Hitting the Dirt

Ever had that conversation that could have gone better? What you could have done differently or should have said that just might have changed the outcome?

or as a fine horseman once suggested being able to recognize: “What happened, before what happened, happened?” ¹

Well, it happened! Fortunately the spring dirt is relatively soft so with a quick scan that all body parts were intact, I picked myself up, gathered up the reins of the horse still staring in mortal fear at the object and got ready to get back on. The older I get the more I wish I’d listened to what the horse had been telling me before they had to scream.

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Leadership, Horsemanship & Yoga

On about the twentieth downward dog of the class my mind started to drift. It could have been the heat of the room causing me to consider places I would rather be or simply it was the only position that allowed blood to my head. My transitions were getting slower, the hop your feet forward was more like a drag and time was slowing.

Despite that image I enjoy yoga – it helps maintain a strong core and good balance, I have to focus on breathing and yoga is another opportunity to push my limits. As I seek the feel of lengthen and shift I can’t miss the fact they are principals that apply to my leadership journey and elements that impact my horsemanship. Yoga, horsemanship or leadership it is all about me.

My first reaction was to stop, when my dog Lilly caused Rhys to bolt*. In an instant it became clear stopping was not an option but Ray Hunt’s words “I can ride a horse as fast as he can run.” seemed plausible. With all the time in the saddle and experience I have gained I let go of my first thought, I knew I could ride it out. Nature sets these events up well, as oxygen got the better of Rhys before we hit the end of the field so we slowed to a lope, trot then walk with little effort on my part. The remainder of the ride was quite pleasant once my heart slowed down and my left foot stopped shaking.

Leadership, horsemanship or yoga is about preparing yourself for how you will handle yourself when the going gets tough. Rhys has always suggested that he might bolt. When concerned Rhys locks down his tail and it feels like something is trying to grab him from behind, so what happened was a case of when. The more we test our relationship and trust for each other through longer and more varied rides the less often the ya buts occur.

In the back of my mind there has always been that question “What if?”. Self talk brings on self doubt, ironically words spoken by one of Calgary’s few female corporate leaders at a recent luncheon. She stated that self-doubt is one of the greatest limiting factors women bring on themselves in attaining leadership status in the corporate world. Believing that I would survive through the ride was all I needed, the rest was the knowledge and skill I have spent years developing.

Just as the yoga instructor is calling to us to push ourselves see if you can hold the pose just one more breath. Leadership and horsemanship is about that one breath bringing us places we never saw ourselves before. If you have read past newsletters you might recall that Rhys is often featured. While I love a quiet uneventful ride, I am always preparing myself and my horse for the what ifs.

We learn the most about ourselves from our challenging experiences, or at least we have that opportunity. I have learned more about myself, my horsemanship and my leadership through a decision way back when that “One of us had to change.”

*bolt in this context is a mad dash with little control as to direction or speed

Are You a Thought Note Person?

Are you a thought note person? I certainly am. When a thought strikes me as interesting I am prone to capture it. When I write these things down everything is perfectly clear as my internal editor is filling in the blanks where words of explanation should be.

The problem is, I often don’t review those notes until some days or weeks later and the intention or meaning of the words may have all but disappeared. Without the context or intention behind the words, or perhaps it is simply the cryptic way I captured the thought, I sometimes have no clue as to why I wrote it down.

Our internal editor often causes us to skip the most basic of information, assuming we will simply fill that in later. Unfortunately it is the basics that the idea is built on and without that our thought lies incomplete, words on the page or just as likely in the notepad on our digital device.

To my surprise I realize I often execute tasks in the same way. Whether it is communication, projects or how I interact with others I can leave out key pieces of information that completes my expectation to ensure the success of others.

Actions than rang true for me with one of last years colts. Starting Gabriel last fall went really well. Typically I get a colt to a point and then let them mature on that over the winter months picking things up again in the spring. Well this spring we discovered a small hole that had become a gaping disaster when Gabe turned his back end into the carraganna hedge. A branch must have tickled him up under the flank turning my angel into a rank, bucking bronco an effort that would have made any Stampede cowboy proud. Fortunately for me, it was before I got on. An oversight I would not have been able to ride out.

We never want to put ourselves into a situation where we have to ride out a bad event, the problem is we rarely know when it is about to happen. It has now taken me twice as long to get Gabe back and riding to where we should have been from the start in the spring. Time well spent as for me it has been an invaluable lesson – never skip on the basics, never assume someone else really understands your expectation and remember to complete the thought.

When we turn our internal editor off it is so much easier to hear what you are saying, listen to the questions and watch for what others need. These three simple steps help us anticipate when a blank needs to be filled.

If you view it as an opportunity to start over – you always have another chance to complete a thought and make a good first impression.

Thanks to Steve Giddy for this photo

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.

“If a person prepares ahead of time,
then he has lots of time to get the job done. But if you wait until the last moment, sometimes it’s too late.” Ray Hunt“

“With animals …, we cannot simulate confidence; their power of perception is as nature made it, simple unambiguous, and very acute.” Henry Wynmalen

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.

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.”

In Admiration

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.