Learning about leadership from a horse?
I’ve never had much to do with horses, apart from early memories of my cousin sitting me on her mare and leading me around a paddock, and once riding a rather obtuse mule in the Atlas Mountains. So I was intrigued at the prospect of spending a morning, along with my Performance1 colleagues, exploring Equine Guided Leadership with Anette Haug. www.equinoxcoaching.co.uk
The principle is simple – horses respond very immediately, directly and clearly to people’s spoken and unspoken behavior. Their feedback is free of the normal filters of politeness or politics that bedevil human-to-human feedback. So leading a horse provides the opportunity for powerful learning about how we lead and relate to people.
Anette’s exercises are deceptively simple, and don’t involve riding the horses. Much more important is watching and listening to them, picking up clues about how status and power play out in horse world – at the same time exposing our own assumptions about status and power in the human world. The most challenging exercises involved leading the horses directly, initially with a rope, then with a blind-folded friend holding the horse, and finally through building the horse’s trust and respect so that they choose to follow. It was exhilarating and confronting. If the horse doesn’t trust you or senses any doubt or hesitation, it doesn’t dissemble or act politely. It just doesn’t move.
I learned two valuable lessons. First, I tend to assume that people will “be OK” and cope with challenges. This can be a useful positive expectation that encourages resourcefulness, but it can also mean that I underestimate the impact of uncertainty or fear. So I need to fine-tune my sensitivity to others and check that they really ARE coping when times are tough.
Second, I noticed that sometimes when I’m leading I wait for subtle signs of approval before clearly expressing myself. At best this helps me as a coach to stay in tune with my clients. But when leading, it sends a signal that I’m not fully committed to my preferred course of action. And having a horse ignore you is pretty clear feedback of that!
We learned about each other and our P1 team too, noticing how different people worked with different horses, discovering what we found challenging and what was most enjoyable. We’ll be looking for opportunities to build our relationship with Anette because, to my great pleasure, we now know there is much to be learned about leadership from a horse.