Horses are remarkable for all sorts of reasons. They carried us to war, help us grow our food, jump around obstacles and run after a ball for us. More recently, however, horses have been used to help people develop leadership skills. While this might sound like a funny idea at first, it makes complete sense. Here's why.
1. Body language matters. A lot.
We live in our heads. Even when we exercise - which for many of us means running on a treadmill or working out on machines - we don't really leave our thoughts. Horses, on the other hand, rely on body language. By looking at you they can usually tell what your intentions are. They will notice even a finger moving; they are aware of where you look; they see when you square your shoulders and they feel it when you relax. It's called synchronisation. In nature, horses can't afford to take the time to tell each other if one of them has spotted a danger (they'd be eaten in the process). When one horse's adrenaline jumps, all the horses in the herd feel it too. That's why people say horses can smell your fear. It's worse than that, they can feel it. That's also why you can't lie when you're around horses. We, humans, rely more on body language than we like to admit it. We are also constantly reading each other. That's why, as a leader, the first thing you need to do is be aware and then control your body language.
2. Different people want different rewards.
Many people assume that food is a key reward for horses. That's probably because it works well with man's best friend, the dog. But horses are grazers, they eat all day long. Therefore food, whilst very enjoyable, is not a real reward for them. For a prey animal like a horse, rest or safety tend to be more important than food and much, much rarer. Similarly, people care about different things. Some of us want more money (material reward), some of us want praise or prestige (recognition) and some want a better work/life balance (rest). This is not an exhaustive list, which is why it's important to find out what each person is looking for because depending on what they want, they will operate and respond differently.
3. There are different types of pressure.
Horses are what we call 'into pressure' animals. This means that they tend to respond to pressure by resisting it, one of the many survival instincts they have developed over the centuries. Pressure can be physical, like if I touch the horse. But it can also be much more subtle; it can be how close I stand, if I look at him straight in the eye etc. It's the same with people. Our tolerance to pressure, and what we consider pressure is different for each of us. We shouldn't take it for granted that what affects me will affect others and vice versa.
4. More pressure won't solve the issue.
Because horses are into pressure, the more you press the more resistance you'll encounter, and sometimes you'll trigger defence mechanisms such as kicking or biting. You first need to teach the horse to yield to that pressure, which usually means you won't have to put more pressure anyway. It's often the same with people. If you increase the pressure because you're not getting the result wanted it could backfire.
5. If something doesn't work try something else.
If what you're trying is not yielding results, rethink your strategy. The rule in horsemanship is that if something doesn't work more than 3 times, change your approach. That's because the horse will otherwise learn how to fight off or avoid the pressure. You don't want to inadvertently teach bad habits.
6. Release is more important than pressure.
Horses learn by the release of pressure, not from the pressure itself. It's when you stop doing what they don't like (pressure) that they learn what you want (to avoid the unpleasantness). Sometimes, relieving the pressure is a reward in itself.
7. Take it one tiny step at a time.
We are greedy and impatient. We tend to rush things. If the foundation is not there, you'll probably have to pay the price later. With the right base and mindset, the performance level of your team (and your horse) will increase tremendously. It will take longer, there's no doubt, but it will be worth it.
8. Don't obsess with the final goal.
Predators are linear thinkers: if we want something we go for it straight away. Horses, because they are constantly worried about all the potential threats out there, work towards their goal in a more circular way, they won't naturally walk straight up to what they want. That's why herds of horses (and cows) move in circular motions, not in straight lines.
If your eyes are on the prize, chances are that you won't see properly what is happening in the moment.
9. Look for signs that it's working.
With horses, we look for signs that the horse is relaxed. These signs include a lower head, some licking and chewing, all physical signs that the adrenaline that was triggered by the pressure is now leaving. It's the same with people. Often, small signs here and there will tell you a lot about the general mood and can help you prevent, or at least anticipate, a bigger problem down the line.
10. Enjoy the process.
As they say, in the long term we're all dead. Reaching your goal is all well and done, but if the process was rushed, stressful, unpleasant, the next goal is likely going to be harder to reach. And there always is the next goal. The process is as, if not more, important than the goal.