MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Now, a story from the intersection of the boardroom and the barnyard. Businesses are always looking for ways to get better results from their employees. Well, a company in upstate New York is offering a decidedly different take on worker motivation. It's The Horse Institute, and it specializes in what's called equine-assisted learning. The company's founders say working with horses is a great way to learn teamwork, creativity, and communication. NPR's Jim Zarroli paid a visit.
JIM ZARROLI: The morning dew hasn't yet burned off the rolling hills of Ancramdale, New York, but classes are already under way at The Horse Institute. Six women, all employees of the Farm Family Insurance Company, have been brought into a giant indoor arena. Two horses lope around the fence. Another rolls around on its back playfully. The women are told they have to make one of the horses jump over a bar, but they can't touch the horse. It's not what you'd call an easy task, and they aren't exactly experienced horsewomen.
Unidentified Woman #1: So, you guys think we should all stay together?
Unidentified Woman #2: We could join hands and corral the horse. We could do something like that, without touching the horse, guiding the horse that way?
Unidentified Woman #3: Wouldn't that scare the horse, or not?
ZARROLI: The first team walks after the horse, trying to lure it toward the bar.
Unidentified Woman #4: Come over, come over. Come on.
ZARROLI: It doesn't work. Another team lines up poles on the ground, forming a kind of chute to guide the horse. This gets the horse up to the bar, but he just won't jump. It's too high. Then one of the women asks, why not just lower the bar? There's no rule against it, and the horse quickly steps over.
(Soundbite of team rejoicing)
ZARROLI: The exercise is aimed at getting people to think about how they solve problems and not assume there's a right or wrong way to tackle a task. It's a lesson with a lot of application in the workplace, says Marie-Claude Stockl. She and her husband, Larry, are refugees from the corporate world who started The Horse Institute four years ago.
Ms. MARIE-CLAUDE STOCKL (Executive Director, The Horse Institute): I wanted to marry my two passions, which is training people and also working with horses.
ZARROLI: The Horse Institute's customers have included a car dealership, hospitals, and schools. They pay at least 7,500 dollars for a one-day session here. That may seem like, well, a dubious use of corporate dollars, but the Stockls insist that horses make excellent teachers. They can help companies assess new hires or decide whether an employee is in the right job. The reason has to do with the way horses interact with humans. Today, the women are told to pick a horse and place a halter on it.
Unidentified Woman #5: Hello there.
Unidentified Woman #6: I do not want to walk around him. I wonder if we should stay in the same side or?
Unidentified Woman #5: So, what do you think about this?
(Soundbite of chuckling)
Unidentified Woman #6: I'm thinking that has to be for the nose, right?
ZARROLI: The horses stare at the women blankly then trot off to the middle of the arena. The women trail after them. Finally, after several tries, they get the halters on.
Unidentified Woman #5: I knew you were a good boy. It just takes a little longer.
ZARROLI: Stockl gathers the women in a circle. She tells them horses respond to cues, spoken or otherwise. They sense if you don't know what you're doing, and they react accordingly.
Ms. STOCKL: If you think the horse is going to stay there, it's going to stay there. If you think the horse is going to walk away, it's going to walk away. I mean, it never fails. They mirror you. The horses mirror your intentions, which is fascinating, because these horses we observe with every group, they always have a different behavior. They are you at this point.
ZARROLI: The horses ran away, Stockl says, because the women hadn't thought through how to handle the task before they started. Later, Jan Monks, the head insurance agent, says the exercise has made her think about the way she manages people, how she has to be clear about what she wants. Something, she confesses, is not always easy to do.
Ms. JAN MONKS (Insurance Agent): I can't just expect they're going to intuitively know what I'm expecting. I have to make my...
Unidentified Woman #7: You should be very clear.
Ms. MONKS: Yeah.
ZARROLI: Clear about your intentions.
Ms. MONKS: Yes. So, I did. I mean, it was surprising the things that - this whole exercise has made me stop and analyze myself and things that I do in business.
ZARROLI: The Horse Institute is one of a handful of companies that use equine-assisted learning in the workplace. These companies say because horses are so good at reflecting human behavior, they can help teach people something about themselves. And that, they say, can be a useful tool for understanding the workplace. Jim Zarroli, NPR News.