What 2 Horses, up Close and Personal, Taught Me About Leadership

Their names were Billy Comanche and Ginger. And, as this contributor took each horse's reins, she learned about leading people.
What 2 Horses, up Close and Personal, Taught Me About Leadership
Image credit: Ann Lindberg | Getty Images
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A few months ago, I found myself on a ranch in Northern California working with horses in a round bullpen. I’ve always admired the equine species, but usually from afar. Suddenly, there I was, up close and personal: I'd come to this ranch to take part in an equine-therapy program in order to better understand my behavioral patterns as a business leader and an individual (yes, really!).

Related: Managing Your Mental Health as an Entrepreneur

Here's what I found: Working with horses can provide a mirror into your real-life interactions in a very non-judgmental way. 

On that first day, for instance, my task was to greet a dark brown horse named Billy Comanche. Just greeting a horse sounds simple enough, but it was anything but. As I walked up to meet my charge, my mind was flooded with bits and pieces of analysis: What was the horse thinking? Was I walking too fast? Why wasn’t the horse greeting me? Why was the horse approaching other people rather than me…

This inner monologue of analysis and worry prevented me from being truly present in the moment. I was thinking more about myself than the horse. To put it simply, I was taking things way too personally. 

Horses as a metaphor

I see now how that initial meeting was a perfect metaphor for my behavior as a CEO and individual. I have no doubt that my passion and determination have led to my success as a business owner. However, before my horse encounter, I'd also became too wrapped up in my business. I'd taken every action personally and let the tiniest issues derail me.

I'd frequently get upset and make rash decisions. The way I ran my business wasn't a healthy one. Hence, the horse-therapy program. 

After that first, intense program of one-on-one therapy and psychodrama workshops, I returned for another session in the bullpen. This time, I presented myself to a horse named Ginger. This time, my task was to greet Ginger and lead her around the ring several times. As I went to greet her, I was immediately taken in by her. I felt an instant connection, and all that self-absorbed inner analysis just disappeared.

However, I wasn’t done learning about myself. As I led Ginger around the ring the first time, I was constantly looking back to check on her. I was supposed to be the leader, but with my constant need to check in on the horse’s well-being, I was doing anything but leading.

I began to reflect on my life. And, as I did so, I realized that I've always been more focused on everyone around me than myself. Whether as a CEO, friend, mother or wife, I typically try to make everyone else happy but often neglect to take care of myself. And while kindness and generosity are admirable attributes (ones we could use more of in the world today), I’ve learned that these characteristics can also be a form of co-dependence and in the long run result in resentment and passive -aggressiveness. 

Related: How I Put My Mental Health First (and How You Can Too)

Meeting Ginger again

I was asked to lead Ginger one more time -- and this time I was not to look back. I took the reins but kept my gaze firmly ahead and walked. And, guess what? Ginger seemed more secure. Me? I felt happy, confident and free.  

While much of this experience has been highly personal, I do believe that many of the lessons I learned can apply to other entrepreneurs as well. In particular, some of the therapy sessions were rooted in the Four Agreements from spiritual teacher Don Miguel Ruiz, which ask us to reflect on who we are, what we feel and how we behave:

1. Be impeccable with your word. As entrepreneurs, our word is our brand and reputation. I learned that on my first day in the ring, I was trying too hard, to the point of being inauthentic (and the horse knew it!). I needed, and need, to be present in the moment, speak with integrity and be transparent about my feelings. 

2. Don’t take anything personally. In the therapy sessions, I would get upset that the horse wasn’t coming to greet me, and took it as a personal affront. As business leaders, we’re constantly hearing feedback, whether it’s from customers, investors, press, colleagues or employees. However, we simply can’t see each critique as a personal attack, and respond in anger. Feedback often provides an important opportunity for growth and improvement. 

3. Don’t make assumptions. I made assumptions about the horses and their behavior rather than just asking the coach what was going on. As entrepreneurs, we need to summon the courage to ask questions and express what we want. It’s imperative that we communicate clearly with others to avoid misunderstandings and drama. 

4. Always do your best. This last agreement is a simple commitment to give 100 percent of yourself. As long as you’re always doing your best, you can cast aside any self-judgment and self-abuse. Be happy with your progress and live without any regrets.  

Finally, if you're feeling overwhelmed with anxiety, fear or depression, find a therapist or other mental health professional. It’s not something we talk about enough in the business world. But there is no shame in asking for help. Everyone -- and I mean everyone -- has some kind of struggle in his or her life. 

Related: This Employee Took Off Work for Mental Health Reasons, and Her Boss Thanked Her

I’m the first to admit that I am a work in progress, both as an individual and a business leader. I gained important insights from my experiences in horse therapy, but now the real work begins, in how I apply those revelations in the months and years ahead. I don’t have all the answers. But I am trying to grow every day, and most importantly, to enjoy the journey. 

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