Facilitation as invitation


March 4th, 2015

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Whilst reading some relatively recent articles in academic journals (2012) on experiential learning and ‘Outdoor Management Development’ (OMD) for my doctorate, I was surprised to come across references to Kolb’s learning cycle. I realised I hadn’t thought about Kolb in reference to experiential learning for a good 10 years. The model was being critiqued as too individualistic and cognitive in its focus to be really useful, particularly when used for OMD activities. The alternative was a more dialogic, embodied approach. But is experiential learning as simple as ‘Do something, get feedback, make sense and apply’? Is there something deeper, more social and yet more personal going on than that?

A reflective and reflexive approach to self-awareness and learning is something that seems to be at least a partial answer to the challenge often levelled at experiential learning, specifically that it has too much of an individualistic focus. We are all situated in our histories, our social and work contexts; the process of inquiring verbally into that is often more than could be expected on a typical short development programme though. Yet it also seems to me to be important if there is going to be a deeper, more profound shift in thinking, feeling and behaving. It’s vital we add in the dimensions of our emotions, how our embedded assumptions create our worlds, and our embodied knowledge, but for me there has to be an invitation to explore to this depth.

shutterstock_123886246So what kind of facilitation is useful in outdoor management education activities, in particular those which don’t include raft building or rescuing teddy bears from toxic pits at least, but instead the very real and relevant use of horses? Part of the dialogical approach that was being advocated was creating a space for in the moment feedback from fellow participants. It struck me that that is what horses are doing, giving feedback in each and every moment, and likely to be doing so a lot more cleanly too. No social mores or conventions, for horses; if they are bored they will yawn in your face! If part of this particular approach is to direct participants to be in contact with themselves and notice their thoughts, sensations and emotions, then horses respond somatically; their feedback can be nothing else but embodied.

The Facilitation Challenge

What does it take of me, as the facilitator, to stay in the moment, connected and part of this kind of learning? As the article pointed out, each person has very different ways of constructing their world and the meaning they make from their experiences. Consciously or unconsciously, I find myself cycling through the ‘Awareness, Choices, and Experiment’ and aspects of the Gestalt learning cycle. By its very nature, for most people, the whole experience of being in close proximity to a horse is quite disruptive. It also usually means that they are paying even greater attention to their physical selves and have a heightened sense of some fairly basic emotions!

I too have to be connected to my physical sensations, emotions and intuitions and yet stay in the position of observer so that those aspects can be incorporated with my knowledge and skill. I was reflecting on my experience as a rider, and the years of practice and in the moment feedback I’ve had from horses, as to the impact and meaning of even my slightest movements, or thoughts. I can still remember the first time I was cantering and simply thought ‘trot’ and my horse instantly and effortlessly dropped his pace into a magnificent trot.

Connecting participant and horse

Part of my role as a facilitator is to help participants begin to tune into themselves enough to notice and make sense of the subtle signals their body is giving them and that their body is giving to the horses. Through my awareness and choices I can invite participants to experiment with different experiences, make sense of their experiences in different, often non-linguistic ways. If we can only get our participants into an embodied state so that they may meet the horses there, what possibilities may be opened up, what new learning may be generated?


Sue Binks is a senior consultant at Roffey Park.  Equine Assisted Learning is a component of Roffey Park’s Leading with Presence Programme