Waitsfield leaders embrace equine leadership retreat

  • Published in Letters

“Why do you volunteer to work in your community and serve on a board?”

This was one of the questions posed during the May 20 leadership retreat with the Waitsfield Select Board and Planning Commission members. It was  held at Janis Cooper's EQnimity in Waitsfield where together she and I partnered in the delivery. Reasons for volunteering included having more time during retirement, wanting to give back to the community and making a difference. Some people feel passionately about a cause, an organization, or the place in which they live, and they want to invest their time and expertise to make a positive difference.

The idea for this retreat was born one year or so ago. As a volunteer leader in the community myself, I know first-hand what some of the joys and challenges in this capacity. I wanted to create an experience that would support the work and, particularly the collaboration, of the volunteer leaders in the Mad River Valley.  

Observing what appears to be the dysfunctional, divisive and often chaotic leadership at the national and even statewide level (admittedly from a distance), it occurred to me that now more than ever we need to help empower and support our local leaders. Grassroots local leadership is where we have some control, as any one of us can volunteer and we can provide feedback more easily.

Nine Waitsfield leaders stepped up for this leadership retreat with an open mind particularly since it involved partnering with horses. I was so impressed with their willingness to be honest and self-reflective, in addition to their desire to connect with one another. The group included: Kari Dolan, Sal Spinosa, and Darryl Forrest from the select board, with planning commission members Duncan Brines, Jordan Gonda, Bob Cook, Brian Voigt, Steve Shea and AnnMarie Harmon.


Janis Cooper and I have worked together with individuals and groups using the equine-assisted learning that Janis specializes in. Some of the most profound “aha” moments for participants came from this equine-assisted experience. New insights were gained, connections were formed, and the participants walked away with tangible skills that they could use in their everyday life.

Application of the retreat’s learning came quickly for some. AnneMarie Harmon shared how she applied newly-learned techniques in the hour following the retreat.  She said that after the retreat experience, at a Cub Scout meeting, one boy arrived with high energy which raised the level of energy for all five boys in attendance. Though distracted boy energy is normal, in this case one of the boys responded to the high energy with inappropriate behavior.

She told us that the Scout stomped out of the meeting and she realized that her energy could send him running away, similar to the response from a horse, or it could help to calm him down. She used the breathing technique from the retreat along with the recognition of how unspoken thoughts impact communication and body language, and focused on being calm and relaxed. She visualizd the energetic child as a horse and without words or touch was able to walk him back into the building.


Creating the opportunity for people to leave with greater insight and awareness that helps in their everyday life makes these types of retreats so incredibly satisfying. Debriefing after each of the activities with the horses served to deepen the experience, process the insights and ground the new information into our conscious minds more firmly.

Janis describes experiential education with horses as using the natural characteristics and responses of a horse to learn about ourselves and how we show up in different situations.  For instance, what happens when we are stressed, have negative thoughts, or the way we work and communicate with others to get things done? What needs to change to derive more constructive outcomes in how we relate and influence others? Because horses are honest and immediate in their response to us, we’re able to use their reaction to discover, practice, and then guide us in new ways that lead to positive results. Partnering with horses contributes to attaining new levels of success in our work and how we connect with others.

Waitsfield select board member, Sal Spinosa, the retreat revealed the importance of understanding and further developing positive interactions among the various town officials. Because horses are uniquely sensitive to the world around them, their use in these exercises provided clear and immediate insights, he said, revealing largely unnoticed human elements that can influence the outcome of any civic action or project.

Select board member Kari Dolan said she found the retreat worthwhile and enjoyable. She said that using horses to practice teamwork, collaboration, active listening, leadership and delegation was innovative and recommended the practice to other towns and board.

Janis said she was delighted with how these community leaders opened themselves to a learning experience that benefited them as individuals, teams, and in their role as leaders. By partnering with horses they gained great insight into verbal and nonverbal communication, listening skills, the elements of trust, success and collaboration. She said she felt we are fortunate to have these people dedicated to Waitsfield today and into the future.


The key takeaways from the retreat included:

  • When we make connections, we increase trust.
  • When we communicate from a place of acceptance and nonjudgment it feels better.
  • Supporting one another to achieve the goal; not everyone needs to be the leader.
  • Once there’s movement forward, it’s easier to keep it going.
  • Everyone plays a role that leads to success, and when everyone is involved we have success.
  • No leader, no direction, no momentum.
  • We need to create an environment for communication.
  • Understanding our strengths and those of others helps in our success.

A huge thank you to the group for their active and joyous participation and for the work that they do for us in our community!

Tagged under leadership retreat