Lessons in Leadership Straight from the Horse's Mouth

"When we study what followers follow, we will know what makes great leaders great ..." ~ Paul Hunting

I have been at a horse show all week-long (and still am as I write this post) so my result my "leadership brain" has not been engaged, so when I realized I had to write a post, I'll have to admit I wasn't sure what I was going to write about. Then it hit me... the leadership lessons are happening right before my eyes!

I have been watching people handle, ride ,and compete with animals who:

  • Weigh in at half a ton or more
  • Don't speak our language
  • Have prey-animal instincts that tell them to run a half a mile before they stop and look at what they think was going to eat them

This speaks volumes of lessons in leadership: building trust, peacefully resolving conflict and respectfully choosing your battles.

The first class of the day was English Equitation and I watched a very interesting dynamic between two horses and their mounts.
Two riders were attempting to execute an equitation pattern between three cones.  Each horse refused to move forward at the gait the pattern called for and reared up on its hind legs and began backing away from the cone.

The first scenario

Rider A reacted and yelled loudly "Stop that you STUPID HORSE!!!" and repeatedly kicked her horse forward harshly with the spurs on her boots. The horse refused even more by running sideways back toward the gate. The frustrated rider reacted with more anger and jerked on the reins to get her horse to go back to the cone.

Unfortunately, the strength of the 1000 pound animal was no match for the 100 pound girl.  She was unable to complete the pattern and was asked by the judge to get back in line with the other riders.

Rider A was in tears and her horse was worked up and shaking all over by the time it was over.  Not only was that the longest 3 minutes of the rider's life, the experience set the tone for the pair for the rest of the show.

The second scenario

Rider B's horse oddly enough did the same thing at the cone as Rider A's horse did ... but Rider B responded very differently to her horse's refusal to go near the cone.

Rider B's horse also refused to pick up the correct gait to perform the circle around the cone and began to run backwards quickly, head high in the air in an attempt to run back to the other horses at the far end of the arena.

Rider B spoke calmly to her horse and let him get a little farther away, and gently yet firmly guided him in a circle so he could face the obstacle from a more comfortable distance.  As she allowed him to do so, she continued to gently urge him forward with her legs and gave some slack to the rein so he could relax and lower his head to look at the scary object.

She guided her horse closer to the cone and as soon as he looked more confident, she asked him to pick up a lope and start the circle again. While he still looked somewhat nervous, he was willing to perform the pattern at the request of the rider, who was now aware of what was scaring him ... (and in fact also was scaring Rider A's horses).

What she also realized, in her calm and curious state of mind, was that about 50 yards beyond the cone was the terrifying horse-eating-boogey-monster on the other side of the panel of black fabric stretched tight across the panels at the end of the arena: a herd of cows!

Now, many of you reading this might believe that because you see horses and cows together in movies, "all horses get along with cows."  That's not the case.  Talking with Rider A's mother, we discovered that her daughter's horse had been gored by a steer (male cow with horns) when it was just three years old.  Because horses have memories that rival an elephants, they never forget (especially painful experiences) - the horse has since and continues to be terrified of cows to this day.

Rider A assumed her horse was misbehaving on purpose, being willfully disobedient and was just a "stupid" animal with no purpose behind his behavior. Rider A's frustration and eventually even anger was obvious to all of us watching, but the most perceptive of all was her horse, who felt it and reacted, too. In the end, they both lost.

Rider B knew and understood that her horse, a prey animal whose instinct is to run from unfamiliar objects, was afraid of something (although she wasn't sure what) and responded by being calm yet firmly in control, both of her own emotions and therefore her horse's reaction to flee.  She was confident that together she could help him build his confidence and get through the pattern.

Although the pair didn't win a first place blue ribbon, they finished successfully and placed third in the class.  Even better than a ribbon was the prize of a stronger partnership and trust, having gotten through the challenge together.

The pair performed beautifully for the remainder of the show, won another class and both horse and rider had a terrific rest of the day.

Here are 3 Lessons of Leadership:

1. "You can judge the quality of your communication by the response you get ..." If your horse (or your team member) isn't doing what you want, or is reacting in a way you don't expect them to, it may be YOUR behavior that's making a bad situation worse. What you are willing to do first as the leader when you see this happen will determine what happens next ... and next?

2. Not everyone sees every situation the way you do. You may know there are cows on the other side of the black fence, but all your horse can sense (by smell) is something it's very afraid of based on its past experience.  Since curiosity and empathy cannot coexist with the emotion of fear, it's up to you as a leader to start being curious and consider there may be more than one explanation (not just yours) that's causing the behavior.

3. Emotions are contagious. Do you really think that using a longer whip and a sharper spur is going to motivate and inspire your team's confidence, loyalty, and willingness to step into unfamiliar territory? Enough said.

How many other Lessons in Leadership do you see in this story?

Now, I'm going back to enjoy the rest of the horse show and see what other lessons in leadership I can learn!

Christina Haxton, MA LMFT
Leadership Speaker, Consultant & Executive Coach

Co-author of The Character-Based Leader: Instigating a leadership revolution...one person at a time

Check out: Experience HorseSENSE: Team building & leadership programs where horses whisper to humans the secrets of successful leaders 


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