Horse Wisdom: Who is Leading Who?

Horse Wisdom: Who is Leading Who

As leaders, how do we enable, empower, and optimize potential while still holding our leadership position?   

With both horses and people, everyone needs to know who the leader is in any given situation. Since horses are herd animals, this is a basic matter of survival. Horse herds must have safety and direction, and they follow whoever has the best capability, intention, and motivation to provide it.  Aggressive, egotistical demands for submission are a waste of energy that hurts the herd. For example, if a horse chases his herd away from the drinking water tank to prove authority and drink first, he may win that battle, but his herd is tired, frustrated, and thirsty, and now less able to escape from a predator or endure unhealthy conditions-and they know it.  For their survival, horses gravitate to the leader who provides comfort and safety.  The lead mare or stallion is reasonable, calm, clear, and unflinchingly courageous. They are also visible and flexible, especially as they lead the herd to new pastures.  

Like most horses, my horse Echo will often check who is leading who, especially when he is unsure or afraid. Sometimes he just wants something and checks to see where the boundary is.  He doesn’t know or care what respect or control has to do with it—he is simply vigilant with his survival instinct.  I appreciate Echo’s courage and desire to have an active dialogue about who is leading who. When I calmly and consistently inform Echo that I am leading him, and he knows I am reasonable about giving him a vote now and then, he is much more amiable, relaxed, and willing to take risks with me.  For example, I have taught Echo that he grazes at the beginning of our time together, but very rarely once we are on the trail.  Otherwise when we are riding he is constantly asking if now is a good time to stop riding and graze. Echo also gets a vote. Knowing that Echo wants to graze, in the spirit of partnership I give him grazing time before we ride.  When another person works with Echo, we make it clear that they are now Echo’s leader, recognizing that it will take a bit of time as Echo checks and learns to understand the new leader’s signals and style. 

People too, need to know who is leading who, especially when they are unsure or afraid, or simply if it is unclear where the boundary is. Leadership that is courageous, visible, calm and clear is especially important during times of change. Reasonable negotiation for resources and high empowerment is appreciated. New leadership requires communication and adjustment. Can we let go of ego and power battles and simply focus on communicating “who is leading who” with calm, clear, consistency?   If so, we cultivate nimble, relaxed, high performing organizations, with teams focused on achieving their potential. 

Simply by how they respond to us, horses help us practice leading with calmness, power, intention, and compassion. Do you want to build your own courageous, calm, and clear leadership? Try leading a horse.



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