowboy. Activities include “Friendly Game,” in which the leader helps a horse confront a noise or scary object, and “Squeeze Game,” in which the goal is to cross a narrow path between a fence and a tree. You can see some of these activities in a video on Grenoble’s web site.

How does all this help budding consultants? A school press release says the activities can help them learn how to gain the trust of (human) partners or convince them to overcome their resistance to difficult (nonequine) situations. Nancy Armstrong, Grenoble's director of studies and designer of the "Horseplay" concept, explains:

"In the natural world, the horse is a prey--it will flee anything that it perceives as unknown or difficult. It also has an innate reflex of opposition. We all know that we cannot force a 500 kilo beast to do what it does not want to do--one can only suggest and encourage it to do so, by giving clear commands in a language that the horse understands, and by earning its trust. I personally believe that leadership in business should follow the same principles."

I think that an argument can be made that if you're training consultants it makes more sense to have them practice the fine arts of persuasion and trust-building on actual humans, who, let's face it, can't be tricked into doing your bidding with an apple or a sugar cube. But I'm willing to be persuaded otherwise. Thoughts?

Reader Comments

Petra Christensen

January 19, 2011 4:52 PM

Louis, Thank you for your post!
Horses are prey animals and therefore look for comfort and safety first. You have to be a good leader in order for a horse to follow you with confidence and trust. My horses have taught me more than any other human being on how to stand up for myself, set healthy boundaries and be a confident leader.

Petra Christensen
Parelli 2Star Junior Instructor
Parelli Central

Nancy Armstrong

January 20, 2011 5:09 AM

Isn’t it reassuring to know that Horseplay does not rely on artefacts like apples, sugar cubes...sticks & carrots (ie traditional incentives like bonuses, salary rises, objectives, fear of unemployment etc..... that would fill a whole orchard!).

Horseplay summons alternative resources – respect, clear direction, non-violent communication…... and not a sugar cube to be seen!

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