Conflict Transformation Leads Alum to a HALT

On a crisp January morning, Barbara Robbins makes the daily rounds at her Linville farm — scooping food to the cats, dogs and horses that nicker and shift in the cold.

“There are aspects about the horse that make it really powerful,” she says. “How you approach them can either draw them into you, or they’ll retreat from you. It’s the same with people.”

At Rocky Hill Stables, Robbins relies upon this unique equine-emotional connection through the HALT — Horse Assisted Leadership Training — program.

Living, Breathing Leadership

Launched in 2004 as a result of a combination of Robbins’ background in conflict transformation studies at Eastern Mennonite University, her consulting work for strategic planning organizations and she and her husband Alan’s passion for the stables, the program aims to serve groups seeking a change from the daily grind.

Groups of six to 16, such as church communities and camp staff, attend “clinics” spanning from a half-day to two days full of sessions. They participate in exercises in the arena and then in quiet reflection, focusing, with the horse’s help, on individual personalities and strengths.

“The horses are equal participants in the process,” says Robbins. “Our goal in working together is to bump up, a few notches, their quality of teamwork.”

As herd animals, horses not only have instincts about good leadership, but can also “mirror” human emotion.

“The dynamics are similar to high ropes courses,” says Robbins, “But, rather than dealing with challenges that are fixed — like a wall — this is a living, breathing animal that gives responses back.” Horses offer feedback through body language and nonverbal cues “on the spot about what’s going on within you,” she continues, “Whether it’s fear or confidence.”

Harnessing Skills

As groups from varying backgrounds and experience levels participate in HALT, Robbins says she often sees Equine Assisted Learning coax natural strengths and weaknesses to the surface.

Working through activities, such as blindfolded leading, catching and haltering, helps teammates discover the gentle nurturer or high-morale motivator among them. Who is a big-picture visionary? Who keeps their focus on the tasks at hand.

“It helps teams think differently about how they can maximize their gifts,” she says.

The horses also teach when to lead, and when to give a push from alongside: intuitive skills essential to working as a team.

Robbins recalls an especially profound teaching moment for one of their participants, whose competitive nature left him chasing his horse around the arena long after his teammates had finished.

“He finally threw the harness down and just petted her,” she remembers. Robbins said it was about making the connection, not winning the race. “As soon as you put the halter down and let her know you’re her friend,” she told him, the problem solves itself. “That so happens in the workplace; we’re always saying ‘Get this done, get that done,’ that we forget to say, ‘Hi, how are you doing today?’ ”

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Courtesy Daily News Record, Jan. 12, 2013