Leadership and Horsemanship 101 (part 1 of 3)

By Tom Davidson

Why do horses people do what we ask them to do?

No, I’m not comparing people to horses, although some can be real nags! 😉

However, having worked with horses and people for several decades, I have noticed some particularly interesting analogies about leadership. 

Here’s the central question: “Why do horses do what we ask them to do?” For that matter, “Why do people do what we ask them to do?” After all, both of them have free will, make decisions about how to spend their time, and are bigger and stronger than we are! 

My horses weigh about 1000 pounds each, and if they don’t want to do something, I certainly can’t make them! The same is true for the people you lead. You can’t make them do anything. They have to want to do whatever it is you’re asking them to do. 

Take away the paycheck (that comes with a job) and the formal authority (that we think comes with a title), and every leader is left with the same three tools that influence horses. 

     1. Trust – Mutual regard and relationship that is build over time.
     2. Communication – Clear and honest two-way communication
     3. Feedback – Timely, accurate and appropriate feedback mechanisms

The subject of today’s blog is “trust.” We will discuss the others in the following two blog posts tomorrow and the next day. 

Horses, like people, are born with certain instincts when under stress – fight or flight – and because of the way they’re equipped, nature has made them particularly good at the latter. Even their eyes are strategically positioned on the sides of their heads so they can see all around them, including behind, so they can detect danger quickly and run away to safety. 

Ever try riding a horse on a windy day? They’re jumpy and flighty because of all the moving bushes and trees. Everything is a threat, so you need to be ready for some sudden bursts of speed, sideways lunges, spins and jarring reversals of direction! 

Yet under certain circumstances, they will stand still while small children hang from their tails, 200-pound riders climb on their backs, and weekend cowboys – like me –harness them inside a cage of leather (called a “harness”) that is attached to a noisy carriage full of people that – frighteningly – follows them wherever they go! 

I can’t think of a better reason for them to run; yet under the right conditions, they stay and do what they’re asked. Why? Trust. 

Rest assured that these powerful animals do not give their trust easily, and neither do your staff and colleagues give it willingly. In both cases, it’s built slowly and over time. Here’s how: 

     – Connection – To build the degree of connection that is needed for trust to emerge, you have to spend time with your horse. It doesn’t have to be “doing” anything in particular, just hanging out, brushing them and getting to know one another. As a result of this mingling, horses (and people) get used to you being around in a non-threatening way. They learn that you mean no harm and become curious about you, your interests and your role in the herd. This develops a degree of comfort that enables the rest of the relationship to grow and get things done.

     – Comportment – Your demeanor is important to a horse as well. To build trust, you need to be calm, confident and composed, just as you do with people. If you’re angry, frustrated or lash out in any way, they become instantly leery of your intentions. In fact, horses can sense your mood with amazing accuracy. A nervous rider makes the horse nervous as well. A bitter trainer makes the horse jittery. If you’re having a bad day, it may not be a good time to mingle with your horse – or your people – until you get yourself under control – on the inside.

     – Consistency – To be an effective leader of your horse (or your people), you need to be consistent, predictable and thus worthy of their trust. For example, if you let your horse pick at your pockets for carrots one moment (because it’s cute and funny) and then scold them for biting at your sleeves the next (because it’s dangerous and messy), then you’re being inconsistent in their eyes, where it counts. Which is it? Can the horse bite you or not? As a leader, you also have to be consistent in your composure, your reward structure, your consequences, your values and your vision. Just like horses, people pick up on a fickle leader quickly and rarely trust them for long.

For more on how to lead horses (and people), tune in tomorrow for a discussion of the other factors that answer the question, “Why do horses people do what we ask them to do?” 

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