Leadership and Horsemanship 101 (part 3 of 3)

By Tom Davidson

Horses and people want to do a good job, but they sometimes need to know if they are on track or veering off course. A good leader needs to be on top of this, or they could be in for a “rough ride” with their team. 

As we’ve been discussing in this blog series, leaders can learn a lot about being better at their jobs by thinking about horsemanship. In particular, we are exploring why horses (and people) do what we ask them to do, even though neither one really has to follow our lead at all! 

In short, here are the three principles that have similarities between horsemanship and leadership: 

    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 “feedback.” We discussed “trust” and “communication” in the previous two blogs this week. 

Feedback is a term of art taken from the engineering profession, and it describes a loop of information that enables a system to self-correct. A simple example resides in most homes – the thermostat. The job of this feedback mechanism is to constantly sense the temperature of the room by gathering data, then turning on (or off) the heat (or air conditioning) so that the house is automatically kept in a certain predetermined temperature range. 

However, when we apply the term “feedback” to communication among people, we often think of it in a negative way (i.e., Can I give you some feedback on your presentation? No, thanks, I don’t feel like getting beaten up right now). In working with horses (and people) effective feedback needs to have the following three characteristics: 

     – You must be in “contact” with the subject for feedback to work. In horsemanship, “contact” is the critical link between the horse and rider, and there are several of these, including the following: where the rider’s seat is positioned in the saddle, where and how much the rider’s legs touch the horse’s sides, and to what degree the reigns have too much or too little slack between the rider’s hands and the horse’s mouth (via the “bit”). If there is too little contact at these points, the horse will not be able to receive signals properly, and if there is too much, then the horse will interpret the contact as pressure and want to respond to that. In the leadership context, contact means being in close touch with a subordinate rather than detached, out of touch, or too “hands off.” This is a delicate business, because too much contact can be interpreted as micromanaging. But too little contact means the subordinate will not receive feedback accurately or in a timely way. Therefore, good leaders of horses (and people) need to have the right amount of contact with their associates for feedback to work properly.

     – Feedback signals need to be sent in a timely way. Another similarity between horses and people exists in the fact that feedback is most effective when it is delivered as close to the time of the behavior as possible. With horses, the rider only has a few seconds between the time the behavior occurs and the time the feedback is sent for the horse to have an understanding of what the feedback is even referring to.  When that window of time closes, any new signal from the rider is seen as an unrelated message. Thus, if the rider waits more than a few seconds to let the horse know that their behavior (i.e., biting) is unacceptable, the horse will not associate the correction with the behavior. The same is true for people, meaning that your feedback (corrective or praising) must be very close to the time of the behavior. Waiting a day, a week or months to provide feedback (i.e., until the next performance review) makes one’s feedback ineffective and even deleterious.

     – Make your feedback appropriate in terms of balance and scope. With horses (and people) it is possible to give too much or too little corrective feedback or praise. Horses (and people) need both, not only at the appropriate times but also to the appropriate depth. For example, if a horse is punished with an extreme jerk of the reigns for simply trying to get a bite of grass when they shouldn’t, they won’t know that this small infraction was the subject of the correction and will be confused by the exaggerated feedback. If, however, they haven’t responded to gentler feedback for this behavior, the correction needs to be stronger until it is responded to. This is also true for people, so give your feedback in the appropriate degree. Serious misbehaviors need to be address in greater depth, with more detail as to the behavior and it’s impacts. Smaller behaviors can be addressed in just a few well-chosen words. Balance your feedback and provide it to the appropriate degree for best results.

Horses and people want to do a good job, but they sometimes need to know if they are on track or veering off course. A good leader is deft at being in close contact with their subordinates, providing timely feedback and in the most appropriate degree. If they don’t, they could be in for a “rough ride” with their team. 

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