A letter to the editor of Eclectic Horseman

sent back in March – but recently published in the May / June issue of Eclectic Horseman

While we may dream of riding the range, roping and doctoring cattle or making the perfect bridle horse, the side of the range we rarely fantasize about are the -30 mornings when you actually have to be outside. Frozen water tanks, tractors that refuse to start, hydraulic fluid as thick as molasses, fingers that don’t work, numb feet and so many layers of clothes everything feels like you are moving in slow motion. As March arrives it’s hard to believe that spring is suppose to be here in less than three weeks.

Now I realise that not everyone has to live with the same frigid temperatures, but from what I hear, this year, winter seems to have all but covered North America. Mother nature simply doesn’t seem to be holding up her end of the deal. Regardless of the weather cows will be calving and there will be many hardy souls checking to ensure the latest arrival has a chance. The cowboy image is more than a heated indoor arena and the conveniences we have grown so accustomed to.

A good number of us reading Eclectic Horseman spend more of our time riding a desk chair than our horse, even fewer who work with cattle on a regular basis. Statistics suggest about 80% of horse owners board. For those of us who don’t, we try to manage horse time along with work commitments, commuting and keeping up with friends and family that have little to no interest in our equine passion.

I am fortunate enough to look upon participating in a horsemanship clinic as professional development. While I hone my horsemanship skills I am always seeking out tidbits of information that apply outside of the arena. What I am finding is that cowboy wisdom applies to more than just handling horses or cattle. Pretty much every clinic I’ve attended there is as much talk about the person solving their problem as there is about managing a horse problem.

While there may be a plethora of buckaroos and cowboys decked out with all the right stuff, Buck Brannaman couldn’t have said it better “Horsemanship is not a wardrobe issue.” What we are learning is not so much about the outside of the horse but what motivates the inside. There is always talk about understanding the horse, getting to the mind, firing up the natural curiosity and their inherit desire to get along. Everything that we are learning about our relationship with our horse applies outside the arena.

Horsemanship is actually about becoming better human beings. We have an incredible capacity to change things and what I’m seeing is how horses can change people.

“When life feels like it’s going western, there is no shame in grabbing on to the saddle horn” Cowboy Wisdom

How Hard Can It Be?

That had to be my thought as I picked the colt out of the pen, a nice looking, well put together red dun. I was told he was maybe three or four but there was no touching him to confirm such a guess. I paid for a “belt” according to the register receipt. We drove him through the loading chute and into the trailer, he was now my project.

Getting him out of the trailer and into a stall was also relatively easy – open one door, then the other and in a flash he was in the barn. In a matter of hours his world had been turned upside down, the horse was literally vibrating in the stall. My expectation was let him calm down, feed him, shower him with love and surely he will come around.

After a couple of days in the stall it was not getting less dangerous to handle him, he made it clear he had no intention of letting me near. The slightest move on my part ran through him like a bolt of electricity. Having started numerous younger horses I admit maybe this one was a little more than I had anticipated and prepared for. Not a fan of keeping a horse in a box I decided to put him into the smaller paddock. With space to move he would not feel so trapped so connecting should be easier and safer.

What followed was a series of days where I had to concoct ingenious ways to get him from one location to the other – I still couldn’t touch him. I also began to fully appreciate why one should design their pens, paddocks and round pens on paper first. It was through this process that his name came to me – everything was about doing things in very small pieces, there was no rushing anything and giving him time to process requests was something I had to allow. He was the colour of peanut butter so Rhys’ pieces he became.

After a few days of panicked departures and abrupt turns he was starting to slow down, wait and look to me. I was not, after all, trying to kill him.

Years later we have come to an agreement and I admit it has not been an easy ride. I had to decide that one of us must change. Together we had a few really tough days, we both survived because I stopped worrying about failing. He still has his ya-buts, is quick to point out an inconsistency in my behaviour and finally is willing to give something an honest try. Rhys may not be able to hold it together through a new experience but he looks to me for the support and confidence he lacks.

My experience with Rhys is the perfect parallel to what starting a new business has been like. I took on something few would, started a process where my previous experience seemed all but irrelevant and suffered numerous bumps and bruises along the way. The learning I have gained from both is about me, how I manage change, approach adversity, develop a perspective on the odds, handle frustration or fear of failing.

Whether starting a new business or a horse they require tenacity, an unwavering belief you can learn something new, a steadfast willingness to learn from mistakes unyielding optimism and time. Neither are something you can short cut to the finish. Both are about developing awareness, relationships and trust. So I am thrilled to report like my experience with Rhys, The Natural Leader is doing better than ever this year.

“Emotional intelligence is not something we consider when things are going well but it is something we need when they are not.”

Keep your eye on the post

With spring comes change, the long awaited transformation from brown and white to green and fresh. It is a change that everyone easily adapts to: it is anticipated; expected and for the most part predictable.

Change is something we are not typically great at managing. Anything that requires we step outside the comfort zone of routine challenges our flexibility, tolerance and impulse control; in short a few key attributes of emotional intelligence (EQ).

Life tends to throw us a test when we least expect it. In the midst of anticipating the relief of spring, just days before a session, change happened. Cell phone in hand a woman ran a red light and totalled my truck. A replacement truck found for the day of the program, the weather couldn’t have been worse for hauling and the second planned trailer to move horses did not show up – despite those initial challenges we were able to run a full program by borrowing two additional horses from the stable I had leased; for all intensive purposes everything went well.

Then end of the day, Amy my little black paint mare with the blue eye, tried unsuccessfully to jump out of the pen she was in and seriously injured herself. After two weeks of constant care the prognosis was not good and the prospects of surgery slim so we had to make the decision to say goodbye. A three legged horse simply doesn’t get by.

Each incident in and of itself felt overwhelming, combined I do admit it has been a tough few weeks. I can’t say I have been the best at managing my own emotions when frustration, helplessness and all the what if I’d done this or that scenarios replay in my brain.

Of the many questions I have asked myself it was the observation by Temple Grandin that came to mind “we may see the world in color, animals see it in detail.” Despite all the experience of have gained in working with horses I still miss details a horse would not. One thing I will not overlook is how much horses have helped me in managing my emotions. Over the past few weeks the EQ competencies that have repeatedly surfaced speak to adaptability; flexibility and the most important optimism. Separating the emotions from the job at hand and making the required decisions is something leaders have to do on a regular basis. Which suggests to me an attribute which should be added to the list of competencies of emotional intelligence “what doesn’t kill you makes you grow stronger”.

Throughout this process of change many have been there to support me. As with the promise of spring so too have there been many signs of hope. After a quiet winter numerous program inquiries have come in, I am scheduled to present at three events in the coming months and I have met so many wonderful people who stepped in to help a stranger. Finding the silver lining of change is something we have to look for.

The photo is my favourite image of Amy doing her job. Teaching a future leader of the importance of focus, confidence and communication. When Cale passed the lead rope over to the next four year old in line at our family day event, he told him to “just look at the posts.”

“The only difference in an Extraordinary life and an ordinary one is the Extraordinary pleasures You find in ordinary Things” Veronique Vienne

Navigating Change

A polynesian mariner navigates the ocean by the clouds, the stars and the sound of the water on the hull of the boat. A horseman pays attention to the ears of the horse to know what to offer next and a CEO assesses the environment to gain information on how to lead an organisation. The mariner and horseman have developed a keen awareness for their surroundings, basing their next move on feel and experience. If only the signals were as clear for the leader!

In “Thoughts on Leadership Today…”. Laurie Maslak, Phd suggests “the Executive and Managers know all the right things to do, they have all been through extensive leadership development programs, but there’s little buy-in (to do the right things in practice)”. It does not appear to be a lack of good leaders, just a lot of good leaders doing bad things. Many offer a multitude of reasons for this: a persistent level of increased stress and growing workloads; working managers who don’t have anyone to delegate work to or continue to believe they can just do it faster; the economic and competitive market pressures; (and finally) the common complaint “there is no time to lead properly”

When people are overwhelmed a natural default is to focus on task versus strategy, a concept that NYTimes columnist, David Brook explored in his recent TedTalk. Brook offers that we have become very good at living by things we can measure such as tactics, skill and safety and not so great at talking about character, emotions and values. We are social animals so we reflect what is going on inside and outside of us but we can only manage what we recognise. He goes further to suggest that good decisions are emotionally based and that wisdom is a reflection of the unconscious mind and our ability to be sensitive, sympathetic and empathetic.

Just as Maslak observed, Brook believes we must get better at talking about what matters to us. We should feel as comfortable talking about love, passion and what inspires us as we do about spreadsheets, resources and markets. We look to those we admire for guidance because leadership “is a practice that requires vigilance, persistence and a constant awareness of self, others, and the environment. Leadership development is both an internal and an external process.”1

Like the mariner who listens to the water to recognise wave patterns or the horseman who spends years observing and working with horses to recognise how body language impacts the horse, leadership requires that we take a step back, spend time contemplating and look within. “Leadership, in its truest sense of the word, is both an internal and an external experience.”2 The rational part of our being sends us to courses, books and experts the imprecise art of leadership comes from within.

Just as the mariner was seeking safe passage for others, the horseman transforming a colt into a dependable riding horse. A leader must be aware of their emotional input and output in order for others to aspire to be their best.

1&2 – Excerpts from Thoughts on Leadership…Laurie Maslak PhD.
more on David Brooks TedTalk
Elizabeth Lindsey & The Ancestral voices of her past TedTalk

“One understanding is better than a thousand techniques.”

Bill Dorrance

Certainty vs Conviction

Ask a horseman how to solve a particular problem with a horse, the answer will most likely be “It depends.” If you are someone who wants the certainty of an answer you might find that response somewhat frustrating. While there is much you can be certain about with a horse, a simple answer is rarely one of them. The horse’s lawyer, Tom Dorrance, summed it up nicely “A horse is only afraid of two things, things that move and things that don’t.”

It was a discussion on certainty versus conviction that I had the great opportunity to participate in that brought this months article to the newsletter. It was as if I had engaged two leadership experts for a private session on the question “Who is in charge of my own success?”. Paraphrasing the definition presented “those who work under the idea of certainty believe that what they know or hold is true, working with conviction allows room for a dialogue.”

Certainty is simple and ideas are often presented as right or wrong, this is how it must be done, or as fact. Take for example Bush’s speech to Congress following 9/11 “you are either with us or you are with the terrorists”. A statement not open for debate, you agreed or you were, put simply, the enemy. Certainty offers little room for interpretation and control over the outcome is given to someone else.

On the other hand, conviction offers the position that “I stand for something and feel strongly about it but I’m open minded to hear what you think”. For those who follow something with conviction it is ok to question an idea, challenge an interpretation or include your own perspective. Conviction doesn’t need to be seen as fact but as a view or belief that has worked for you. When you have conviction about something you believe you have control over the outcomes and are willing to engage in a discussion to that end because you own the idea.

A perfect example of people holding belief over their impact on an outcome has recently unfolded half way around the world. For three weeks the Egyptian people acted with the conviction, no longer willing to accept the status quo. The certainty of religion, gender, race and status were not presented as barriers as people took to the streets by the hundreds of thousands, until Mumbarek finally stepped down February 11. What is clear is that each individual took responsibility to play their part in ushering in a new era.

Leadership as demonstrated by Bush’s statement is a command control style it weighs on our fears and expects compliance, in fact the cost of questioning or defiance has already been defined. Leading with conviction requires self awareness and authenticity, in Egypt’s case it was one individual inspiring and convincing another that change was possible. It was truly authentic and collaborative leadership in action.

The difference between the two for either horsemanship or leadership comes down to those who are self aware and authentic about what they desire to learn and offer. Learning from one teacher or the other can simply help complete the picture we are creating for ourselves. I choose to follow my horsemanship path with conviction I present the best offer to my horse, I try and maintain a fair approach, I work hard to manage my emotions and I continue to explore ideas and environments where I can be my best. Of that, you can be certain.