Learning to Lead from a Horse

So what do horses know about leadership. Well, it seems quite a lot. Recently I attended a weekend workshop at a ranch in Phoenix led by Koelle Simpson and Diane Hunter. The program was called Leading from the Inside Out. I am a big believer in the idea that I have to work on me before I can possibly be effective in influencing others. I am also a believer in the idea that to effectively work on me I need feedback; direct information about how I am impacting my world. What I didn’t realize was just how much louder, clearer and honest a big horse or horses can be in providing that mirror.

The workshop was just two days. We had many interactions with the horses. Koelle had us jump right into the first experience with very little direction. We were simply asked to step into the Round House (paneled, small coral) with a horse and establish trust and leadership. I volunteered to go first primarily because there wasn’t anyone else jumping up and I thought “go for it!”. Of course I had not yet seen the horse that entered the Round House ahead of me. As I was just about to head in, I heard the sounds of a very lively, large animal bolting around the space. I must admit at that point I wanted to bolt myself. I had all sorts of stories running through my mind about this wild animal on the other side of the door. Interestingly, I wasn’t thinking much about my own level of anxiety and just how that might be contributing to the craziness in the ring.

I entered. Though will confess not alone. We had been offered the option to take one of the leaders in with us. Koelle was right there at the door when I was wavering. From a leadership perspective I had some fears that I might be showing sights of weakness but I decided for once it was okay to ask for help. Once inside the horse continued to bolt around, at times coming closer than I wanted into my space. Koelle, simply stayed close by and her calm presence slowly and without words, became a bit of a beacon for both me and the horse. That is really all I clearly remember about my first pass with one of the horses.

We had two more opportunities to enter the Round House with a horse. Each time with a bit more information about how to read the signals the horse was giving and also with some background on just how horses work. As herd animals, they are looking for a leader. In nature, that leader is a mare. (now that came as a surprise to me). It seems the mare is the one who is best tuned into the greater environment, meaning herself, the herd and everything around. She is generally pretty calm and gives subtle signals that allow the entire herd to pick up the clues without a panic. Obviously I was not coming into the Round House with anything close to that level of inner calm or providing subtle clues of my discomfort. Pretty much everything was LOUD.

However, by my third trip into the round house, I was beginning to get the message. First, get in touch with me and from there be clear about my message without big, loud gestures or effort. My last interaction with one of the horses was awesome. I found ways of leading the stallion around the ring at various speeds, turning him with ease. But the best part was when I dropped the usual activities and invited him to move with me. At one point I was skipping and he was following without any fear of my ‘bigger gestures’. Needless to say, he wasn’t skipping but he had no problem keeping up. Interesting though how in that moment it wasn’t so much about him following as it was about me simply being me.

I know I am sort of a high energy, easily distracted type of leader. I often work really hard to tone myself down or stay focused. The horses taught me the value in being me. I discovered it wasn’t my high energy that was a problem it was my high anxiety, resulting from my inner fear of being too much. If I was simply high energy the horse was fine – thus the skipping and at one point running together around the ring. I also learned that one of the greatest gifts of the mare is that she too is easily “distracted”. She is tracking everything and that gift allows her to discover problems early, chart new paths and find what seem to be hidden options. May be distraction isn’t so bad after all.

In the end I came away from the weekend wishing more leaders had a chance to learn from horses. There is such an honest, simple way in which these big, powerful animals communicate what is working and what is not. We have the same potential but so often our words become our primary message and we stop really owning all the non-verbal messages that are being broadcast louder than the words on the surface.

There was much more that happened in the two days. I highly recommend anyone who leads people and is curious about discovering more about what messages they may be broadcasting to consider taking Leading from the Inside Out with Koelle and Diane. I would even recommend going first!!