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Straight From the Horse’s Mouth: Fine Tuning Facilitation

I hit the ground. Hard. And then, I watched my horse take off running, without me. Awesome.

I never thought that my horse would be the one who challenged me to fine tune my facilitation skills, but this incident brought it directly to my attention. Up until then, I thought my only experience had been facilitating with human groups; but I’ve learned so much about patience, confidence, perseverance, and trust from working with horses over the years, so why not facilitation?

Like people, having an animal as a teammate comes with unique challenges. People have different ways of communicating, but horses aren’t even the same species, thus drastically affecting how we understand each other. Horses and humans have come to understand each other over thousands of years of working together, but as Rua ran off, I was brought back to the reality that sometimes that just doesn’t go as planned. As I picked myself up from the dirt, I reflected on how I got there:

The command was simple, but Rua just wasn’t getting it. Somewhere along the chain of communication we were experiencing major interference. When I experience this same phenomenon in the workplace, it usually results in confusion and frustration between team members. Funny enough, the same thing happens with animals, and that’s why Rua decided that it was time for us to move in different directions; her, across the arena, and me, on a short flight to meet the ground. Working with animals is an extremely humbling experience, because most of the time when things go wrong, it’s your fault. I had kept asking the same question over and over again expecting to get different results (sound strikingly familiar to the human world?). On a scale of telling to facilitating, I was definitely telling. Facilitating is the process of making things easier by providing structure and support through the learning process. Telling, on the other hand, is much more direct. While both attempt to get to the same end, telling doesn’t allow for the same flexibility, creativity, or self-discovery as facilitation.


Telling clearly wasn’t working. And I had never considered facilitation a skill that applied to riding. It seemed like such a stretch. But the more I thought about it, I found that facilitation was something I used more often than I realized: resolving disagreements with friends, debating around the dinner table, networking with professionals in my field, and even (surprise, surprise) with my horse! I was inspired to get back in the saddle to try again, but this time with the help of some trusty facilitation tools.

Facilitation is very personal

I’ve worked with more horses than I can count in the 20 years that I’ve been riding. Each horse comes with their own personalities and experiences (very much like people!). Rua is curious, hates to make mistakes (this is definitely me too), loves recognition, and is incredibly hardworking. With my own work team, we dedicate time to understanding each other’s strengths and opportunities for growth so that we can support and challenge each other to develop personally and professionally – so why wasn’t I doing this with her? Knowing all of these traits is important for me to be able to have a good working relationship and in this case, Rua was my teammate.  She was frustrated that she couldn’t get the command right, so not only did I need to be clear and firm, I needed to understand her and be reassuring and encouraging to alleviate her concern.

Listen and adapt!

As the designated ‘facilitator’ in this scenario, I was responsible for helping Rua realize our intended learning objectives. So far, she had provided me with plenty of feedback that I was doing a poor job. One of the defining practices of facilitation is the ability to be flexible and adaptable in your process. Some of my best teachers and mentors are so incredible because when I have a hard time grasping a subject or skill they transform the material and present it to me in a different way that better fits my learning style or experience level. I needed to listen to my horse’s feedback because she didn’t understand what I was asking, and then adapt my approach to better suit her needs. In short, I needed to step outside of my own comfort zone, get creative, and try something different!

Know when to take a break

Rua is a trier, you can always see her problem solving and making an effort to do a good job. Some of the things that I ask her to do will be more challenging for her than others. Her process of getting to the right answer is instrumental in her ability to perform these new skills in the future. Which is why I usually try not to interfere with her learning curve, even when she’s struggling. I know that I learn best through my own trial and error. But, in certain cases, it’s also important to know when to take a timeout. When I’m brainstorming or working on a project and I hit a roadblock, the best thing that I can do for myself and my process is to walk away for a little bit. I always come back re-energized and inspired to continue. Looking back, I think that Rua and I would have both benefited from taking a quick break. A timeout, if used appropriately, would have allowed me to reassess, regroup, and adopt a new strategy.

Celebrate your wins

There isn’t one single definition of success. That’s because everyone has their own unique visions to achieve and obstacles to overcome. Instead of fixating on my own past experiences or on other riders and their horses, I needed to think about what goals were actually attainable for me and Rua in the now. We live in a very competitive society, so it can be easy for me to focus too much on my desired results and then neglect my process and relationships in an effort to accomplish a task. SMART goals can help to put all three essential elements of success into perspective. Moving forward, I wanted to set specific short and long term goals so that I could celebrate our wins each day. Progress, in any form, is progress!   

Facilitators don’t know everything (and that’s totally okay!)

In the words of the great Michelangelo, “I’m still learning.” I have so much to learn, in riding, in my work, in life, and that is as exciting as it is daunting! But, I can find relief in knowing that I don’t have to be an expert to be a good facilitator. In my experience, I have found that I learn as much as, if not more than, the groups that I work with through the facilitation process. The best teams, no matter who they are, your committee, department, sports team, class, club, even family, learn from each other. This experience was no different, and was another opportunity for me to learn and grow.

I finally caught up to Rua. She looked at me sheepishly, and I gave her a reassuring pat before I got back in the saddle. Somebody (I don’t know who, but they were geniuses) once said that “mistakes are the growing pains of wisdom.” While I was a little dusty and a little bruised, I was definitely wiser because of it. Now, we were ready to give it another go and I felt confident that facilitation would help us reach our goal.

Long story short, we crushed it.

*Leadership Lesson*


Clear and correct communication is key to working with any group. ‘Practice how you play’ with an activity like Interference from our Activities Database.

*Meet the Author*

Caelan Cooney is another Millennial who wants ‘to make an impact’, a self-proclaimed movie critic, avid explorer, lifelong learner, and Chapman University graduate.