Why Positive Change is Hard

At one time it was common to refer to breaking a colt. Many believed that you had to break the colt’s spirit by trapping, restraining and making them to comply to your requests. Fortunately we have learned there are easier and safer ways to work with horses. Today you are more likely to hear someone refer to starting a colt, words that better illustrate the positive changes in behaviour we wish to create as we develop a relationship.

The saying “make the right choice comfortable” is a reflection of our learning. When we apply that concept in working with a colt, we adapt our behaviours to what we know about horses so being with us becomes a good experience and accelerates a horse’s learning.

While we share the same fight or flight responses of the horse connected to the amygdala part of the brain, the same does not apply in our awareness of subtle changes in our environment. Unfortunately, it is our greater capacity to reason in the higher functions of the brain that get in our way. We tend to clump detail into broad strokes often creating something far greater than it is. Rather than seeing a series of connected events or signals we jump to the end result conjuring up endless scenarios in the process, letting the ‘what ifs’ create a noise that drains our energy and drowns the opportunity for insight and awareness.

Insight is the space required to understand, decide, recall, memorize and inhibit, in order to make a change in our behaviour. It is the quiet place where we hear the signal above the noise and see the opportunity in change.

David Rock expands on the concept of why positive change is hardest in his webcast “The New Science of Change – Connecting Leadership Development and Neuroscience.” Rock defines thinking as energy intensive and suggests our brain’s intrinsic goal is to avoid effort, the reason why we so quickly connect to what is wrong with change, we don’t have to think.

Thinking requires effort, effort equates to discomfort, discomfort produces a level of uncertainty, uncertainty reduces our capacity to reason and tends to steer us back toward what is certain. It is this chain of action, reaction that makes it difficult for us to accept change, even when change is for the best.

Rock suggests we can rewire the circuits of our brain if we take just 10 seconds a day to focus on a positive outcome. Basically the same concept we apply in working with a horse – breaking new information down into small repeatable bites. Asking for one thing at a time building on competence until actions become behaviours.

It is these small bites of information we introduce when making the parallel between horsemanship, leadership, communication or team learning. Because the horse so quickly mirrors our actions and reactions they become the perfect measure of how easily or how difficult we make adapting to change. In working with a horse an individual often discovers that quiet space for insight when they start to become aware on how their actions impact another being. Insight that makes room for positive change.

“you are trying to help the horse,,,use his own mind. You…present something and then let him figure out how to get there.” Tom Dorrance

Commenting on Change

Hello Nancy: Thank you for your email and the pictures, I really love the one of me with Rhys.

I have sent my feedback into the team at the University of Calgary to let them know that this course was probably the most influential and effective course that I have ever been on. It did something to me I can’t quite put a word or phrase too, but it has definitely effected my perception of how I act around people, both verbally – but even more so – through body language. I have also suggested that Continuing Education consider making this a 2 day course as there is just so much to learn. It is truly ground breaking on how the experience with horses teaches things that I never would have picked up in a classroom setting.

The most pronounced example for me was when your assistant walked out into the arena with the hurried and abrupt body movements, how immediately that impacted the horses! As a result of observing the changes and reactions the horses had – I am very conscious of how I walk into work in the morning and even more attentive to how I come into my home at the end of my day at work. It is amazing, but by me focusing on really being gentle and happy – everyone seems to be more relaxed and happy as well. What a way to end a day with my family! No matter what has happened or what frustrations I had during the day, seeing that they are all calm and happy, just makes the world of difference.

I have also noticed that I am much quieter in my voice pitch and I focus on being clearer when asking my children, husband and colleagues to do things. I try to imagine ‘dancing’ with them, and if we could move across the office, or across the kitchen- with my family, based on the information that I am giving and how I am asking it. I have already started changing my tone and also have stopped assuming everyone knows exactly what I am talking about, as well as my perception that they will do things the way that I think they will. Rhys definitely showed me to expect the unexpected. I know that it has been a week today, but these examples alone has helped me both personally and professionally.

Nancy – I want to say ‘Thank You’ again to both you and Fred, for opening up such a new and honest perspective of how I can be a good person – not just a good leader. You have tapped into something that I wish every person could experience. I think it would change so much of the agitation and aggression that we all are guilty of carrying (which of course we think we are hiding within ourselves , without even noticing how it effects our family, friends, colleagues and perfect strangers!). Warm regards, Maryann

“You can be good around horses, but to be a good horseman, you have to be around good horsemen.” Ray Hunt

“Experience is not what happens to you, but the reactions you create out of what happens.” Gervase Bushe

Influencing Leadership Behaviour

When introducing leadership through horsemanship I speak to a horse responding to us or their surroundings based on instinct, the desire to stay alive. It is a value I have seen a horse demonstrate, with varying degrees of commitment, time after time. Their behaviour reflects a core value.

Behaviours in animals and people have been studied at great length so there is plenty of data to support observable behaviour change. While my observations are far from scientific it stands to reason that if we observe how others respond and react to us, we can practice adapting our behaviour to see if a change in turn impacts those around us. This is where learning with the assistance of horses helps accelerate leadership understanding. We are often aware of a concept without knowing what that looks like in our mind or in our body. The horses help put the feel into our body in a tangible way that creates an opportunity for a repeatable behaviour.

Behaviourists have come to agree that animals do demonstrate a range of emotions and those emotions will impact behaviour. In ” Animals Make us Human” Temple Grandin speaks to the seeking system as “the basic impulse to search, investigate and make sense of the environment.” She defines seeking as “the combination of emotions that addresses the ‘need to go after your goals’ and the behaviours that help attain them.”

Our behaviour is impacted by our knowledge, skill, beliefs, attitude and our experiences. Our emotions then can positively or negatively impact those behaviours. Given we can learn to manage our emotions we can also become more effective in assessing the associated behaviours. So the good news is you can teach an old dog new tricks. By making the conscious decision to change learned behaviours can be unlearned.

A horse is a master at detecting if our actions match our emotions. They help us see whether are we are congruent in our behaviours. Through hands-on activities and self-discovery a horse allows us to be honest with ourselves and seek the behaviour that reflects what we value and would like others to see. By observing a horse’s behaviour and experimenting with different approaches we have an immediate opportunity to view ourselves from a different perspective. Horses allow us to be objective about what is working – and perhaps not, in our search to become a better leader.

“I’d like help the human understand how much less he can do and how much more he can get done.”
Ray Hunt

The Motivation to Change

“Make the right thing easy.”

A simple statement made to thousands of people over fifty years. A lifelong student of horse behaviour, Ray Hunt was looking for a way to help people better understand how to motivate a horse. He simply wanted the horse to end up with a better deal.

Ray Hunt believed that a horse had no concept of winning or losing so a bigger reward for a better performance held no meaning. He spent his life trying to convince people they could overcome their own functional fixedness, of making a horse do something, by understanding the power of their horse’s desire to perform, producing a more rewarding experience for both. Hunt’s goal, was to help people see the motivation for the horse must be intrinsic.

A student of motivating people, Daniel Pink, puts some compelling thoughts forward on intrinsic and extrinsic reward in his book Drive. Pink explores how the carrot and stick method, built into our behaviour from time out at age two, to grades in school, to how much we earn at work–no longer applies. He argues that extrinsic reward is an outdated notion from a time when mechanical tasks were more important than cognitive abilities. A functional fixedness the business environment suffers from, unable to see the problem of workplace motivation from a different perspective. A belief that behavioural scientists and horsemen like Hunt have known for years.

We use the carrot and stick metaphor in working with horses, it is also a tool we offer participants. The tool is stick with a string on the end. To some it immediately represents a whip. Depending on how it is wielded, it quickly becomes that to the horse and rarely produces better results. To others, it becomes an extension of their arm and they soon see how effective a support tool can be to communicate. A few choose to abandon the defined parameters and the narrow focus the tool sets up for them to see what they can achieve without it. When that happens these individuals have to reframe how they might define and communicate their expectations where the relationship with the horse becomes more important than their own success. This simple act puts into place a behaviour of intrinsic value versus extrinsic reward.

Paying attention to what motivates the horse allows participants the opportunity to see where their own perspectives or functional fixedness may be getting in their way of recognizing those who work with them. As the notion of reward is changing, how we build teams and produce results also must change – managing others no longer carries the same meaning it had in a production line environment, leading others to be successful does.

In summary, what Pink takes an entire book to express is exactly what Ray Hunt put in a single sentence. “Make the right thing easy.”