Leading from the Higher Self

Leading From the Higher Self - Leadership Development with Women from the U.A.E. 

Dressed from head to toe in a flowing black hijab, twinkling eyes peering out from behind her black headscarf, Amina leads a stunning white Arabian stallion down through the 40-horse barn and out to the ménage under a blazing hot desert sky.

There, she releases him from his lead rope and slaps the rope on her thighs creating a crack that startles the horse and sends him high-tailing round the school, moving as if he is dancing on light. Amina walks to the centre of the pen, and beckons two other women, similarly attired, to join her there. Selema, in her late fifties is a housewife, while Mahara is around 35 and is head of a medical research team. The wings of their crystal-decorated designer sunglasses glint as the harsh rays bounce off against the white sand of the surrounds; the scent of heavy perfume subsumes the smell of horse. The sleeves of the Chanel and Gucci hijabs catch in the hot breeze, creating a flapping that increases the horse’s momentum.

Working as a team, they send the horse round the outside of the pen, trying out different stances to notice how this affects the horse. Standing square to the shoulder, eyes on eyes, they send the horse galloping, his nostrils flared, power surging from hind to front. They are bold, assertive, proud and confident. Their attitude and state of being reflects perfectly in the horse. He is a flawless mirror in which they can challenge their conditioning to be passive and demure.

The experience of causing these 500kg horses  to respond willingly to their focused and quiet intent will act as an anchor point in their memory of feeling their capacity to influence without force. It will be a moment they can draw on again and again, offering choice for a different way of being when in a difficult meeting or standing up to a dominant mother-in-law, or making their case to a recalcitrant husband, without needing to resort to manipulation or subterfuge which, they admit, have been their main strategies.

Wordlessly, the women break the horse’s flight path, turning him to the rails and sending him counter-clockwise. Later, as they become more familiar and secure in their interactions with him, as they learn subtlety in their body language, we will add in narrow obstacles  through which the horse will pass and tires used as stepping stones for which the women lean on their horse-partner to assist their balance. These activities provide reinforcing experiences of being trustworthy leaders, creating a partnership approach, and according the horse the status of being a sentient, emotional being who is like themselves in so many ways.

All this activity is under the auspices of the prestigious Complete Women programme, patronised by the royal princesses, Sheikha Manal bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (sister to His Highness Sheikh Mohammed). Here at Dubai Polo Club, the muddy fields of England seem a very long way away.

My regular work is predominantly in the UK with corporate groups, facilitating Equine Guided Learning. To you and me that means bringing horse and human together to develop skills such as leadership, communication, conflict resolution, team development, business strategy and culture change. Back home my herd of horses and I work with groups from companies such as Apple, Royal Mail, Paypal, GlaxoSmithKline and Ashridge Business School. Now EGL is becoming increasingly recognised as a ground-breaking medium for personal and professional development, and is recognised by the BACP which regulates psychotherapy and counselling in the UK.

Until the previous day, few of these 40 ladies have ever been near a horse. Their husbands may own racehorses or Arabian endurance horses, but contact with the horses for women has been taboo, a male domain. On first entrance to the barn nearly all of the women covered their noses with elegant flowing sleeves, more used to the sterile, air-conditioned environments of shopping malls and marble-tiled homes, beyond which the world outside is smelly, hot, rough and dirty.

The first day of my time with the ladies is spent getting to know them and delivering information that will keep them safe during the inter-active sessions with the horses that will follow . The massive double barn doors are shut to keep them out of the male gaze. The Bangladeshi grooms – all male – disappear for the afternoon and the women are now free to remove their hijabs while we are in the privacy of the horse barn. Underneath they wear clothes that contrast with the uniform blackness – bright colours, glamorous styles.

The first lesson is in exploring safety issues – the metaphor for life being about managing freedom in a way that keeps you safe, and encourages you to take responsibility for your own well-being. The horse I partner with is a polo pony mare whose legs are bowed and who can no longer play high level matches. This mare copes well with her moment in the limelight as everyone takes in the hooves which can stand on delicate sandaled feet, the teeth that can snap at hennaed hands when irritated, the back legs that can miraculously repel attack when there is no flight path available to a horse feeling cornered by predators. The leading rope is held by one of the ladies and we talk about how to hold it, not to wrap it round the palm of the hand where the constriction can cause injury. Each of these potential dangers comes with the opportunity to draw parallels with human behaviour. The length and tautness of the rope becomes a metaphor about how much control each individual feels appropriate, either through exerting her own dominance or through the sense of feeling restricted herself.

The horses reconnect the women with Nature. They reveal one’s animal and human nature and they allow them to connect with the humanity in others. Each woman chooses her own equine guide from the 90 or so that we have to work with. Teaching natural horsemanship principles as a metaphor for interpersonal relations allows the freedom to experiment with new behaviours, the horse providing instant biofeedback through his behavioural responses.

How we interact with horses reflects what kind of person we are: impatient and quick to lose our tempers; dominant and needing total control; nervous and fearful about what others might think and feeling we are somehow ‘doing it wrong’ or are imposters; confident to the point of stubbornness – ‘it’s my way or the high way’ – or, if your horse is really lucky, aware of personal strengths and flaws, calm under pressure, able to lead with confidence, quick to reward and tolerant of mistakes.

As the days unfold stories are told, tears are cried, wisdom is shared, debates are thrashed out. There is laughter, intimacy, eating of baklava dripping with honey, and a new way of being with each other.

Yet this contrasts so starkly with the fixations on status, power, family lineage, money and material goods. It requires me to imagine deeply what it might be like to have lived every moment of my life in thrall to these powerful societal constructs and how much courage these women will need to proceed with this silken revolution. This is not the feminism of the West, which is vocal and visible. This UAE context will require what diplomats term as ‘soft power’, in which influence is gained not through conflict and confrontation but by the powers of persuasion, subtle influence and synchronising together in the face of threat. Who better to teach this than the horse?

And what of the horses, my co-facilitators? How did they respond to the three weeks that we spend with them? On arrival my colleague and dear friend Sally King and I found barns full of withdrawn, depressed creatures who stood in the corners of their air-conditioned boxes, tails angled towards the doors. They avoided human contact, or would gnash their teeth at us. There was no cruelty as such, and they were mostly in excellent health, but their lives were restricted to standing in all day, no turn-out to run free, no opportunities for interaction beyond being a vehicle for a status-improving riding lesson. They were bored and disconnected.

We selected those who appeared most willing to engage,spent quiet time asking nothing except being alongside each other, and then spent more engagement playing with them at liberty in the ménages before the programme began, building our own relationships with them and learning about their characters so we could match them to the ladies and the activities I had designed. I had had some hesitation in asking the horses to do this work, which would require them to interact emotionally as well as physically. So how surprised I was to see the biters stop gnashing, the heads coming out over the stable doors for stroking, and the pleasure the horses took at the change to routine and the opportunity to express themselves at liberty as the ladies loose schooled them or gave them obstacles to negotiate.

As for me, one cannot witness such transformation without being enriched and joyful. What a privilege to be allowed into the deeply private lives of these women and to be trusted to initiate a life-changing experience for them. I left for home feeling gleeful at the horses and ladies blooming with a fresh energy, and with a deep faith in the value of one Being communicating honestly, from the heart, with another.


InsightsLaira Gold