What Do You See?


“I understand you are scared. I appreciate there is an experience behind your fear.  I am asking  “What behaviours have you seen demonstrated by the horses that would suggest that you need to be concerned? ”

Therapy is not something that I do with The Natural Leader programs, so when I encounter someone who has been traumatized with horses I do not have the degree to back me up. I can only go with what I see. Leadership is about demonstrated behaviour and a conversation I am quite comfortable with, so behaviour is where my focus lies.

Fear can be a great motivator, a tool for learning or it can paralyze us. What I hope for those who are fearful is that they can recognize how fear, or the story, that is holding them back from achieving more in their career or life.

Too afraid to even enter the arena, a participant of a recent program had been watching her peers go through a series of activities with the horses. Before heading up for lunch, I asked if she would be willing to connect with a horse together. I was searching for the invitation she would be comfortable with. Even with that offer, she was hesitant, in fact she flat out refused.

She had shared her story of trauma by horses with the Wranglers and was keen to let me in on the details. I expect she had also told everyone else on her team. Repeating the story not only re-traumatized her, but words of acknowledgement from others appeared to reconfirm her fear.

You can’t tell someone “Don’t be afraid”, so I was looking for the question that would help her step out of her comfort zone. What she had seen – the demonstrated behaviours or facts, rather than what she had believed to be true – the story. When she admitted she had seen nothing that confirmed her fear, she offered that coming into the arena with “one” horse might be okay.

In The Natural Leader programs “Everything is an invitation. An Invitation can be accepted, modified or declined.” I was thrilled she was willing to take that step. I had picked Big Jim. Though large in stature Big Jim is the image of calm and quiet. Still concerned, the introduction was short but she acknowledged she could be beside a horse. She left the arena one big step closer to change.

That afternoon, she volunteered to be the observer. Perhaps it was sharing those observations with her team that helped her believe she was ready to participate. Her smile and the change in her body language that followed suggested the relief that came with the belief she could do this, as her confidence grew so too did her participation.

She needed others to see and believe what she had believed impossible. Leaders are given that responsibility all the time, opening the door to allow someone to step through and experience the change they are seeking.

A Culture of Safety

SafetyCulture“most of us are taught to think of experience as coming from the outside in, psychology and neuroscience shows fairly dramatically that experience mainly comes from the inside out. We each created our own experience and therefore, people involved in the same event can have very different observations, thoughts, feelings and wants about that event.”1 Gervase Bushe

Over the past year I’ve had the good opportunity to work with a number of teams from the oil and gas industry. All the organizations they work for state they operate in a culture of safety, but watching people in action gives you a better sense of compliance versus a safety mindset. Safety isn’t about what not to do, but rather about how to do something safely.

Working from the “inside out”2 is a concept that shows up very clearly when working with a horse. “Never walk behind a horse.” advice almost everyone seems to be able to provide, but a perspective that relates more to how we walk behind a horse than whether we should. Evolution has provided horses with panoramic vision so their range of sight is almost 360 degrees, they absolutely can see you. Acutely aware a horse reads their measure of safety not only from the physical surroundings but through the actions of others, so how we walk behind them does make a difference.

While it isn’t always easy to tell where a horse is looking, their eyes are on the side of their head, a good indicator of where their focus of attention is are their ears. A horse’s body language will indicate their level of concern, in effect they let us know exactly what they are thinking.

In comparison our physiology restricts our peripheral vision limiting what we see to that which is in front of us and we also often falsely believe that we are good at keeping our thoughts to ourselves. A truth that clearly defines itself when we consciously prepare for the “what if’s” about working around a horse, the more likely we unknowingly wear what we are thinking. Horses have taught me a lot about safety.

While Bushe is exploring experience through the lens of the organization his findings of workplace experience is no different that what horsemanship suggests, our thoughts influence our actions. How we respond to what is presented, or how we interpret our safety, the impact is the same, others see what we miss and actions can easily be misinterpreted.

Just as Bushe suggests the more conscious we are of our own personal safety, the more likely our thoughts translate into unintended actions, perhaps we get hesitant, move slower or have a rigidness to our posture. While we may be thinking “I’m just being careful.” our body language changes the experience for someone else.

My awareness in working with horses has developed over time with a lens of safety built into everything I do. Many actions I am no longer conscious of, it has simply become how I do things. My experience has helped me develop a level of comfort working in an environment that others would perceive as risky.

Telling someone what not to do without information about why is no different then telling someone to not be afraid around the horse. A useless piece of advice without the why. Information helps us develop the awareness we need to be safe through our actions. The more open the dialogue is around safety versus a checklist of what not to do the more likely people gain comfort and competence to create the culture of safety.

1 – Bushe, Gervase -
2 – Leading from the Inside Out – was the name The Natural Leader launched under, so a thought I have carried with me


Getting out of my own way

Reflecting on her goals from the day a participant of a recent Leadership: Horse Sense to People Smarts, session suggested that her confidence in dealing with difficult conversations and conflict in her team, improves “when I get out of my own way”. It was one of those comments that could have been my theme statement for the month! Getting out of my own way relates to both my horsemanship and business.

Watch a horse at play in the field and you will witness rollbacks, spins, levades, piaffes and counter canters with the greatest of ease. If a horse can execute these tasks without us, why is it so hard to achieve the same when we ask it of them? It is one of the most common and most difficult questions to answer, it always depends, and it always comes down to getting out of the horses way.

What I have come to understand about how we learn is we are often only prepared to hear what we need at that moment in time. Effortlessly galloping across the open prairie, horses mane and tail flying is typically the first image that comes to mind for those wishing to learn how to ride. Yet when they first get on that dream disappears and fear takes over. Whether it is fear of falling off or fear of failing, it is the emotion that can hold us back.

When fear grips us our first reaction is to hold our breath – the exact opposite of what we need to do. At a recent HRAC event, Shawne Duperon talked of the fear reaction we often experience when meeting new people. She calls the conscious action of breathing the Cycle of Reciprocity – you breathe to help the other person relax and breathe, breaking the tension that might exist.

It is exactly the same tension that shows up between horse and rider. While I often say there are only 5256 things you need to remember when on your horse, I make clear there is only one thing you must begin with and that is to breathe. It is the same thing I repeat often in our leadership programs. When people become conscious about a completely non-conscious action, breathing, they begin to realize the control they can exercise over their own emotions.

I love it when you identify something in a different context to see our own patterns of behaviour that may limit us. Horses benefit from clearly defined patterns of repetition. While I find huge comfort in the routine horses offer, I also see how it is a behaviour I have used as an excuse for the activities that are outside of my comfort zone.

Starting a business was totally outside my comfort zone and as I learned way beyond what I thought I knew. I have remained focused and intent on succeeding with my business and I have learned a lot through the process. I am also now painfully aware of my own short comings, but in a good way as I can choose to do differently. What is curious is the clarity comes as I hear others struggle with the same questions.

So this past month getting out of my own way has lead to many revelations, changes and new projects. I will soon be releasing my next workbook for people interested in learning with horses – In Business to Define; I have already confirmed 10 programs for 2012 and have a new partner in lining up business to fill in other dates.

As I learn to really listen to what it is I need I am finding it easier to let others help out so The Natural Leader succeeds. So thank you to everyone for waiting patiently as I figured that out!

Own the Feet

North of the 49th parallel the summer days are long and the months all too short but it is the season for my own professional development. Having just returned from four days of riding and learning my head is full as I try to put the feel of the right actions in my body. This year’s real success, I finally put meaning to the statement “own the feet”.

As someone who believes in the importance of having a relationship with my horses I have always been conflicted about the space between the “relationship aficionados” and the “command control individuals” attracted to the world of horses. Though as I continue to put leadership meaning to my own actions, a new perspective came to light about owning the feet. “Own the feet” defines the leadership role I assume with my horses.

I do believe Ray Hunt coined the phrase and he demonstrated it brilliantly. Putting his own style to Ray’s teaching Buck Brannaman has also mastered the concept. Buck rode three different green colts over the four days of a session I participated in and his ownership of their feet is unquestionable. The relationship absolute devotion. Buck suggested the relationship between horse and rider “is not a dictatorship, but more like an enlightened monarchy”.

It was this perspective that helped make the connection. As a leader we are responsible for the actions of those we lead. So our relationship to the horses feet is not the “I command you to put your feet there” but the “I am responsible for everywhere my horses feet are”.

While Jack and I struggle through the tasks that Buck’s horse appeared to execute effortlessly I realized the harder I tried the more I got in Jack’s way. As I eased off and created a clear vision as to what I was looking for, as I let “the pressure gravity put into my legs” out and we started to move together. We still make the dance look more like a couple of stumbling fools but it is not for lack of trying on Jacks part, it’s my responsibility to get better at feel and timing.

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.

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

A Year of Great Expectation

A year begins with great expectations. It may be a resolution, a hope for better things to come or plans to change. Inevitably we look forward and focus on what we want to do differently however a new year also provides the opportunity to reflect and acknowledge what we have accomplished.

In a previous article, Why Positive Change is Hard I quoted David Rock on The New Science of Change. Rock suggests that our brain is wired to avoid change as learning requires new circuits to be created in our brains and that is energy intensive, referring to existing patterns isn’t. The brain’s natural default is to use less energy.

Rock uses a simple metaphor for brain development “New circuits are like delicate seedlings, requiring careful watering and care.” and suggests the solution of a mere ten seconds of reflection a day to help develop new circuits. That 10 second rule is the reason that posting a quote, a phrase or a reminder on their desktop, fridge or mirror is so effective in helping us achieve a goal. The simple act of repetition helps the brain develop the new circuits required to develop a new behaviour or habit.

We are naturally resistant to change and ironically don’t like to admit it. It took me a long time to recognise I am a creature of habit. I don’t believe my answers to many of the psychometric tests taken over the years honestly reflect that, but you can’t argue with absolute proof, ten years of feeding horses two to three times a day no matter the weather is routine.

Stepping outside the comfort zone of routine is harder than I expected. My natural inclination is to come up with the reasons why I might as well not bother going to that event in town be it weather, traffic, time, I’d have to change, it falls about the same time I should be feeding or I haven’t paid yet so no big loss. Trust me I have become the master of excuses. So this year my resolution is to reach out to the many I have made virtual connections with. New or renewed, one person at a time, I am making that commitment. While social networking may be huge I’m still a fan of the power of personal connection, that is after all, what we speak to in our programs.

Sometimes creating a new habit is easier than we think it might be. When all appeared to be overwhelming for me as a teen, my mom suggested that I write down a list of the good things I could be thankful for in one column and what was bothering me in the other. Needless to say the list of good things was lengthy and the four items on the bad, didn’t seem quite so daunting. It is a simple task I continue to carry with me – My expectations for 2010 were many. I have succeeded with some, fallen short on others but acknowledging what I have achieved goes a long way to inspiring what I can do this year.

Last year I :
• created a Year of Inspirations ebook (if you didn’t receive a copy I would be happy to send it to you)
• completed & launched the facilitators guide – Creating Exceptional Leaders through learning with horses (it is for sale on my website)
• helped raise over $26k for Inn from the Cold (a non-profit foundation for homeless families)
• participated in the first Canadian Cowboy Up Challenge
• started four 3 yr old colts and continue to bring them along
• worked with two horses for friends (I am most proud of how well that has worked out)
• produced a monthly newsletter & (almost) weekly inspiration
• continued to develop 11 other horses
• nursed two horses back to health from rather ugly looking injuries (one my fault; one I inherited)
• added two new horses to the herd
• added four new clients to my horsemanship coaching
• travelled to Montana for a Buck Brannaman clinic
• read many new books on horsemanship
• expanded my leadership library and reading
• completed the script for an online video (the taping will now have to be a 2011 activity)
• completed numerous sketches of the herd
• added three new clients to my corporate programming
• ran three successful sessions for the University of Calgary
• ran a pilot for the Rotary Club of Calgary Stay in School program
• launched the Lead Mare mentorship program for youth
• ran the first Yoga for you & Your Horse session
• offered two conference presentations
• spent three days with six horses down at the Stampede grounds
• continued to feed, trim and care for the herd now totalling 17, 365 days of the year

If I can do that, the simple act of reaching out seems to be an attainable goal.

Implementing change begins with recognising what you are good at and building realistic expectations from there, then create the reminders you need to accomplish them. So I have posted a question for myself – Who am I connecting with this week on my desktop and to begin the year I have created another ebook. A Year of Great Expectation is a compilation of essays, quotes and images from newsletters and inspirations from the past year.

Fuel for Desire

You can cover a lot of topics in a six hour drive, it was however a conversation about risk that has lingered. The idea that something to be avoided by one individual is fuel for desire in another.

I previously explored the notion of intrinsic or extrinsic reward in The Motivation to Change recognising that which motivates one individual might not apply to another. Risk taking has both intrinsic and extrinsic value. The ability to take a risk is always identified as an important leadership quality, yet it is more often than not viewed in a negative light.

Our capacity to see the opportunity in risk is defined by our personality, emotional strength, experience and our resilience. Managing risk successfully is a fine balance of all those qualities, lacking one or more can give us an over inflated view of our abilities resulting in risky behaviour.

It was the latter condition that was of concern for my traveling companion, Bette. The founder of Highbanks Society, Bette works with young mothers who may be there because of risky behaviour. Bette feels the challenge guiding young moms to make better decisions and see the consequences of their actions. It was especially poignant for Bette as one graduate of their program had taken on a job as a bicycle courier in downtown Calgary.

The young girl had only seen the opportunity in taking the risk not evaluating the cost of the risk as it related to being a mother, Bette was reflecting on all the life experience that suggested otherwise. The older we are the more we rely on our experiences and what we have learned through them. A challenge I have often heard in working with younger people is simply they have yet to benefit from experience and the learning that can come from it.

Recognising some personalities are drawn to the risk of experience more than others and providing an outlet for it is the basis of experiential learning programs. Providing a supportive environment for experimentation, reflection, adjustment and repetition is where we learn what our capacity and resilience for risk is. Experiential learning is also the foundation for leadership and team learning programs with horses.

Risk and opportunity are two things that go hand in hand working with horses. However, horses make it very clear that when you step too far outside our own comfort zone they rarely are willing to pick up the slack. Knowing how far you can go to push the boundary is where change happens, where the idea of taking a risk becomes a reward in itself.

“The degree of integrity that each of us can bring to the surface, the depth of character that we can summon for the question on how we change is already defining us as individuals… It will profoundly affect those who inherit the results of our decisions.”
Chris Jordan, TedTalks