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.
“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.”
I don’t know how many times I have gone out to work with a horse with an agenda – only to find the horse has little interest, certainly no intention and is quite content to just see what shows up.
Learning to adjust to the mindset of living in the moment and being prepared to adapt to the situation continues to test me. Rain is one horse that seems determined to test my resolve on being present. Regardless of progress in previous sessions we usually spend the first half of any session fiddle farting around to reach to a mutually agreeable starting point. Once and if that point is reached all moves along well.
I say if, because the if is dependant on me. Each ride is like a previous conversation where Rain needs to state his opinion and feel confident that I am listening. Working with a horse is truly no different than coaching a person along. I’ve learned that once Rain has had that opportunity to vent, he appears more open to a dialogue where he is willing to answer my questions. Push him too a point and his resistance and frustration grows, guide him through the discussion and pretty soon we’re loping along smooth as can be.
In his fabulous book “The Mentors Mentor”, Corey Olynik, suggests that a “mentor must first and foremost be a “Confidante: a person who listens without judgement.” Olynik’s many years as a mentor helped him define the six different roles he has played in coaching others. It helped me see that as a “Role model” my experience in starting other horses must demonstrate to Rain that I am willing to be a “Guide”, a “Tutor” and a “Coach” to facilitate his learning, and as a “Sage” I am willing to allow him time to understand.
Each role I play offers something different to define Rain’s development as a riding horse. As a “Guide” I have used the recent construction zone near the farm to help him see things that may appear foreboding, from a new perspective, as a “Coach” I am bringing accountability, discipline and motivation into the relationship by supporting, repeating and rewarding. As a “Tutor” I am looking for the right way to explain something new to him, recognising each horse will find understanding if we give them time. Finally as a “Sage” I can’t loose site of the ultimate vision – being one with the horse.
Olynik’s book has been a wonderful reminder for me to find the perspective that will be helpful with each horse at each moment. To enjoy what shows up and be playful. To use each experience to strengthen the relationship, finding the path together so I don’t end up being the only one taking myself too seriously.
Ever had one of those tangible moments when you actually believe, that others believe in you?
Of all the leadership challenges, belief in self often remains our greatest limiting factor. We can spend a lot of time learning and understanding but it is in the moment second guessing ourselves that stops us from applying our knowledge to take the risk and make that next step.
That would be the emotional part of our brain sabotaging the rational holding us back from something we have the skill, knowledge and experience to manage. Seth Godin calls that “The Lizard Brain – the prehistoric brainstem that all of us must contend with” — referring to it as the part that “doesn’t like being laughed at”.
Rhys the horse who continually creates memorable moments for me, offered another one today. It was the linchpin1 in our relationship. I used the word tangible to describe the moment because it left behind a glow, an actual feeling. Well at least that is how it seemed to me.
I was on Rhys in the outdoor ring, checking out where we were both at before heading out on a ride. Zoe, my other best teacher, surely must have decided it was time for my next lesson. She rallied the herd and headed to the back field. Heads up, tails flying, bodies rushed past the rails of the corral from two different directions and headed up over the hill, my only thought was “I should get off”. For those who understand how powerful a magnet a leaving herd can be to a horse you might understand that first thought. But I didn’t get off, my next thought was I can manage this I have the knowledge and skill to get through this. “Rhys we have been through a lot together this shouldn’t be a problem – let’s work through this.”
Rhys was concerned that others had left, but as soon as I asked him to get busy he was visibly relieved that I was still there. When a horse blows through their nose it can be a huge physical and mental release for them. That was what he offered me.
We spent a few more minutes in the arena to confirm he was connected to me and not the long gone herd, and then headed in the opposite direction to the stubble fields. Our part of the world is currently a construction zone – an old wellsite is being remediated just north of us and the County is putting a water line down the road we live on. Not counting the steady stream and rumble of dump trucks there are no less than 9 major pieces of equipment and one generator droning away all day, it is noisy and disruptive. It has become a perfect training ground.
I couldn’t have imagined taking Rhys past a backhoe even a few months ago, but today I believed we could. It was the best ride we have ever had. I believe Rhys is a completely different horse, what has changed however is me.
1- The linchpin – a locking pin that holds the wheel to the axel or the name of Seth Godin’s new book.
Photo courtesy of Sandra Anderson
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