Last week I was working with my faithful old thoroughbred on the lungeline. He is getting on and I am trying to maintain the right balance of ensuring that he gets exercise – enough to stay fit – but not too much to injure or stress him. He and I have been learning from each other for 10 years now. I think I have learned more from him than the other way around but he certainly knows me and how to challenge my place in the hierarchy, ever-so-politely. In the world of the horse, every day – if not every hour – is a new opportunity to test leadership and see who is who in the rankings.
When working with horses in tack (on a longeline for instance) I use the methods of Chris Irwin, an extraordinarily billiant Canadian horseman and trainer. When working at liberty I use a combination of Chris’ methods of body-language and leadership mixed with a little of Carolyn Resnick’ s relationship-oriented approach to horse training. Both of these trainers have the utmost respect and love for horses. Unlike many in the horse-training business, these two model the values and ideals of clear, compassionate, respectful. relationship that I aspire to embody in all my relationships.
Last week Harold decided he was going to ignore my request to straighten and turn to go in the other direction. He stood there looking at me with those beautiful big brown eyes, a peaceful look of slight mystification, as though he had never been asked this manoever before and really had no idea what I was after. As I persisted he became more firm in his refusals and, as usual with horses, he upped the ante to see if I could deliver the goods – so to speak. One of the challenges of working with horses is learning to be the leader to that individual horse in that specific moment, matching appropriately what is required – no more and no less. Too much and you risk being seen as a bully. Too little and you risk being ignored.
As I became more insistent on having him comply he started to show some signs of his age and breathing difficulties so I decided I had to find a way to end the session before he got overheated and distressed. Much as I tried to end the session in such as way as to leave him with the impression that I am his leader, I discovered the next day that I clearly failed. He left that session with an absolute sense that his rank had risen and mine had declined. For the next several days he showed me through body language a side that I hadn’t seen in years, if ever. I was ‘dissed’ very pointedly on several occasions and had to remind him of his manners.
I thought about my next step for several days and planned how to restore the balance of power in a way that was effective and wouldn’t require him to exert himself too much. I also engaged the help of my coach – getting some hints about how I might be miscommunicating. On Saturday we had our little tete-a-tete. It took only 10 minutes and I regained the respect that is necessary for him to see me as a fit leader. It involved me being absolutely clear with my body language while being assertive about my expectations. We also learned more about each other through clear communication and mutual respect.
For me the coaching I get from my horse is invaluable. In the time we spend together, be it riding, walking at liberty, grooming, or just sharing territory without agenda, I gain inner-awareness and strengthen those muscles of mindful living in the ‘now’ that I take with me into the rest of my life. I also learn more about my style as leader – where I overuse and underuse strategies and am challenged to model my style to the requirements of the moment and the people I am leading.
Next time I am going to expand on these two leadership models. Is there a female style and a male style of leadership? What is your style? How effective a leader are you? More to come…