July 11, 2015

Teams and Herds

“Neuroscience is revealing the social nature of the high performance workplace.”  David Rock, Managing With the Brain in Mind, 2009

Teams and herds 2244x1658 (Custom)Predator and Prey – A Dichotomy

Mammals are an amazing class of creatures that have evolved to survive in most habitats around the world. We share adaptations and specialize when required in order to accommodate environmental and evolutionary pressures. Some characteristics that we share as a class are that we are endothermic vertebrates who have hair on part or most of our bodies. Specializations include such adaptations as the placement of the eyes: predators such as cats, dogs, and humans have eyes on the front of the face while prey animals such as horses, deer, and elephants, have eyes on the sides of their heads.

Unlike leopards, and skunks, horses and humans share the need to live in social groups – families and tribes or bands and herds. Horses and humans rely on their group mates for survival. Social animals must develop skills that enable interpersonal success that is not required by solitary mammals. While some believe that competition is the greatest driver for successful survival, social animals must be able to collaborate for survival as well as compete.

“Our physiology and neurological reactions are directly and profoundly shaped by social interactions.” David Rock, 2009

Survival of the Fittest

The horse as a prey animal is keenly aware of its dependence on its herd mates. Being left alone is about the worst thing that could happen to a horse. Survival success is directly related to the ability to share and support the roles of leader, follower, scout, care-giver, parent, and sentry. Horses in a herd never nap or sleep all at the same time.  They share parenting. They groom each other. They constantly play awareness games to ensure the herd has an early alert system for the detection of predators and most of them play leadership games incessantly.  Succession planning is a daily necessity in an equine herd.

By contrast, today’s modern humans typically live in displaced families (family members live at a distance); we live in amorphous bands that grow and shrink while being surrounded by the mega-herds of fellow city dwellers.  In western societies we rarely encounter predators and it could be said that we have lost the conscious strategies for dealing with predators. The infrastructures that we have created are designed to ensure our safety and longevity. We no longer live in caves and rely on fire for cooking, heat, and light, however all of our elaborate life support systems have allowed us to forget how vincible we are.

We have not however lost the physiological processes that mammals developed over millennia. Modern brain research has demonstrated that we catalogue all our experiences into two categories: threat or reward. We detect threats much faster than rewards and our reptilian and mammalian brains still react with fight/flight/freeze responses as designed, to ensure our survival – however unaware we are that this is going on. While our conscious brains may recognize frustrating and unpleasant social interactions as non-life threatening, our unconscious survival systems still kick into gear, raising blood pressure, increasing heart rate, tensing muscles, distracting our thoughts, and upsetting our stomachs. The effects of chronic stress are well known to us as disease producing when we do not develop suitable stress reducing strategies.

We Are All Social Animals

Having become intellectually and technologically sophisticated, we are no longer as connected to our amorphous herds; we have greater independence from each other and from nature and we experience fewer conscious motivations to support and foster the needs of the herd over our own selfish ones. As such we must develop conscious strategies to foster connection and collaboration. Some of us are more naturally adept at these social skills than others but even so, the artificial nature of our modern tribes combined with a lower degree of dependency puts pressure on these abilities at various times.

Team and Herds is a custom approach to developing teams into higher-functioning groups, or healthier herds. Horses are a powerful symbol and real-life presence that have a unique way of evoking balance between our heads and our hearts, our minds and our bodies. We, for the most part, are attracted to horses as special beings that embody mystery and power. As sentient beings they have the capacity to bypass the limitations of our pre-frontal cortices and connect us to our hearts and intuition in a gentle yet unforgettable way. Oddly, domesticated horses are for the most part attracted to us. They are interested in creating herds with whomever or whatever they meet. They are extremely forgiving animals and offer a most interesting and rewarding avenue into learning about ourselves.

Horses offer us a chance to delve into and develop all of the factors of Emotional Intelligence: self-perception, self-expression, the interpersonal, decision making, and stress management. When working and playing with horses in a supported environment where one has the opportunity to understand their language and culture, the learning gets deep, powerful and lasting.

At Equine Coach we create targeted and customized workshops and retreats designed to focus on your organization’s culture and unique goals and challenges.