Leadership Lessons from the Herd

Leadership. We often think of it in terms of political leaders, team leaders or people who hold a title.  The reality is, leadership is an important attribute in all of us. There are times in life when we need to follow and times in life we need to step up and lead. Maybe it’s leading your family through crisis or just taking the helm of your own life to guide yourself toward your dreams. Leadership skills are something we all need to develop and foster.

In my 15+ year corporate career I had the opportunity to participate in a variety of leadership programs. All had their own merits certainly, but it wasn’t until I discovered horses that it took my leadership awareness to a new level. You see, I had purchased a quirky young thoroughbred after riding for less than a year. To say I needed to figure him out is an understatement!  Our challenges led me to research natural horsemanship, to gain an understanding of how he perceives the world and what he needs from me to relax and be my partner.  It was in a horsemanship clinic that I discovered he needed a leader, and the kind of leader he needed was exactly the kind of leader I wanted to follow and the kind of leader I wanted to be. He taught me how to speak my horse’s language so he would see those traits in me. My horse, Oliver, understood, relaxed and we built a connection and true partnership like I could never have imagined.  And when I forget and get it wrong, he reminds me!  It was that day that I discovered how much they could teach us and began building my dream to teach others leadership through horses.

Here are just a few of the leadership lessons I’ve learned from my herd:

  1. Be Mindful
    As leaders, we must be in the moment, stay mindful of our focus and how we are approaching situations.  When working with horses, we can’t be so goal oriented that we ignore the horses’ needs and how we are projecting to them. They are constantly reading our body language, our energy and react to whatever we put out there. To get the best out the horse, we must be mindful of what we project and consider the horse’s needs to be successful.  When we get it wrong, horses simply won’t work for us, but when we get it right, they connect and try harder. The same is true with people. The best leaders are not focused on the goal alone, they are focused on what their team needs to be motivated and successful in achieving that goal.  Be mindful.
  2. Be Brave
    Leadership takes courage. Horses as prey animals are constantly in the game of survival and seek leadership. Horses, just like people want to follow a confident leader that they can trust.  This is particularly important when we think about managing through change or driving innovation. It requires some risk taking. As a leader, you need to be confident in taking those risks and portray that confidence to your team (or your family or yourself!)  People, just like horses, follow and emulate those that go boldly and confidently.  Be brave.
  3. Be Clear
    Clear communication is such an important aspect of all relationships, but it is essential in leadership. We are always amazed at how working with horses highlights vastly different communication styles and the challenges that brings to a team, family or couple. For communication to have occurred, the message needs to be received!  We don’t often stop to consider what the other person needs to hear, only what we want to say. We also tend to communicate in the style that we want to hear it. You may think you’re being very clear, but the person needed more detail, less detail, slower/faster instructions, different words…there are so many things that can muddle a message and it’s different for everyone. It is important to listen, take note of how others communicate and consider how we can adapt our style for that person so they understand and can receive the message clearly.  Be clear.
  4. Be Consistent
    Consistency is the cornerstone of building trust. Horses are flight animals and they hate surprises!  People, just like horses need to know what they can expect from a leader. Volatility or inconsistency erodes trust and confidence.  It also distracts people. Do you want your team or family trying to figure out what’s next, how you’ll react or what mood you’re in today or do you want them working together on the tasks at hand? They won’t follow what they can’t predict and trust. Be consistent. 
  5. Be Authentic
    Authenticity also goes a long way in building trust and loyalty. This isn’t about bearing your soul necessarily, it’s about being human, empathetic and keeping it real.  Horses are very sensitive and very honest.  Imagine, they can detect a predator’s heartbeat 75 yards away. When working with us, they are constantly evaluating if we are safe to follow or a potential threat, regardless of what we outwardly portray. They can see right through any façade and help us understand where we’re not being true to ourselves or others. Allowing people to see the real you allows a deeper connection and builds trust.  It’s those connections that ensure that when it really counts your team (family, partner) will be there for you and exceed expectations. You can’t fool a horse and I don’t think you can fool most people either. If you want real commitment, engagement and loyalty from your people, create that open environment where people know you, care and will go to the mat for you.  Be authentic.

This is just a sampling of what we can learn from horses as they encourage self-awareness and reflection. While we consider ourselves to be so different from horses, it’s when we embrace our similarities and their power to teach we can learn so much.

Tracey Evans is the Owner/Master Instructor of the award winning Dreamwinds Equine Assisted Learning Centre.  Dreamwinds provides transformative Leadership & Team Building Workshops for Corporate/Sports Teams, Families, Youth and Couples using horses.  Dreamwinds uses the proven Building Block Curriculumtm of EAL exercises and is a leading training facility for EAL Facilitator Certification and continuing education.