Brittany Adams-Pope introduced a new tactic to help teenagers build their leadership skills during a summer program at the J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development.

Her approach? Hold your horses. Literally.

“Horses are empathetic animals. They pick up on our body language and our energy and react to both,” said Adams-Pope, a public service faculty member at the Fanning Institute. “They mirror our emotions, relying on us to be leaders.”

During the institute’s week-long summer program for high school youth in foster care, Adams-Pope took the teens to the UGA Livestock Arena on South Milledge Avenue.

There, they worked in pairs to guide each horse, while holding onto a lead rope attached to its halter, through an obstacle course of cones and plastic barrels, and over jumps. At the same time, the teenagers balanced a tennis ball on a spoon. It was an exercise requiring grit, determination, and above all else, communication.

One participant said the exercise required that partners talk to each other more.

“It was really hard having to focus on multiple things at once,” another one said.

Adams-Pope, a certified equine-assisted leadership facilitator, helped the students realize that the more nervous they were, the more nervous the horses—Paco, L.T. and Spike— felt. The more rushed the students became, the less the horses listened to instruction. Students quickly picked up on how their emotions were reflected in the horses’ behavior.

“What energy do you bring to the room? How do you become aware of that?” Adams-Pope asked. “How do you pick up on the nonverbal communications of others?”

“Spike is the most timid, like me,” said one student, observing how Spike hung away from the other two horses.

“L.T. seems pretty cheeky. He’s very, very playful,” said another, watching L.T. trot in front of the other two.

About 21 teens from across Georgia attended the Embark Summer Precollegiate Program at Fanning, a unit of UGA Public Service and Outreach. For five days they lived on campus, learned about the UGA admissions process and financial aid, and working on leadership skills.

This was the first year that Fanning has used horses to work with the students. Adams-Pope, who is new to Fanning, has been using equine-assisted leadership in other areas, modifying the course’s complexity for student groups, business managers and nonprofit organization leaders, often switching the tennis ball to an egg and adding more tedious obstacles.

“One of the most important things I’ve learned through this type of work is that participants and facilitators can find leadership in all the things around them,” Adams-Pope said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be horses that create learning—it’s more about using a new environment and a new stimulus to create authentic, hands-on learning.”

Embark Georgia is a statewide leadership initiative that works to increase college access and retention for youth who have experienced foster care or homelessness. By creating a network of support on campus and across the state, Embark aims to improve the chances for every student to complete a degree or certificate program at one of the over 50 USG or TCSG institutions in Georgia.

Writer: Leah Moss, 706-612-0063, leahmoss@uga.edu