3 Leadership Lessons I Learned Training Horses
Leading a group of horses isn't all that different than leading a group of people.
My family has ridden and trained horses for more than 30 years. When I was young, my summer weekends consisted of long, dusty days riding trails with my parents. I shadowed my father as he taught me the pros and cons of horse ownership. As a teen, my knowledge of equine leadership was much different than it is today.
My dad viewed horse ownership as a recreational sport. When a horse’s behavior became too disrespectful, he would be sold or traded for a new horse. Dad wasn’t uncaring, he simply thought there was something wrong with the horse. Following my dad around the barn stoked my passion for working horses. The lessons I learned through my father’s style of equine management led me to search for more effective ways to train and lead my own horses. I was an adult before I understood in order to lead a horse, I had to become a leader myself.
Related: Be the Leader Your People Want
Good horsemanship requires the same focus, planning and effort necessary to lead as an entrepreneur. Training horses helped me develop a leadership mindset, learn emotional management and gain the respect of others.
Horsemanship established in me invaluable abilities I use to build relationships with employees, customers and other important people in my life. These simple lessons are of incredible value for today’s entrepreneurial leaders.
1. The position of leadership must be earned daily.
A horse’s social dynamic is different than a human’s. Horses have a herd mentality. The herd’s leader is its strongest member, a position horses compete for daily. Each time I visit the barn, my status as the leader of our herd must be reinforced. This practice taught me the importance of leading with consistency.
Leading with consistency.
Every night I show up at the barn at 6:00. It’s feeding time, and our horses, Geronimo, Smooch and Bella, all know it. They gather around the doorway of the hay room as I fill their feed bowls and put hay in their nets. Geronimo, the herd leader, is a pushy Appaloosa who always wants to be first. If I don’t maintain awareness of my environment, I soon find him with his head in the hay room, munching away.
I carry a flag at feeding time. My most important training aid, it is a 12-inch by 12-inch piece of nylon attached to what looks like a long golf club handle. Because horses can weigh more than 1,000 pounds and be very pushy, it’s critical they learn to respect boundaries. My horses understand and respect the flag as a training tool because I use one consistently to reinforce my position as the herd leader.
At mealtime, after I’ve hung their hay nets and feed bowls on the fence, I use a flag to keep them off their feed until they come to a position of stillness and respect. Once they are all at least three feet away from me with their heads lowered, I drop the flag, releasing them to eat.
Develop a leadership mindset.
A leadership mindset is developed daily through repetition and experience. With time, less effort is required to maintain my position as the leader of my herd. Consistent, daily interaction with my horses develops trust and respect of my status as their leader.
My habit of showing up at the barn consistently with a positive attitude is the same skill I use to lead employees. I understand people are not driven to follow me simply because I hold a position of leadership. The same is true for you. Before you can establish yourself as a leader, you need to build trust and gain the respect of your team.
As I learned from my father’s approach, horses will have problems -- issues needing to be worked on to help a horse overcome bad behaviors. Selling a horse with problems doesn’t make any more sense than letting an employee go without first making your best effort to bring her up to her full potential. The job of a leader is to make more leaders. You start by thinking like one.
2. A leader controls his emotions in any interaction.
Horses are prey animals, each guided by a strong self-preservation instinct. Their default emotion is fear. When I approach a horse, I keep in mind his emotional state is much different than mine.
A horse is highly sensitive to the emotions of the person handling him. If I am relaxed, my horse is calm. If I show up to a training session fearful or angry, my horse will mirror those emotions back to me through his behavior. Mindful of my emotional state, I do not approach a horse if I am not calm. A horse’s trust is earned by a person’s consistency of action and emotion.
The importance of emotional management.
Smooch was my first horse. His coat is a mixture of white, black and deep shades of brown. On his left shoulder is an outline of an angel. I fell in love with him the moment we met. He challenged me as a leader in ways I never anticipated.
It was soon after bringing Smooch home I began to work our horses using flags as training aids. The one I use with him can be described as orange, or as Smooch perceives it, an orange fire-breathing dragon. From the beginning, he was highly sensitive to the flag. Our first training session using the flag showed me traits I had not seen in Smooch before. Horses, like people, reveal themselves one layer at a time.
One of my favorite places to work my horses is in the round pen. Made either of wood or metal panels, with a diameter of 60 to 80 feet, this circular enclosure is an excellent training environment. It’s also one of the first places a horse’s fear shows up. During our first session in the round pen, the goal I had in mind was to work gradually, moving Smooch from a slow walk to a moderate trot, into a faster lope. He had other ideas. Once Smooch saw the flag, he went from a slow walk to an outright gallop, without moderation. What I incorrectly perceived as misbehavior was actually fear.
Smooch’s fear ramped up as my frustration grew. I finally had to drop the flag, back up and talk him down, bringing myself and him to a state of calmness. When we finally headed back to the barn, I was disappointed in him. Instead of paying attention to what was happening emotionally with Smooch, I took his behavior personally. I focused on my failure as a trainer, instead of determining what he needed to be comfortable.
Instead of forcing Smooch to perform, I should have stepped back to evaluate the dynamics of the situation and determine why my communication with Smooch wasn’t effective. Smooch wasn’t intentionally misbehaving, he simply didn’t understand what I was asking him to do, felt my frustration and got scared. His fear drove his behavior.
Managing your emotions as a leader.
The same is true with people. Your job as a leader is to determine what kind of environment will encourage your employees to achieve their goals. What impact are your emotions having on them, positive or negative? Are you managing your emotions effectively? These are valuable questions to ask as you learn how to best set your employees up for success. When you are focused on others, you gain perspective, humility and lead from a place of strength.
Like my story of using an orange flag to train Smooch, you must determine which training aids are most effective with the people you lead. Your goals of creating clarity, rapport and trustworthy relationships clearly won’t be gained by force nor fear. The methods used to create them are as important as the goals themselves.
You foster clarity, empathy and trust when your words match your emotions and actions. If you are angry, but tell others you’re fine with a raised voice and flushed face, you send a mixed message. Your behavior doesn’t support any of your goals. Rather than building a foundation for future relationships, you can reverse any progress you might have made.
Leadership requires constant self-awareness, making it necessary to be mindful and in control of your emotions. If you are a leader unable to control your emotions, you’ll create an environment of chaos and drama, rather than one of cooperation and respect. You earn respect as a leader when you consistently manage your emotions.
3. A leader is aware of her surroundings at all times.
When I began riding as a kid, horses seemed unpredictable and dangerous. They reared, kicked and bucked for what seemed like no reason. As I gained knowledge and advanced my horsemanship skills, I learned a horse always prepares before acting.
I must stay focused to pick up on the cues my horse gives prior to taking action, maintaining a constant awareness of what is going on with my horse and my surroundings. For example, before a horse bucks, tension builds up in his body. My horse’s preparation tells me what is about to happen. Staying aware gives me time to redirect his attention so trouble is avoided.
Trouble and how to avoid it.
This lesson was made startlingly clear to me in November 2017. I was at the barn with a friend one Saturday. We planned to ride after I worked Smooch in the round pen. He was hypersensitive that day. Overreacting to me, the flag and other horses he could see from the round pen, Smooch sent all the signals telling me not to ride him.
Ignoring what I sensed, I saddled Smooch, thinking I’d be safe just riding him in the round pen. My friend was expecting to ride too, and I didn’t want to let her down. I got into the saddle, gathered my reins and started Smooch at a slow walk. I was not aware of the tension in his body because I was talking to my friend as I rode. I wasn’t paying attention to my surroundings, including Smooch.
Thinking he’d walked long enough, I urged him into what I anticipated would be a trot. As I gently squeezing his sides with my lower legs, instead of the expected trot, he took off at a gallop, something he shouldn’t have been able to do given the size of the round pen.
Smooch built speed for about three laps. As he rounded the back of the pen on the last turn, he threw me out of my saddle into the wall. I then fell hard to the ground, breaking my hip in the process. It was a painful lesson I could have avoided, had I simply paid attention.
Leadership requires awareness.
As a leader, you must be aware of what is going on around you at all times. Invest time to learn how others around you interact, what drives them and how to best lead your group of passionate employees. Like any skill, the more you practice, the stronger you become. Tuning into your surroundings includes paying attention to patterns of behavior in the people you lead.
Stay focused too on the larger environment of your industry by following publications, social media and blogs. Link up with other entrepreneurs in your field or community. An awareness of upcoming trends will allow you to stock innovative, newly-released products and be an early adopter of new technology.
Leadership isn’t for the faint of heart. My horses taught me to lead with strength, honesty and awareness. I learned the importance of boundaries and empathy. With these lessons, I built extreme loyalty with customers, employees, vendors and other entrepreneurs.
The same can be true for you. Show up every day, ready to earn your position as a leader. Keep your emotions balanced. Possess an unwavering commitment to stick by your people. Value the time and energy you dedicate to creating a group of loyal, passionate followers. Set and regularly reinforce boundaries firmly but fairly.
These small actions, repeated consistently, help you develop the trust and respect of those you lead. When you focus on building a team willing to follow you anywhere, you are unstoppable.