Learning About Leadership From Horses

I love watching a herd of horses. There is so much going on and yet it can all seem so subtle.

Today, I sat and watched a herd of geldings for thirty or forty minutes. There were 15 in the herd. Their space had recently been downsized due to a need to seed an area for future use.

Thirteen of the horses were gathered in relatively small area. Most were standing with their front legs locked and shifting the weight on their back legs. They almost seemed asleep, were it not for the flick of a ear, usually directed at me. Yes, they knew I was watching as soon as I had moved towards the pasture.

I settled and took in the larger scene. Two of the geldings were off from the herd, grazing. Their ears were also trained on my position. It is amazing how subtle and keenly perceptive horses are to any movement in their environment.

When I first started watching horses I would hardly notice the little movements. Now, I was getting much better at picking up when one of the horse would make a very small shift backwards, pushing the horse behind him ever so slightly. Today, I could see that the signal was not at all subtle to the horse receiving it.

Pretty much everything about the arrangement was an intricate communication network where there were clear lines of dominance and order. Where boundaries were being set with minuscule gestures and smaller connections were well established even if undetected by the my human eye.

I realized as I was watching, I was learning a great deal about leadership. I have often thought of leadership in terms of dominance, who had the loudest gestures or offered the loftiest vision. We as humans tend to think of leadership in those terms.

But really leadership has a lot more to do with who amongst us is really the calmest, clearest and most embodied. In a herd of horses, there may be a dominate horse but that has little to do with the leader. No the leader in a herd of horses, is the horse that is calmest, and most embodied. It may not always be the same horse, in today’s gathering there was one gelding that stood slightly away from larger group between the cluster and the two grazers. If any of the others, made a slight move in his direction, his tail would swish and the advancing horse would move back. Nothing big, nothing loud, just clear. This horse was in many ways the most settled and defined – not through dominance – but just presence and space. I knew he was the one who would pick up any signal that truly needed the herd’s attention and would ignore any other type of intrusion.

Leadership can seem almost boring when watching these horses until my eyes adjust and I begin to see just how incredibly advanced and intricate the interplay and communication has become.

In the world of horses, leadership is about safety and living well together. It’s about ensuring that each member has a place and contributes. It’s about each member being able to express needs, desires and getting clear signals about what works and what doesn’t. It’s about making sure that when one horse is resting, other’s are aware and watching.

We could learn so much about leadership through observing and watching how horses and other pack animals communicate and live together.

Yet, for the most part we don’t. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if leadership wasn’t about who is dominate – but instead about who is calmest, clearest and is able to notice when real danger is afoot. Imagine a leader like that. Wouldn’t that be great!