Leadership and Horsemanship 101 (part 2 of 3)

By Tom Davidson

If you want to be a better leader, take these cues from horsemanship, and you’ll be a better, more consistent and more trustworthy leader. 

Horsemanship resembles leadership in some interesting ways, and this blog series explores why horses – and sometimes people – do what we ask them to do, even though they don’t have to do anything we request of them at all. 

One has to be a good leader to be a good horseman by applying three critical skills, and horses have a way of being completely honest if you aren’t applying them well. These include the following: 

     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 “communication.” We discussed “trust” yesterday and will discuss “feedback” tomorrow. 

Communication is a two-way process that involves the coding, delivery and decoding of messages as they were intended to be sent and received. Just as messages between humans can breakdown because of unintended cues, misunderstanding and interference from outside sources, so can they be hampered between horseback rider and horse. 

Horses and riders don’t normally speak the same language, so it’s up to the good rider to code messages so that their horse understands them as they were intended. They can’t count on the horse to change his way of communicating; it’s the leader’s job to adjust, just as it is the leader’s job when working with people. 

In sending messages to the horse, the rider (and leader) has a number of tools at her disposal, including verbal and non-verbal cues. Here are some of the communication principles good riders and leaders need to know and practice. 

     – Adapt your communication style to that of the receiver. Since horses are big (and can be dangerous), novice riders may resort to shouting orders and commands so they are taken more seriously. But most horses can hear you just fine, and what they decode is most often from the tone of your voice, which may unintentionally impart a threat. As a result, their instinct is to get away from the shouting. Horses are more likely to respond to friendly words and phrases, which are familiar because of repeated use (e.g, “right,” “left,” and “whoa”). Moreover, if these familiar words and phrases are used repeatedly along with the consistent non-verbal cues (i.e., leg pressure on the side or touching strategically with a crop or whip), the likelihood of them being followed increases dramatically. Furthermore, if these words are expressed in firm yet friendly and respectful ways, trusting horses often do exactly what is asked. Instead of raising your voice to people, try “nickering” to your staff in firm, friendly and respectful tones. Horses (and people) respond to communication that matches their preferences and expectations. 

     – Be conscious of your own state of mind when communicating. As mentioned above, horses perceive a great deal from your tone of voice, but their perceptivity goes well beyond that (as it does for people). For example, if the rider is mad, frustrated or fearful, horses pick up this very easily and quickly. As a result, they are less likely to be cooperative and more likely to resist your leadership. The same is true for people, who have excellent “antenna” for your mood as a leader. So get your mindset, attitude and approach right before asking others to do something. This has been proven – in people as well.  For example, the Pygmalion Effect, which states that the greater the expectation a leader has for others, the better others perform. The reverse is also true. The lower your expectations of someone, the worse their performance, all stemming from the leader’s approach.

     – Be clear and consistent in your communication. Riders (and leaders) tend to send mixed signals. While this is unintentional, it can have catastrophic impacts if you are not aware of how your messages are being sent and – even more importantly – received. For example, with horsemen who drive horses from carts or carriages, an easy tendency is to slap the reigns (the long leather pieces that go from the driver’s hands to the horse’s bit in their mouths) on their rumps to get them to move forward. But the deft rider knows that by shaking the reigns in any way also puts a degree of backward pressure on the bit as well. As a result, by using this one signal, the rider sends two, very confusing messages at one time, to move forward AND to stop or move backward. Leaders tend to send mixed signals as well, such as when they ask for teamwork but reward individual accomplishment.

If you want to be a better leader, take these cues from horsemanship, and you’ll be a better, more consistent and more trustworthy leader. 

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