THEY DON’T WATCH THE CLOCK. They don’t have huge egos. And they won’t whine about their workload. On the downside, we wouldn’t suggest taking them to a company dinner; their table manners can be a touch feral. For a team-building exercise or group activity, however, these animals are a great choice.
Amanda Madorno, an executive leadership consultant and owner of Roam Consulting, grew up with horses, instilling in her a lifelong interest and passion for the animals. When her daughter went off to college, her passion was reignited, and she purchased a 5-acre farm in Woodinville, Wash., and a chestnut Arabian named Phoxxberry. However, when she discovered Phoxxberry was permanently lame, she didn’t want to simply turn him out to pasture. “He had so much spirit and joie de vivre,” she says. That’s when she became an approved instructor in equine-facilitated learning through the Epona Program. Following completion of the program, she created Leadership with Horses, which employs horses in teaching relationship, communication and self-empowerment skills.
The hands-on activities help groups develop greater emotional intelligence and learn how to engender trust and communicate more effectively. No horse riding is involved.
Sessions begin with an introduction of the participants to the herd. Practicing reflective observation, the group tries to determine what the horses are telling them. “We don’t take enough time to listen actively with our head, heart and gut. When the group watches what is going on with the horses, it gets them to think differently,” she says. “What would your life be like as a leader if you took the time to check in this way, if you had the curiosity and caring to find where [your employees] are? For a lot of people, it’s an eye-opener.”
Following the introduction, group and one-on-one exercises with the horses teach whole-body communication. Madorno says nonverbal communication can be as high as 96 percent of total communication, so many of the activities require that teams accomplish a goal without speaking to each other.
“They are all working together in a group to get the horses to accomplish something, such as moving the horses as a herd or tackling an obstacle course,” Madorno says.
Madorno’s program is available April through October and sessions can be full or half-day. Lunch or dinner can be arranged through nearby Willows Lodge.
“The notion of working with a sentient being is very different from building a boat or completing a rope course,” she says. “Those are very valuable exercises, but when you walk into an arena, [the horses] don’t care what your title is, just that you showed up today. It doesn’t matter who you were yesterday with your team; it just matters who you are right now with the horse.”
For 27 years, Pacific Assistance Dogs Society- or PADS-has been raising, training and placing assistance dogs for people with disabilities. “The dogs are the arms and legs of the clients; they perform specific tasks to increase their independence,” says Laura Watamanuk, executive director of PADS.
Located in British Columbia, the organization also welcomes opportunities for their volunteer puppy raisers to socialize the puppies. One such opportunity was at the 2010 Meeting Professionals International (MPI) World Education Congress in Vancouver, British Columbia. The organization set up a doggy-petting area in the lobby of the Vancouver Convention Centre to assist the puppies in becoming acclimated to the sounds and sights of a large crowd. More recently, the organization set up shop at a local university, providing cuddle breaks with students studying for final exams.
“The sessions are very well received by the school,” says Watamanuk. “Students are under a lot of pressure, and the dogs are an immediate de-stressor. There are scientific studies that show petting a dog emits happy hormones.”
The dogs placed through PADS begin training at 8 weeks old. When they are 15 to 16 months old, they begin advanced training, learning specialized skills such as pulling a wheelchair, opening doors or retrieving dropped items. During the final months of their training, the team at PADS begins assessing their personalities before matching them with clients according to lifestyle needs.
Although it costs approximately $30,000 to $35,000 to train a service dog, the dogs are provided to clients at no cost, and at any given time, approximately 80 puppies are in training.
For groups who like their activities a bit less domesticated, the Oregon Zoo offers several programs that will get you up close and personal with its wild charges, including ZooSnooze, Discovery Tours and Animal Encounter Tours.
ZooSnooze is an overnight program for up to 75 people and runs from 5 p.m.-9 a.m. the following morning. Available from September through March, tickets are priced at $48 per person and include admission to the zoo, dinner, snack and breakfast. Activities include behindthe- scenes tours of the zoo animal hospital and kitchen and in-front-of-the scenes tours of the big cats, as well as a hands-on activity with reptiles. “We’ve had all sorts of groups: groups of friends, corporations, church groups,” says Tracy Modde, education registrar.
For smaller groups of up to 10, Discovery Tours are available for $35-$45 per person, and offer behind-the-scenes tours of the Africa or Great Northwest exhibits. Groups can see where animals like black bears, rhinos and giraffes call home when they aren’t front and center at the zoo and learn about their care. “They aren’t hands-on, but you get to talk with a keeper,” says Modde.
The truly adventurous at heart will appreciate the Encounter Tours, at $120 per person. Only available on Fridays and Saturdays for groups of up to five, these tours offer handson encounters, including feeding some of the zoo’s resident giraffes or penguins.