A student leads Huggo during a new Kemptville Campus course called Leadership Through Equine-Assisted Discovery. Both Huggo and his human handlers learned to communicate respectfully to each other during the week-long course. Photo courtesy Ruth Heney

About seven years ago, Ruth Heney’s computer crashed. Looking for something to do while she waited for her computer to restore, she picked up a horse magazine and read an article about Canadian trainer Chris Irwin. It changed her life.

“I’d worked with horses all my life, showing successfully in many disciplines,” says Heney. “However, I had been taught the show-the-horse-you’re-the-boss approach, which intuitively never felt comfortable. Chris Irwin has a very different way of working with and understanding horses, and I knew I had to learn more.”

Heney took Irwin’s program and earned certification to teach his methods to other horse trainers; she also took his program in equine-assisted personal development training for people. Now she is one of only six coaches in the world with this double certification. Heney found that understanding how to work with horses appropriately also teaches valuable lessons that can be used to help people.

She applied her new skills and knowledge to facilitate the first Leadership Through Equine-Assisted Discovery program (L.E.A.D.) at the University of Guelph Kemptville Campus. It’s the first such program to be offered through a university. The five-day course ran from May 2 to 6 and included 11 registrants who worked with horses and learned to recognize how their body language and behaviours communicate information to the horse. Participants also learned to be more confident and calm in their interactions with horses. Heney helped group members see how these lessons can also be translated into interactions with people.

Horses are prey animals, she says, so they are aware of their surroundings and the body language of other horses and humans. During the L.E.A.D. program, students are taught to communicate respectfully with the horses as they carry out specific exercises on the ground.

“We want the horses to respect us out of trust, not fear,” Heney adds. “Keeping a prey animal such as a horse level-headed, supple and relaxed in our presence is the true litmus test of our success as a leader.”

She describes the program as “a catalyst for personal growth and positive change for those interested in at-risk counselling; corporate/leadership team-building; workshops for women, men and children; therapeutic riding and psychotherapy.

Judy Bertling travelled from Prince Edward Island to take part in Heney’s workshop. Bertling started riding as a child and trained in Germany. A back injury put an abrupt stop to her riding for several years, and by the time she had recovered, Bertling knew she wanted something different: she wanted to work with horses in a more natural way. “As soon as I saw the L.E.A.D. program offered, I said ‘I’m going!’” she recalls. “I offered an equine leadership development program at our farm, and people were just blown away by the self-development and self-awareness that can come from working with horses this way.”

That was reinforced for her during the L.E.A.D. course. “My personal growth was amazing. By learning to be appropriate and respectful with the horse, you learn to be more appropriate and respectful with people,” she says. Bertling now hopes to take what she’s learned at Kemptville and offer opportunities for returning soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to spend time at her farm and work with her horses. Her husband is ex-military and has also experienced PTSD; she feels he will be able to facilitate healing for other soldiers.

The Kemptville campus was closer to home for Hilary Robertson, who lives near Kingston. “I’ve been riding since I was nine and was taught to ride with the whack-him-and-make-him-do-what-you-want approach,” she says. “Over the past few years, though, I discovered Chris Irwin’s philosophy, and I wanted to learn more by taking the L.E.A.D. course.”

Robertson had met Heney previously when Heney was working with a friend’s horse. “Ruth is a very strong leader, who can observe and read people very well, so she makes sure we all get the most out of what she is teaching,” says Robertson.

For Robertson, a significant benefit of the program was increased confidence in working with her own horses. “I am going to pay more attention to my body language and be more assertive in working with my horses,” she says. “Chris Irwin says that you can’t be a confident, calm, relaxed leader for your horse unless you are truly that yourself. So you have to recognize and examine your own insecurities and issues, and deal with them.” The benefits of this self-discovery extend beyond the riding arena, she adds. “You take what you learn about yourself into your work and your personal relationships.”

The next L.E.A.D. session will be at the University of Guelph Kemptville Campus Aug. 22 to 26. For more information, visit the Kemptville website; to register, call Maureen Venables at 613-258-8336, Ext. 61619.