Cattle and cowboys still roam through the sage and tall grasses of the Great Sage Plain in the mountain-ringed southwestern corner of Colorado. And a few stray CEOs find themselves there, too.
Here in this magnificent, placid setting, award-winning former advertising exec Lisa Arie (she produced the original Motel 6 spots with Tom Bodett) founded Vista Caballo Innovation Ranch. It’s an exclusive, 160-acre experiential learning center where seven spirited horses are the teachers, and the students are, as Arie puts it, "business leaders, philanthropists, people of great influence" in search of personal transformation. "It is not a dude ranch or equine therapy," she says.
"If I can open up [the participants] to new places or places they’ve forgotten, that’s how I can be most effective .... I look at this as a way to effect substantial transformative change in a very easy way .... I’m 100% invested in this," she says.
There are few distractions here. During the "Signature Experience" of three days and four nights at the ranch, Arie bestows all her attention on one attendee who stays in a well-appointed rustic cabin (complete with hot tub) hand-built by her husband and Vista Caballo cofounder, Jess Arie. There is no traffic, no noise, no pollution; there are no BBMs, tweets, or old-fashioned emails—and electronics are forbidden.
Over the past six years, Arie has welcomed individuals into this safe, calm environment, guiding each heavy hitter under her aegis through a customized, immersive experience with the horses. They see and feel firsthand "the difference between fear and making themselves feel vulnerable ... and empowered," Arie says.
When you’re dealing with a 1,200-pound beast, you are bound to respond. Arie subtly encourages participants to "get out of their heads" and "let their instincts at least have a seat at the table." She sees them open up with the horses over the course of this remarkable "interspecies interaction," as she puts it, and the horses react—they close their eyes with pleasure, they welcome you into the herd, they rest their enormous head on your shoulder, they nibble at your hand, they follow your commands, or they might bang on your cabin door after midnight wanting to play.
During the process, nearly everyone who participates admits to some kind of epiphany. By working with the horses, most say they become better communicators, some break personal logjams, others get to the next level and beyond, or they suddenly realize what’s behind their management style. Even in the small groups Arie guides off-site, participants marvel at their aha moments.
Not long ago, social entrepreneur Lopa Mehrotra, who founded Test Toob—"like YouTube for science education"—organized a two-hour class with Arie for about 40 members of the Young Presidents Organization in Louisville, Kentucky. Held at a local horse farm, the session began with Arie bringing a small horse into the ring. Then she brought out a much larger horse. "My heart was pounding," Mehrotra remembers. " ‘Consider that this is how you deal with the unknown,’ Lisa told us."
Also there was Mehrotra’s husband, Rishabh, the Harvard-trained president and CEO of SHPS, a major health care benefits administrator. "He went up to the [larger] horse with confidence, puffed up," says Mehrotra, but then became intimidated. "He leaned way back as the horse approached him. Lisa said, ‘Just breathe.’ And the horse relaxed. Then Lisa mimicked [my husband] with big strides and strode across the ring. ‘Imagine doing that in a conference room,’ Lisa said. ‘Imagine when our defaults are to dominate.’ One member was so in awe. We need to get out of our head and into a more emotionally intelligent place. He was amazed at the effort that it took to get out of his head."
When Bruce Eames, cofounder of the Houston-based high-frequency trading firm Quantlab Financial, went to Vista Caballo for a one-on-one stay with Arie, he says he found the process "organic. The breakthrough comes by challenging yourself." After breakfast, he says, "the day would get laid out then because everything is adapted to each person. Then you go out and spend time with the horses. You learn some basic horsemanship interacting with the horses. In the process you learn things about yourself. Later, there’s time to write things down."
At the ranch, Eames says, "You’re in the barn set up as stables, in the corral, or up in the hills with the horses. And all the horses are really horses. They have their own herd dynamic, have the freedom to act as horses who haven’t had their personalities and instinctual perception trained out of them. Working with them means you’re trying to get the horses to do something without forcing them. This forces you to interact with the horses in a way that you’re not used to acting with people. But the horse may not be cooperating. Maybe you just need to get out of your head so the horse can do what you want. It’s all about you.
"With a horse, you’re working with a huge, incredibly instinctual prey animal; they’re incredibly intuitive, very attentive to their surroundings and to the animals and people in their space. So they’re highly responsive .... With horses, the results are immediate."
Eames says he "walked away from the Vista Caballo experience with a whole new understanding of how I should be working with my people, my teams. Working with the horse, time and time again, I was not clear about what I wanted; I was not willing to stand my ground and was not willing to be clear to the horse that this is what I wanted to do.
"One time, I was trying to get the horse to back up and move along the fence. If you’re in good spirits, they’re game—it’s like a game for them. One horse just wasn’t up for it. The horse just stood there and looked at the fence. I was doing all the things you’re supposed to, working with my hands and giving the commands. Lisa asked: ‘What do you think is going on?’ I knew whatever I was doing wasn’t working. So I stepped forward and let go. I just got out of my head. The horse just looked at me and did everything I wanted it to do. The aha: Step forward with authority .... People are the same way—they’re always reacting, consciously or unconsciously," Eames says.
The Vista Caballo experience, whether one-on-one with Arie in Colorado or in a small off-site group with her, begins with the "experiential" component of working with horses. Once back home, participants follow up with a highly interactive online component called "Playing with Fire" and with phone calls with Arie to reinforce what they’ve learned.
The process seems to be working. Vista Caballo has had "a clear and measurable impact on the worldview structure of participants," according to the white paper "Transformational Leadership: Can it be trained?" by behavioral scientist John Marshall Roberts. His research shows, for instance, that participants experienced a 50% increase in social and emotional receptivity; a 48% increase in a more expansive, big-picture perspective; and a 36% increase in social optimism.
"At a three-month follow-up, most of these changes remained stable in both direction and intensity, suggesting that the changes ... reflect sustainable structural changes in participant thinking," Roberts says.
Arie had her own epiphany 15 years ago while living in New York City. She had risen to the top in advertising. Simultaneously, she ran two more successful businesses: in television film production and talent management. She was good at it. "I ran three offices at once from a BlackBerry. This is why I can speak so clearly to the companies and corporations—we live in the same skin. I understand that drive," she says.
"I had multimillions of dollars, understood revenues and profit margins. Then there was this intangible that I still have trouble understanding, and I go to a part of the country I don’t know. I was my own best client. [I had] this very distinct feeling I was living life but missing my life. It scared me so much.
"What I was learning from the horses was so effective that I kept thinking it was a fluke and kept quiet, kept going for several years. But I didn’t want to get to the end of my life wondering, 'What if I had done it?' The instinct was so strong, so strong to do this. At this point I started Vista Caballo," she says.
Arie has plans for more, much more. She’ll continue giving speeches or teaching at leadership institutes once a month or so and writing a blog on the Huffington Post. In November, she’ll give a keynote speech at the World Innovation Convention in Cannes. And in the spring, she’ll roll out new software—a vehicle to reach more people. She says she’ll continue to work with "walk-the-talk individuals and companies to effect change on this planet," and she wants to get her concepts "into a very progressive educational forum." That’s where renowned creativity and education expert Sir Ken Robinson might one day enter the picture. "He doesn’t know it yet, but I would love to connect with him," she says.
[Images: Jamie Williams and (for the head shot) Christopher Wilson]