I’ve been horse mad since a very early age, and I was finally allowed riding lessons at 8 years old. The first few sessions were a bit shaky, with a few nose dives as I fell off on a couple of occasions, but I was determined this was my sport. Although I was not allowed my own horse until I was 15, I made maximum use of everyone else’s, and was soon competing.
At the time I was totally unaware of the skills I was developing and it’s only now, 30+ years later that I appreciate what horses have taught me about being a good leader. When I first started in a leadership role it never occurred to me that being around horses could impacted on my career. More recently my new horse has reminded me about being a good leader. Here are some examples;
Preparation and Planning:
There’s a lot of work involved in caring for horses, and this can be less or more according to the type of breed. For example a slinky thoroughbred needs more care than a robust cob type due to their different genetics and origins of the breed. I’ve benefitted from the company of cob’s, thoroughbred’s and anything in between, over the past 36 years.
Planning all the necessary requirements of a horse into my already hectic day is an absolute must. My children and my business activities also have to take priority, which means everything has to be planned and organised to perfection. My horse would not forgive me if I failed to make time for the gallops or arrived late with her tea, and my family are not too great when hungry either!
The planning process includes everyone who needs to be involved, whether I’m planning the business requirements, family activities or horse duties, those who play a part will be included in the planning. I make sure I am clear and concise in sharing my expectations and I always double check everyone is prepared and understands their part, no matter how small.
In the equine world the difference between the personalities of mares, geldings and stallions is well documented, suggesting that geldings can be managed, mares will negotiate, and stallions rule the roost! However the personality of the horse is actually not so stereotypical, for example some geldings refuse to accept the lower status, and mares often have days when negotiation is not on the agenda.
Training ex race horses and unbroken horses has helped me to understand that there is so much going on inside someone’s head that we do not know about. With people, we expect to be told they are having a bad day (how many of us will admit that to the boss?), whereas horses will not vocalise their feelings, apart from a whinny when they’re happy to see you carrying breakfast. It’s up to us, as leaders, to feel the changes, learn empathy and to be observant, look out for the signs of what colleagues are feeling.
Understanding mood swings and how personality plays a big part in leading teams is vital to good leadership, with a good leader having the ability to read the atmosphere, pick up on body language and distract away from major issues. Taking time to learn about personality and how different types of personalities interact with each other can make major improvements in productivity and reduce the fight for power (either in the board room or in the paddock!).
Build confidence to improve performance:
I’ve spent many hours repairing ex racehorses who have experienced hectic athletic careers, and suffer mentally as well as physically from their extreme workloads. Working with a horse to build trust and confidence through a safe environment helps to reduce the damage and stress, providing a nurturing environment to make subtle changes and improve performance.
I set achievable targets and allow for mistakes to build confidence. Allowing time for practice of new skills or new ways of working, within a non judgemental environment, will nurture and build confidence. The smallest change should be rewarded immediately, increasing the move towards improved performance. Good leaders use rewards effectively and genuinely, encouraging small steps of change to improve performance.
My latest horse love project has almost reached a year with me, straight from the race track to my caring, empathic family, where she has repaired, grown in confidence, and learnt a whole new world of work and fun.
I have been lucky to work with some fantastic teams, both in the equine world and in business. I’ve watched them out grow their confidence issues and go on to achieve great careers. I’ve come a long way from those days of my first few riding lessons, and although falling off is still part of the action, my leadership skills are on top form.
I aim to be learning from horses for a long time into the future.