I am passionate about horses, and spending time with my horses has helped me reflect on how I deal with people and on my leadership.
It is not a spiritual journey. I don’t believe that horses are a more superior beings trying to help develop us towards a greater purpose or a higher evolutionary level, or that they have insight into our thoughts, or that we can communicate with them telepathically. Though there are some people who believe all these things. This is a personal reflection on my own learning that I shared once with some colleagues on a leadership course.
I have been passionate about horses for as long as I can remember. The photo below is of me with my mother and brother. I am on the coloured pony. Wow. No hats, no bridles and our feet don’t reach the stirrups! How things change.
I was 46 before I realised my dream and bought my own horse, a lovely Welsh Cob called Jackobean (known as Beanie). My partner and I now have three; the Cob and two Icelandic horses, including the famous Little Viking Horse whose blog I have appropriated to post this.
I have found that just like my forty-two toy horses when I was a child, real horses are collectible! I have promised my mother that we will stop at three ….. 😉
My partner, Roger is fond of saying that “horses are a lesson in humility”. When things are going well this reminds me not to be complacent, or to forget that the unpredictable can catch me out. But it is also good to remember this when things aren’t going as I intended. Before getting cross and reacting in possibly counter productive ways, I try to ask myself “why did the horse do that?”
Horses are prey animals, essentially when they see something they don’t immediately recognise they ask themselves “will it eat me?”, and make ready to run away – or sometimes run away first then turn to look to decide “will it eat me?”
With the exception of the Tahki in Mongolia, there are no truly wild horses in the rest of the world. All other horse breeds are created by humans, but all horses have kept this highly developed flight instinct.
Though it is also true that Icelandic horses, bred for 1000 years in a country with no natural predators, seem less inclined to ‘leg it’ than other breeds when faced with the unknown.
Horses are also social animals and are very adept at reading body language and facial expression.
Beanie and I relaxing in the field
So my first lesson on being successful with my horses is that I have to be acutely aware of myself and the messages I am giving. If you get on a horse and tense up, breathing quickly, the horse will pick this up and, believing there is something to be scared of (will it eat me?), it is likely to run. It’s a bit like nuts and bolts really – if the rider is nuts the horse bolts!
The second thing I noticed is how important my focus is. I was riding up a country lane one Sunday and enjoying the view across the fields, my mind off in a world of my own. So having spent the last ten minutes staring off to my left I should not have been surprised when, on reaching an open gateway, Beanie promptly turned left into the field! How was he to know that I wanted him to continue straight up the road if my focus and attention was somewhere else? He just went where I was looking.
Horses move away from pressure and are extremely sensitive. A horse can feel a fly on its back and twitch a muscle to dislodge it. In other words you don’t need a megaphone to communicate with a horse. If you apply a small amount of pressure, and keep it there until the moment horse makes the slightest effort in the right direction the next time less pressure is required. This is how an accomplished rider can move anyone one of his horses feet in any direction – and you will barely be able to see the rider move.
However the consistent use of excessive pressure, such as the ‘kick, kick, kick’ of an inexperienced or poor rider has the effect of “deadening” the horse to the cue. The communication gradually becomes less effective. Equally excessive and unjust pressure can be counter productive in other ways. Like the rider I observed at the Horse of the Year Show once trying to bully his horse around the course by hitting him with a whip at every jump. At the fourth jump the horse said “sod this for a game of soldiers” and slammed on the brakes sending the rider over the jump on his own – much to my satisfaction. (Editors note: he wasn’t hurt).
I try to understand the horse from the perspective of the horse, and it is perfectly understandable that Beanie, being a prey animal is reluctant to walk into our horse box. It’s a dark enclosed space from which he can not escape.
Believe me if a half ton horse does not want to go into the trailer you can not achieve it by force. Using the principles I have outlined has enabled me to go from taking two hours to load my horse, to five minutes. Though, remembering that horses are a lesson in humility, I probably should not have told you that until after I have loaded him on the trailer for our next holiday!
Roger also says that every horse should have a job. To have success with a horse it is important to keep in mind what you want to achieve and work towards it. It could be as simple as riding out on your own. After all one definition of riding is “going in the direction you want, at the speed you want and keeping the horse between you and the ground”! Even this can be a challenge for some horse owners.
People are not prey animals so how does this translate into how we might to relate to people? I think what I have learned since having my own horses and spending so much time with them, is the importance of being aware of how what I do impacts on others.
Gentle approaches can more powerful than some people imagine.
My horse related lessons for leadership are:-
1. Be self aware and stay calm.
2. Be focused if you want others to follow – if you stop paying attention don’t be
surprised if you get unpredictable results.
3. Use the gentlest touch and reward the slightest try – if people are going in the right
direction quit nagging and don’t shout.
4. Reward people who are trying to do what you want – or they will stop trying.
5. Understand what motivates people and work with this not against it
6. Have a clear vision and build steps towards it
When I started this blog about my passion for horses – some of you may have made assumptions – so for the record – I don’t want to win any horse races, show jumping or dressage competitions – and I don’t hunt.
Gydja is my Icelandic mare.
We are still getting to know each other – but if you want to know my vision for us take a look at this… We are a long way from this yet, but making small steps