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Leading from the higher self – leadership development with Arab women in Dubai

Dressed from head to toe in a flowing black hijab, twinkling eyes peering out from behind her black headscarf, Amina leads a stunning white Arabian stallion down through the 40-horse barn and out to the ménage under a blazing hot desert sky.

There, she releases him from his lead rope and slaps the rope on her thighs creating a crack that startles the horse and sends him high-tailing round the school, moving as if he is dancing on light. Amina walks to the centre of the pen, and beckons two other women, similarly attired, to join her there. Seleema, in her late fifties is a housewife, while Mahara is around 35 and is head of a medical research team. The wings of their crystal-decorated designer sunglasses glint as the harsh rays bounce off against the white sand of the surrounds; the scent of heavy perfume subsumes the smell of horse. The sleeves of the Chanel and Gucci hijabs catch in the hot breeze, creating a flapping that increases the horse’s momentum.

Working as a team, they send the horse round the outside of the pen, trying out different stances to notice how this affects the horse. Standing square to the shoulder, eyes on eyes, they send the horse galloping, his nostrils flared, power surging from hind to front. They have never presented themselves in this way before, bold, assertive, proud and confident. Their attitude and state of being reflects perfectly in the horse. He is a flawless mirror in which they can test out their communication skills. They are experiencing a life-changing hiatus in which their conditioning to be passive and demure is powerfully challenged.

The experience of causing 400 kilos of equine power to respond willingly to their focused and quiet intent will act as an anchor point in their memory. It will be a moment they can draw on again and again, offering choice for a different way of being when in a difficult meeting or standing up to a dominant mother-in-law, or making their case to a recalcitrant husband, without needing to resort to manipulation or subterfuge which have to date, they admit, been their main weapons.

Wordlessly, the women break the horse’s flight path, turning him to the rails and sending him counter-clockwise. Later, as they become more familiar and secure in their interactions with him, as they learn subtlety in their body language, we will add in jumps, wings through which the horse must pass between, tires used as stepping stones for which the women lean on their horse-partner to assist their balance. These exercises provide reinforcing experiences of being trustworthy leaders, creating a partnership approach, according the horse the status of being a sentient, emotional being who is like themselves in so many ways.

All this activity, which we take so much for granted, is under the auspices of the prestigious Dubai Ladies Club, sponsored by one of the royal princesses, sister to Sheikh Mohammed. My regular work is predominantly in the UK with corporate groups, facilitating Equine Guided Learning. To you and me that means bringing horse and human together to develop skills such as leadership, communication, conflict resolution, team development, business strategy and culture change. My background in business journalism, my training 20 years ago as a ‘horse whisperer’ with Monty Roberts, and then facilitating groups for angry men or sex offenders in the Probation Service, led me a decade ago to become one of a handful of people pioneering this approach in the UK. Back home my herd of horses and I work with groups from companies such as Apple, Royal Mail, Paypal, GlaxoSmithKline, Ashridge Business School, housing associations and engineering firms. Here at Dubai Polo Club, the muddy fields of England seem a very long way away. Now EGL is becoming increasingly recognised as a ground-breaking medium for personal and professional development, and is even recognised by the BACP which regulates psychotherapy and counselling in the UK.

Until the previous day, few of these 40 ladies have ever been near a horse. Their husbands may own racehorses or Arabian endurance horses, but contact with the horses for these ladies has been taboo. On first entrance to the barn nearly all of them covered their noses with elegant flowing sleeves, shocked at the smell of the horses that we take entirely for granted. Their lives are disconnected from Nature, spending their time cocooned with female friends and relatives behind closed doors, or travelling in air-conditioned comfort in a chauffeur-driven limo, or treading the endless labyrinths of Dubai’s luxury shopping malls, beyond which the world outside is smelly, hot, rough and dirty.

The first day of my time with the ladies is spent setting them up for the rest of the three half-day sessions they will spend with the horses and me. The massive double barn doors are shut to free the women from what they would perceive as the threat of the male gaze. The Bangladeshi grooms – all male – disappear for the afternoon and the women are now free to remove their hijabs while we are in the privacy of the horse barn. Underneath they wear clothes that make up for the uniform blackness – bright colours, glamorous styles.

The first lesson is in exploring safety issues – the metaphor for life being about managing freedom in a way that keeps you safe, and encourages you to take responsibility for your own well-being. The horse I use is a polo pony mare, cast off by the owner now that its legs are bowed and it can no longer make the grade. Here at Dubai Polo Club many ex-endurance horses and polo ponies, most owned by Sheikh Mohammed, have a new life being schoolmasters to those who come to take riding lessons here. This mare copes well with her moment in the limelight as everyone takes in the hooves which can stand on delicate sandaled feet, the teeth that can snap at hennaed hands when irritated, the back legs that can miraculously repel attack when there is no flight path available to a horse feeling cornered by predators. The leading rope is held by one of the ladies and we talk about how to hold it, not to wrap it round the palm of the hand where the constriction can cause injury. Each of these potential dangers comes with the opportunity to draw parallels with human behaviour. The length and tautness of the rope becomes a metaphor about how much control each individual feels appropriate, either through exerting her own dominance or through the sense of feeling restricted herself. Then, with a quiet grunt the mare lifts her tail and languorously deposits a steaming pile of dung. For a few seconds tension fills the air as this taboo is splattered onto the barn floor. Then, a steady chuckle rises from a few women before gathering momentum and transforming into garrulous, liberated laughter.

The horses reconnect the women with Nature. They reveal one’s animal and human nature and they allow them to connect with the humanity in others. Each woman chooses her own equine guide from the 90 or so that we have to work with. Teaching natural horsemanship principles as a metaphor for interpersonal relations allows the freedom to experiment with new behaviours, the horse providing instant biofeedback through his behavioural responses.

Churchill said ‘there is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man’. How we interact with horses reflects what kind of person we are: impatient and quick to lose our tempers; dominant and needing total control; nervous and fearful about what others might think and feeling we are somehow ‘doing it wrong’; confident to the point of stubbornness – ‘it’s my way or the high way’ – or, if your horse is really lucky, aware of our strengths and weaknesses, calm under pressure, able to lead with confidence, quick to reward and tolerant of mistakes.

As the days unfold stories are told, tears are cried, wisdom is shared, debates are thrashed out. There is laughter, intimacy, eating of baklava dripping with honey, and a new way of being with each other. The work is at times exhausting. Trying to keep the women to a structure is challenging. Many have never experienced the discipline of turning up on time, and focusing for the length of a working day. Then there is the praying – everyone stops what they are doing, retreats to the classroom, spreads out prayer mats and spends 10 minutes communing with the Creator. It’s highly aerobic with all the jumping up, bending down and prostrating. While initially a little anxious about the departure from my precious and pressured timetable, once I accept it I also feel deeply privileged to witness and learn from the ladies’ devotion.

Yet this contrasts so starkly with the fixations on status, power, family lineage, money and material goods. It requires me to imagine deeply what it might be like to have lived every moment of my life in thrall to these powerful societal constructs and how much courage these women will need to proceed with this silken revolution. This is not the bra-burning feminism of the West, which has manifested in increasing cases of anorexia, ‘ladette’ culture, rising abortion rates, and obsession with weight and appearance. This will require what diplomats term as ‘soft power’ in which influence is gained not through conflict and confrontation but by the powers of persuasion and gentle influence. Who better to teach this than the horse?

And what of the horses, my co-facilitators? How did they respond to the three weeks that we spend with them? On arrival my colleague and dear friend Sally King and I found barns full of withdrawn, depressed creatures who stood in the corners of their air-conditioned boxes, tails angled towards the doors. They avoided human contact, or would gnash their teeth at us. There was no cruelty as such, and they were mostly in excellent health, but their lives were restricted to standing in all day, no turn-out to run free, no opportunities for interaction beyond being a vehicle for a status-improving riding lesson. They were bored and disconnected.

We selected those who appeared most willing to engage, gave them Reiki (energy healing) treatments, spent some time with them at liberty in the ménages before the programme began, building our own relationships with them and learning about their characters so we could match them to the ladies and the exercises I had designed. I had had some hesitation in asking the horses to do this work, which would require them to interact emotionally as well as physically. So how surprised I was to see the biters stop gnashing, the heads coming out over the stable doors for stroking, and the pleasure the horses took at the change to routine and the opportunity to express themselves at liberty as the ladies loose schooled them or gave them obstacles to negotiate, channelling their minds and bodies as they had never been asked to before.

As for me, one cannot witness such transformation without being enriched and joyful. What a privilege to be allowed into the deeply private lives of these Arab women and to be trusted to initiate a life-changing experience for them. You can imagine how gleeful I felt as one after another, they asked about how to continue, could they have riding lessons here at the Club, could they come and visit me and my horses in England.

Like a shower of rain in the desert, the horses and ladies alike bloomed with a fresh energy and a deeper faith in the value of one Being communicating honestly, from the heart, with another. Horses are our greatest teachers, if only we can stop shouting, even stop whispering, and learn to listen to them.