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Letter from Ajman: Arabian horses and business leadership

Published by Current on 2007-06-26

AJMAN, United Arab Emirates -- In the fading light of a late Friday afternoon recently, two women - an American equestrian champion, and a Swiss-Swedish horse trainer - visited the desert ranch of Sheikh Ammar bin Humaid Al Nuaimi, Crown Prince of Ajman, an emirate situated between Sharjah and Umm Al-Qaiwain on the Arabian Gulf.

Sheikh Ammar and his Arabian horses are well known on the European and Middle Eastern show circuits, winning all sorts of championships each year. But his visitors weren't there to discuss showing of horses, of which the 35-year-old sheikh - heir to the throne of Ajman, the smallest of the seven principalities that constitute the oil-rich United Arab Emirates - has several dozen. Rather, the women were discussing a new enterprise through which business executives are taught leadership skills with equine assistance. The sheikh, whose economic ambitions to transform Ajman into a manufacturing hub are huge, was hooked.

"I've never seen anything like this," he said.

He spent several hours watching as the European woman, Ingela Larsson, demonstrated how a highly temperamental stallion could be coaxed into submitting to her leadership. The stallion was reluctant to enter a swimming pool built specially for the sheikh's horses, but Larsson eventually had him in there, along with herself.

"The horse and its relationship with humans have many similarities with an employee and the employer in a company - the employee is looking for comfort and security, and he's scared of the unknown," she said. "So the leader's primary role is to instill trust. Once you get the horse to trust you, he gets into a comfort zone. Then he'll do your bidding. It's that way in the business world, too. The corporate leader needs to learn to understand his employees, he needs to know exactly how to communicate, and when and where to apply the right kind of pressure."

Her technique draws from something known as natural horsemanship, which uses psychology and communications in training both horses and riders. Natural horsemanship is the fastest growing sector of the worldwide multi-billion-horse industry.

Now Larsson has teamed up with Eileen Verdieck, a world-renowned bloodstock agent, trainer and show champion, to teach business executives in the Middle East how to use natural horsemanship in furthering their corporate careers. In the sheikhdoms of the Gulf, Verdieck has long been a celebrity because of her success in consulting and training show horses owned by local rulers.

Verdieck also persuaded a Belgian named Marc Silvestri, who runs Equitao, a training enterprise in Brussels and France, to assist her Dubai-based company, Hoofbeats. In addition to developing equine-based leadership training programs for businessmen and CEOs, Verdieck is building a sprawling complex of commercial and residential buildings - as well as her unique brand of equestrian centers - one of which is near Sheikh Ammar's ranch.

What Verdieck is doing is revolutionary in the context of the Middle East, where Dubai is home to the world's richest race, the $6 million annual thoroughbred event, which has been held since 1996 at the Nad Al Sheba racecourse. But it is something that she has indirectly been developing over the last 20 years as a professional in the horse industry.

Verdieck's "revolution" lies in expanding the horse's constituency beyond that of the aficionados, stable owners, and racing enthusiasts to the business community, where leadership skills are in great demand as economic growth in the emirates continues at a rapid clip.

"Our program is for the non-horsy person," Verdieck says. "Natural horsemanship is a language method with which to teach business leadership techniques. We're really the first people in this region to create a purpose-built program for existing businesses and corporations. I want people not only to fall in love with their horse experience, but I'm aiming to revolutionize how executives will run their businesses and deal with their colleagues by using their 'horse sense.'"

Adds Silvestri: "What businessmen and corporate executives can learn from horses is that these creatures are very instinctive and have highly developed senses. The horse feels you - no need to wear a mask. Horses invite us to develop inner values such as confidence, harmony, energy, feeling, and freedom. I've found that people who develop harmonious partnerships with horses usually develop harmonious partnerships with colleagues and friends. And if you can work well with the temperamental Arabian horse, you will be able to work well with just about any human being."

The Arabian horse is widely reckoned to be the progenitor of horses breeds worldwide, and local rulers here - as well as wealthy owners in the United States and Europe, and throughout Asia-Pacific - prize their stables. The horse industry in the Middle East is reported to generate more than $10 billion annually in revenues, and another $15 billion in the Asia-Pacific region; in the U.S., the horse industry contributes more than $105 billion to the national economy, according to the American Horse Council.

There's also the fact that hundreds of thoroughbred horses are "decommissioned" each year in the Gulf - which is to say, that their value as race horses or show horses ends. Various sheikhs spend up to $3,000 a month on each horse ensuring their upkeep and maintenance (not all horses are candidates for breeding, and it's not in local tradition to put horses down unless absolutely necessary). So Verdieck and Larsson are persuading various rulers to put their decommissioned steeds to use as training horses for business executives.

This approach has found favor with royals such as Sheikh Ommar. Because the Middle East's economies are increasingly recognizing that they need to look beyond their oil and gas-based revenue models and better compete in a world of galloping globalization, local leaders are encouraging top management to learn innovative methods of running businesses.

Robert W. Richards, chief executive officer of the Center of Excellence for Applied Research and Training in Abu Dhabi, has long studied entrepreneurial activity in this region. Indeed, CERT - which was established in 1996 by the U.A.E.'s minister for higher education Sheikh Nayahan Bin Mabarak Al Nayahan to strengthen links between the academic and business communities - is continually on the lookout for enterprises that it can cite as models. Like the Oxford-educated Sheikh Nayahan, Richards - a Canadian who received his doctorate in business administration from Brigham Young University in Utah -- stresses economic development of this country of 4 million, which has oil reserves of more than 100 billion barrels, or 10% of the world's proven reserves.

Says Richards: "Entrepreneurship and leadership are at core a fertile interaction between the 'head', the 'heart' and the 'hand'; thinking, feeling and most importantly doing the right things at the right time. In the Arabian horse one can see an optimal expression of potential and power. That innate ability is unleashed through a process of patient development and the building of trust between mentor and protege. This persistent and deliberate cultivation of talent may be the essence of effective leadership."

"Management techniques in this region cannot be only transplanted from overseas," Richards adds. "And while expatriate executives may help run companies in the short run, Emiratis need to be trained even more vigorously in the art of corporate leadership. So when I learn of techniques such as natural horsemanship, I am encouraged - the love of horses comes naturally to people of this region."

The corporate leaders who attend Verdieck's workshops with horses are understandably reluctant to be named, but suffice it to say that they include heads of some of the top companies in the Gulf, as well as members of royal families who are engaged in business.

One international businessman who's signed up is New Delhi-based Babulal Jain, who often visits Dubai. "I've never been a horse person," Jain says. "But I do relate well to people. At my age, I'm still willing to learn how to deal better with the people with whom I do business. I'm 66."

Old Indian saying: It's never too late to learn from a horse.

New Arab saying: It's never too early to start learning from a local horse.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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