Known for the Stampede and Spruce Meadows, Calgary is a hub for international competitors and horses. At these levels of competition one can’t help but notice the number of mares represented in the final round of cattle work, that famous eight second ride or the jump- off. It is a gender parity that puts the business community to shame.
While women may be present in a higher proportion in both the workplace and the stables, there continues to be a higher representation of males in senior management and geldings in the barns. I broached this observation on an equine related discussion board and the thread quickly drifted to typical gender stereotypes, hormones, personality preferences and dominant versus passive behaviour. Similar reasons as to why mares are relegated to brood herds and women left out of the board room.
As with all my articles I seem to waller1 around for a while before I decide what it is I really want to say. Sydney helped me gain some clarity this morning. The most confident horse I have ever owned, she has never questioned her own ability. Many people who have had the opportunity to work with her have remarked “that scanning the herd she hadn’t caught their eye, but her personality is one you cannot ignore.” What I am fairly confident about is in other hands she would be labeled a difficult horse.
Just as men and women view the same problem from different angles, a mares perspective on us differs from that of a gelding. Horse clinician Julie Goodnight suggests that “working with mares requires that we develop a meaningful relationship in order for them to bond with us as they would a herd mate.”
It is coming to understand this different perspective that has helped me grow in my horsemanship skills. A mare asks more of us as a leader and it is this questioning style that often puts people at odds with mares. The mindset of many horse owners is they should just do as I ask but, as we have seen time and again in our sessions, what we think we are asking and what the horse reads are often two completely different requests.
Thinking about how mares have been stereotyped what surprises me is how often I have heard from a women “they would never ride a mare.” A participant of a recent session couldn’t have framed it better when reflecting on his experience with lead mare Zoe “she was clearly allowing me to lead her”. He held no illusion that he was the leader simply because he held the lead rope. With both mares and geldings in our herd I have learned a lot about group dynamics. Every horse has learned behaviours but each has their own unique personality and background. It is the differences in the gender dynamics in the playground, the workplace and the stables that maintains a dynamic, growing and caring environment.
To update that cowboy saying on mares I would prefer to suggest “you need to engage in dialogue with a mare.” as too often a discussion ends up being one sided. Being open to a dialogue with Sydney or any of the other mares in the herd has allowed me to see what each excels at. Dialogue requires that we not only express our opinion but we that listen to other perspectives. When you find that area of common interest a mare’s loyalty is unquestionable they will truly put their heart and soul into getting you to the final round.
1-Waller – in this context is in reference to the aimless and sometimes purposeless requests we make of our horses, to the point they simply shut us out.
At first glance, the herd is a fairly static environment with roles, responsibilities and daily schedules. A horse is a highly social animal which means a range of interactions but the herd is both constant and ever changing reflecting a routine set by the seasons, the weather and us.
Our herd is a mix of geldings, mares and one donkey ranging in age from two to sixteen. Observing them over the years highlights the similarities and the subtle changes that emerge as the number of horses has grown. In Animals Make Us Human, Temple Grandin suggests it is the horse’s very social nature that has made them so easy for us to domesticate – they don’t mind when territories cross, they are willing to live together in a created herd and they have a built in desire to cooperate.
A domestic herd is limited by the space they have to share, don’t have much of a choice as to who joins them and within limits they get along pretty well. With those parameters it is relatively easy to pull parallels from the herd to the workplace. To work well in a team we often need to be able to manage an open office environment, work with individuals we might not choose to spend time with and cooperation is not always the hallmark of being human.
Like a workplace team, the herd also has to deal with internal and external influences. Internal change is far more fluid than the stresses that we inflict on them but what is interesting and most reflective of workplace is how the herd collectively manages external stress.
From time to time change is imposed on the herd whether it’s adjusting the clock, adding a new member or splitting the herd up a change can be fiercely defended. Generally horses are not great at managing change and they treat change with the commitment of a life and death scenario. The herd quickly becomes a cohesive unit acting and responding in the interest of the group, old alliances are strengthened and new bonds are created, working together to either accept or repel the influence.
Change seems to be a constant that we cannot repel or ignore, but what we can do is manage how it impacts us personally. While we often feel alone in the turmoil of change supporting others through the process is another innate human characteristic. The herd demonstrates the importance of sticking together and supporting others while being open and willing to accept and adapt to what shows up.
I love the opportunity to hone my horsemanship skills by riding with folks who are better than I. End of June, I travelled down to Bozeman, Montana to ride with Buck Brannaman. This year everything took on new meaning as I was able to see some of last years forgotten explanations from a different perspective. As the horse master Tom Dorrance said “the first thing you need is the last thing you’ll learn.”
For years riding instructors stood in the middle of the arena and yelled out what not to do as you walked, trotted and cantered around the arena. Fortunately few of those experiences stuck as I was no doubt more concerned with saving my life than listening to the person barking instructions. I learn best by a combination of inputs and now understand why those university lectures went in one ear and out the other, just listening isn’t my forte.
The mentors I now choose best reflect my learning style, teachers who are on their horses explaining what they are going to do and why, showing me how they do it and then letting me do it. Horsemanship, like leadership is about the why, it is about feel. It is about knowledge through experience, timing and recognising what shows up.
This years clinic included a number of competitive tasks which may sound contrary to what you believe the concepts of what natural horsemanship are. What became clearer to me this year is horsemanship is about being fair but effective through simple, consistent and clear communication. LIke all aspects of leadership It is about understanding why, being focused on the outcome and being ready to support no matter what shows up.
Competition magnifies the expectations we place on ourselves. It was interesting to watch where the desire to win got in the way of success. When my focus was on the time, Maddison became increasingly resistant. Reflecting on the successful outcome of some of the complex elements, I realise I was more concerned with Maddison than winning and we worked better together.
We have used competitive elements in our programs and it is so easy to observe where task versus relationship tips the scale. Those of you who have participated know the hands-on learning with horses is a far cry from a powerpoint presentation with simulations. The programs are about executing a series of relatively simple tasks through explanation, demonstration and then experience. The links you personally make from the horses to work, home or life in general through the facilitated discussions or reflection moments you share with us, is where the real learning happens.
We try and set up our sessions so we are able to reach you no matter your learning style. We recognised early on in our program development that the workplace doesn’t need a whole new set of leadership practices. What people in the workplace are ready for is another way to view relevant and common ideas and principles that need to become habits in our bodies instead of just our heads.
“Fear of Loss is greater than the desire to gain.” Jeffrey Gitomer
The more I work with people and horses the more frequently I see fear of “what might happen” instead of being present to what is happening.
If the name Gitomer sounds familiar, you may know the statement refers to sales, not leadership or even horses.
I had the pleasure of attending the Art of Sales as a guest of Brian Pleet of Strategico a couple of weeks ago. The statement on fear was simply a few of the words that rang true for me as I listened to Gitomer speak.
It is interesting how a presentation on sales offers the same concepts we reference for horsemanship, leadership, communication and life in general.
Gitomer summarized his presentation with five key points:
· Belief in self
· Love of what you do
· Being prepared
· & above all Self-confidence
Would you walk under a ladder? Open an umbrella inside….. or break a chain letter? These were but a few of the beliefs put to the test on a recent airing of the CBC show DNTO (Definitely Not the Opera). Through an account of humorous and superstitious beliefs that both limit and inspire us, the host explored “What we believe but cannot prove.”
What we believe is influenced by our family, our community and our experience. Beliefs can be factual, derived or acquired, they allow us to predict events and consider the consequences of our actions. Beliefs hold a powerful grip on our emotions and are the hallmark of being human.
Sam Harris, an author who examines the tenets of religion suggests “beliefs are both logically and semantically related. Each constrains, and is in turn constrained by, many others.” The statement holds true for a range of leadership issues we face on a daily basis.
Leadership requires that we sometimes question our own beliefs. Believing we have no control of an outcome can paralyze us. Great leaders frequently make reference to a peer, a boss, a friend, a mentor, who believed in what they could do when they were not sure of their own abilities.
The limiting factor may simply be knowledge, so fill in that gap. If the know how and skill is there, then it may be a previous experience in your way. You may be holding back based on a belief that this situation will turn out the same as the last. Alternately the barrier might be the knowledge that someone executing something similar failed. “Each constrains, and in turn is constrained by, many others.” Factual, acquired or derived.
Rhys, a five year old red dun quarter horse, represented my limiting belief. I did not know what had happened to cause a previous wreck, so I had derived a range of possible scenarios that got in my way. I had someone who believed I could do it so I had to confront my own beliefs with the facts that I had the skill, the knowledge and the experience to succeed. Letting go of my fear of failing was the only belief holding me back.
“Anytime we do anything that involves chance, and everything involves chance, there is always that moment afterwards when you wonder if you should have done it.” There is also nothing more exhilarating than taking that risk and realizing success. Go ahead walk under the ladder.
What leaders do you admire? Just as a horse will mirror our habits, we reflect what we experience. Our own leadership philosophy can be shaped by many individuals and finding someone you truly admire helps the whole journey appear to be that much easier.
A fine horseman I had the great pleasure to ride with a couple of years ago, died last week. A legend in horsemanship circles Ray Hunt was a man who lead by example offering his 80 years of wisdom to anyone interested in learning.
Dubbed The Master of Communication, it was a title stuck. Ray may not have been known for his people skills but his horse skills are unquestionable. Ray always said he was in it for the horse. He showed people how to behave, so their horses had a chance.
Ray had been repeating that perspective for over forty years. It wasn’t just that he talked about what people should do but he showed people how easy it could be to have an outstanding partner in your horse. Ray may well have influenced more generations of horsemen and women than any other single horseman.
Ray likely just considered himself a horseman but John Maxwell suggests “to be a successful leader you must surround yourself with people who can respond to five key questions”.
• Do they display exemplary character in everything they do?
• Do they bring complementary gifts to the table?
• Do they hold a strategic position and have influence within the organization?
• Do they add value to the organization and to the leader?
• Do they positively affect other members of the inner circle?
These kind of people flocked to Ray, spawning decades of horse people willing to let the horse’s perspective be held in high regard. Ray has clearly demonstrated he created an inner circle that many top executives would envy.
Displaying integrity in all he did, Ray offered the most humble of gifts to every horse human combination he encountered, respect. Ray was able to see the inherit talent in a horse when the owner couldn’t, and an argument was never personal. It wasn’t about you, it was about the horse.
Ray has been a part of my leadership and horsemanship journey. He helped me understand like the reins we hold in our hands connecting to the two most sensitive parts of the horse human team. The responsibility we are given in leading others represents the most fragile part of the organization.
“For us to make sense of something it has to fit with what we already believe to be true or the bigger picture.”1
For some that truth is horses are dangerous, for others they are an icon of beauty and freedom. Horses touch our emotions like few concepts or experiences can.
Experiential education is a way to extend truths and engage emotions in learning by doing. The premise, get people out of their comfort zone to access emotions and the corresponding problem solving skills that rarely are generated through reading or listening. Experiences familiar to enhancing leadership learning or team interaction are ropes courses and rafting. Working with a horse represents yet one more option, the key difference being horses introduce the aspect of free will.
A leader must continually manage interpretations and perceptions of both external and internal influences. While height, a rock face or rapids may be a metaphor for the challenges of the workplace, reaction to the obstacle determines the stress we put ourselves in and ultimately the outcome.
As a prey animal the horse’s will is to survive, to do that they are keenly aware of their environment. The metaphor of the horse in leadership, team or change management learning represents the multiplicity of outcomes. Unlike a rope that will hold despite demonstrated fear, a horse may not. It is the relationship you build and the emotional intelligence that you demonstrate that determines the result.
The Equine Guided Education Association holds an annual conference in Valley Ford, California. This year I had the privilege of presenting an example of the work The Natural Leader offers. The focus of the presentation was to demonstrate how horses support emotionally intelligent learning. The Big Picture provides a three-dimensional perspective on the attributes of awareness of self and others.
The Big Picture brilliantly demonstrates how horses quickly reflect our emotions. Observers are given a glimpse as to how emotion and intention might be perceived by others through our actions.
Like any new leader, as I walked through a different herd awareness was on high. When my actions began to demonstrate negative energy and the emotions of anger, disgust or fear the impact on the horses was powerful. My energy represented how we can be so wrapped up in our own thoughts that we can’t see when our actions are perceived differently by others. Inadvertently sending the wrong message.
As I talked through the objectives of the activity bringing my energy down to acknowledge the presence of others and my actions demonstrated the emotions of interest and acceptance. The horses immediately reflected the change and were willing to not only engage but were prepared to accept me.
The Big Picture activity has always brought to attention some of the most meaningful discussion and memorable moments in our programs. Developed from the concepts outlined in the 2001 article The Work of Leadership, the activity offers participants the opportunity to view interaction of the herd before they get into the midst, or as Heifitz & Laurie suggest on to the dance floor.
As a leader we must not only face the external challenges but our own internal ones. Developing our emotional intelligence through active and reflective practice helps us respond better when the stakes are high. By recognizing when and how our emotions are demonstrated through our actions we inspire the will in others.
1. Bushe, Gervase, Clear Leadership