Finding Leadership in Unexpected Places

Over 6 years ago I decided I wanted to learn how to ride a horse. I rode as a child for a very short time and the memories of the experience lingered with me for a long time. Little did I know how the experience would change me as an adult.

For a child, particularly for girls, the idea of horseback riding is incredibly exciting. I am not sure what it is about horses, but many little girls do like them. For the parents, beyond the expense, their kids learn important life skills such as responsibility, commitment, assertiveness, and confidence.

As an adult, we enter into the horse relationship thinking we will rekindle a warm feeling from our past, and we leave enlightened and amazed at what a four-legged animal can teach us about humility, honesty, and leadership.

They say a horse can feel a fly land on its back, at least that is what my first instructor told me. If an animal is that sensitive to feel, how sensitive could they be in other ways? It turns out very sensitive, and this is one reason why horses are such good teachers. They reflect what you do and what you feel. If you are nervous, they feel it and respond to it, they become nervous. If you are anxious, they become anxious, if you simply do not have the patience, they know it. I once walked into a stall to get a horse ready to ride not long after my mother passed away. I remember softly telling the horse, as if he understood English, that I didn’t want any trouble that day — I just wanted an easy ride. Imagine my surprise when my lesson that day was calm and uneventful, something that didn’t usually happy with this particular horse. Of course it wasn’t the words the horse understood, remember, they don’t speak English. My tone (calm and low) and my body language (non-aggressive) spoke for me. The other reason horses are such good teachers is that they thrive on good leadership. Horses are herd animals and as such they have a hierarchy in their herd that includes a clear leader. When humans interact with them, that leadership is very important to the relationship.

Recently I have been working with a beautiful mare. She is 16.2 hands, and to be honest, for a 5’1’’ person who is still learning how to ride, a bit intimidating. My personal goal was to feel comfortable riding her in the canter. Over the past two months I have spent a good deal of time with her. She is not keen on having her girth tightened, and doesn’t even like being groomed. I learned that to be by her side one had to be relaxed, confident, and show leadership so that she could relax. A few weeks ago I was just about to saddle her when she let out a rather large breadth — horse snot and all. Of course she was looking at me when she did this. When a horse breathes like that you know they are relaxed. It is a signal that everything is okay. It was pretty clear to me that she had accepted me as a leader, and wouldn’t you know it, she was fine when I saddled her.

So what does all this mean to a business leader, team lead, or project manager? Why should you care about what a horse does, how they think or feel? Because quite simply a horse is a reflection of its rider. How we carry ourselves has a direct impact on the people we interact with and the responses we get from them. The challenge is that sometimes we aren’t always aware of how we present ourselves, how we interact with others, or how what we say impacts others. Our perceptions of ourselves is many times quite different from the perception others have of us. Horses can help us see what others may see. They provide an opportunity to learn, experience and truly have a better understanding of what leadership is really about.