On the last Friday in August, our Executive MBA class of 2018-19 travelled the short distance from Imperial College Business School to Wormwood Scrubs Equestrian Centre, in order to take part in an Equine Affinity workshop.

Re-grouping for the first time since their International Residency in Hong Kong, the students were ready for a full day at the centre, experiencing an ‘Equine learning day on Empathy’.

So, what exactly is Equine Affinity , and what do they do?

Equine guided learning and therapy is a form of personal and professional development for people, achieved through interacting with and relating to horses,” says Founder, Director and Equine Specialist Catherine Bray.

Threaded through all our learning and therapy programmes is a central belief that the horse can offer us valuable information about ourselves that we can then apply to everyday situations, in both our personal and professional lives – particularly around authenticity and empathy.

Equine Affinity was set up in 2011 with a vision to deliver equine guided learning and therapy to broad and diverse groups, and was inspired by Catherine’s training and teaching work with horses and her desire for horses to be heard more.

No previous horse experience is necessary for someone to take part, and they have a highly-skilled multi-disciplinary team of 14 practitioners, including equine specialists, coaches, psychotherapists, body workers and strategic leadership consultants, whose expertise allow them to cater for a diverse range of clients with equally diverse requirements.

We believe that the horse can offer us valuable information about ourselves that we can then apply to everyday situations, in both our personal and professional lives,” says Catherine.

“Much of my passion for utilising horses in this way stems from my natural horsemanship background, training and working with horses as partners – rather than subordinates.  It has been my experience that this type of experiential development can provide powerful insights and rich learning.”

The students began the day by quietly observing their surroundings in the yard of the centre, and then splitting into groups to watch several horses interact with eachother and discuss their observations.

The students went back inside the arena, and in pairs took part in a blindfolded activity to explore non-verbal cues and the impact of this communication.

The horses were then brought in, and the students took it in turns to walk them around the space, arrange a course to lead them around and observe their behaviour in reaction to their leadership.

After lunch, the students worked on applying what they had experienced so far, through group coaching with facilitators, coaches, and horses.

Equine Affinity EMBA workshop
Equine Affinity EMBA workshop

Their objective was to develop an individual action plan on how to work on their empathy competency, based on the feedback they received during the day, and focusing on mindfulness and managing emotions.

The students could then try testing out different body language with the horses, with equine facilitators available to help them apply what they’ve experienced.

“This is a really unique day and the students didn’t know what to expect,” said Sonal Anand, Programme Manager of the Executive MBA.

At the start of the day everyone was quite excited and nervous, but it all links together very well and once they were in the middle of the session, I could see how engaged they were. We got a lot of great feedback as nobody had experienced anything quite like it before.

“The interactions with the horses were closely followed with their Executive Leadership Journey coaching sessions and they were able to have meaningful discussions,” added Sonal. “I had to drag them away at the end as ran out of time, though I’m sure they could have gone on for hours!”

Equine Affinity EMBA workshop

Equine Affinity’s ethos is ‘to work with integrity and authenticity in relation to both humans and animals’, which is central to how they engage with their clients.

Equine Affinity does not own any horses but instead works with horses from yards in and around their venues.

Catherine says that like humans, no two horses are alike, which means every workshop is a revelation in terms of the challenges and learning outcomes.

“Personally, the horses have taught me how to be far more observant and tuned into the non-verbal communication, from both horses and humans, and have helped me to develop my empathy skills,” she says.

When amongst horses I have to be focussed and present – something that sometimes challenges me in modern day, technology driven life.

Catherine says some of the key learnings that Executive MBA candidates will come away with from their workshop with Equine Affinity include increased self-awareness, self-confidence and self-esteem; enhanced communication and negotiation skills; developed emotional intelligence and empathy; and increased ability to influence.

“There have been many memorable reactions to the course, from clients making powerful realisation about their professional capability and impact, to those relating to their personal lives. Some have found new revelations about themselves, whereas others have found it affirming.  All have learnt something about themselves,” says Catherine.

“Most finish the workshop with a new and unexpected gratitude and reverence for their equine learning partners, an indication of how personally powerful and introspective this work can be.”