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One of the facilitators at the Ontrack For Life demonstration, Pat Wagner, center, first invited to observe horses and pick out aspects of the horses' personalities that matched their own. Ontrack For Life uses horses in corporate team building, problem solving and leadership development.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

While participants in the Ontrack For Life demonstration discussed in the background what they were learning, two of the horses played with a foam noodle. Horses love the noodles which are used as people interact with them. Ontrack For Life uses horses in corporate team building, problem solving and leadership development.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Horsing around works for consulting firm

  • Article by: TODD NELSON
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • November 9, 2011 - 5:21 PM

Consulting firm OnTrack for Life promises to add horsepower, literally, to the team-building efforts of its clients.

The company uses a form of experiential training known as Equine Assisted Learning (EAL), in which participants engage in tasks that require interacting with horses as certified facilitators guide the exercises.

Adding some giddyup to team development work produces change that occurs more quickly and lasts longer than traditional approaches, according to Patricia Wagner, co-founder and owner of OnTrack for Life (OTL).

"EAL provides the opportunity for the development of the human factor as well as the organizational processes needed to enhance a team's ability to function at a higher level," said Wagner, also a certified EAL facilitator. "This is the one methodology that brings both of those out together, simultaneously."

Traditional approaches to team building and personal and professional development still work, Wagner said. In fact, they account for three-quarters of the firm's business, with equine-assisted learning accounting for the remainder.

But Wagner believes so strongly in the equine method as a powerful, transformative tool for individual or team development that she and her management team -- co-founder and facilitator Vicki Reese and facilitator Ray Anschel -- are largely hitching the company's fortunes to horse-driven training.

Wagner aims to increase overall volume while raising the percentage of the firm's work to 75 percent equine-based training.

Wagner, the only full-time employee, works with Reese and Anschel to develop and conduct training sessions, bringing in additional facilitators or professionals depending on the client. Revenue has ranged between $150,000 and $250,000 in recent years. Clients include corporations, professional associations, nonprofits, governmental agencies and school groups.

Customized training programs can address team building, crisis intervention, problem solving, communication skills, decisionmaking -- even sales team support.

Social animals

OTL's push to grow, however, is running up against a sour economy that's made even traditional training -- rope courses, role-playing, building-block exercises -- a tough sell. The going is even more challenging for a relatively new method that involves horses, off-site sessions and, ideally, a team or group willing to dig deep into workplace and even personal issues.

Wagner's answer is to stage more frequent guided-learning demonstrations, two-hour crash courses to expose more people to the methodology. The demonstrations typically take place at Elysium Farms in Independence, owned and managed by Tracy Adams Kooman.

Wagner and Reese founded OnTrack for Life in 1998 as a traditional consulting firm specializing in training and development and began incorporating equine-assisted learning a few years ago. There are 285 such programs nationally and 360 worldwide, according to the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, which offers certification programs and sets standards for practice and ethics.

Working with horses broadens and deepens participants' learning, Wagner said, because horses -- social animals with distinct personalities and varying moods -- mirror conscious and subconscious behavior, providing instant, nonjudgmental feedback. The horses quickly become metaphors for challenges facing individuals or groups. Questions from facilitators offer participants an opportunity to reflect on and analyze the experience.

No riding required

A customized OTL program typically involves three three-hour equine sessions and two three-hour workplace sessions to reinforce lessons learned while working with the horses. All the work is done on the ground; participants don't ride the horses.

Kim Popkin, vice president of information services at MLT Vacations in Edina, had OTL work with her department on a large reorganization that brought together teams that hadn't worked together before.

"It allows you to engage in looking inwards as well as looking at how you interact with others in a very non-threatening way," Popkin said. "You're engaging with the horse, seeing how you react and how your behavior impacts other people in a way not directly related to the work environment. That helps teams learn more about one another and their styles. It's so interactive and you're so engaged with the horses, you retain things more. Because of the hands-on, active engagement ... you do tend to hold onto it more and take it to heart more."

The expert says: Mary Maloney, assistant management professor at the University of St. Thomas' Opus College of Business, said research done to gauge the effectiveness of such programs has produced mixed results. An analysis of team-building studies found the activities are more likely to have a positive effect if facilitators help bring the lessons back to the workplace. "What people are saying is it's the translations to the workplace that are more relevant,'' Maloney said.

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com.

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