What can horses teach you about leadership?

Written by
Sue Binks

16 Aug 2016

16 Aug 2016 • by Sue Binks

How do others see you?

It can be a lonely place for leaders, particularly for those in senior positions. How often how you perform, the decisions you make and what you say or do is subject to critique from your team and your peers. 

Many development programmes use experiential learning, but this is usually in the form of a game or roleplay, or an activity which relies on facilitators and peer participants to give feedback. These are still useful activities, but feedback will be socially filtered and is likely to be given after the fact when you can no longer do anything differently.

If you really want to know more about how you are responded to simply for who you are, then spend some time with a horse.  

Horses are highly social and have no knowledge or interest in human hierarchies or status. They don’t know whether you are the CEO or the cleaner; they only know how you are relating to them in the moment and will provide an immediate, open and honest response.  

Horses are supremely aware of their environment, including the emotional state of the herd around them, of which humans can be part. Without language they work on a physical and emotional level, picking up micro body language cues. In turn their body language and what they are or are not willing to do for us is vital feedback. Horses communicate on this level, not because they feel like it, but for the safety of the herd. They are constantly asking: “Who is leading here? Me or you?” “If you are leading, do I trust you enough to follow? Are you leading like you really mean it?”

This is illustrated by one senior leader’s experience in an equine assisted learning session at Roffey Park. He managed to take a very spirited ex-racehorse and turn it into a yawning, dope on a rope within 10 mins. When the horse’s change in behaviour was pointed out to him, he said, "I thought it was just people I did that to". Within seconds of him taking the rope and leading, the horse was nipping at his shoulder as if trying to get his attention. When that had no effect, his head lowered, his gait slowed, he came to a standstill, yawned and went to sleep. When we talked about what this was like for the executive, he said "I have known for a while that my heart wasn’t in being a leader, I just hadn’t realised how obvious to others it was." At this the horse sighed loudly and lifted his head. This experience of the horse getting underneath a participant’s façade is common.

Self belief speaks volumes

Another senior executive realised that every time he tried to lead the horse, the energy he was using was that of a tentative request. The result: a stationary horse. By focusing his own energy and embodying a clear and decisive direction of travel, not only did the horse follow him, but eventually without a rope. The response from the executive was: "people have been telling me for years I need to be more assertive, now I finally understand what that really means. It’s like the stronger I am the more he trusts me".

Leadership and management development has become relatively sophisticated over the last few decades.  And yet, Roffey Park’s annual workplace survey, The Management Agenda, consistently reports that developing leaders and managers is a key challenge. This suggests that even though a lot of capable managers know a great deal about leadership, it isn’t enough.

It is time to supplement the traditional, cognitive approach to leadership development with something that is more spontaneous and intuitive; one that illustrates how to ‘be’ a leader and not just ‘do’ leadership. Equine assisted learning offers this. It’s a unique approach that helps leaders gain a deeper understanding their impact on those around them. It is a visceral and positively disruptive way to learn to tune in to all of who we are, head, heart and core It gives any leaders an almost unique opportunity to practice getting in touch with all the sources of data, that will enable them to think and act more clearly and compassionately. Without language leaders have to focus on their presence and intent to communicate direction, destination or speed, the equine equivalents of strategy, vision and motivation. 

And the result is leaders with increased ability to respond to challenging, ambiguous and complex situations; not with just confidence, but with presence.