A horse makes a great teacher for business leaders

Picture of girls riding horse in competition
Man pointing to image to the left

"When you take care of your horse,
your horse takes care of you."

... Chloe Thurlow, Author

Leadership is about balance. Balance between guiding others while being sensitive to their capabilities and needs.

Learning to ride a horse (well) can teach a leader much of what they need to know for working with people.

My daughter (that's her a few years ago in the picture above) started riding horses when she was 8.  It was a harmless request at the time as she watched a friend go to her riding lesson.  "Can I take horse lessons?"  Well, that harmless request turned into a minimum 3 days a week jaunt to the barn north of the city (we lived in Toronto at the time), with the commitment being at least 3 hours each day: travel, grooming, riding and clean-up.  After a couple of years of this, I decided that since I had to be there anyways, I might as well take lessons too, so there I was, the only guy amongst a group of young girls - all of whom were better riders than me - trying desperately to not hold the class back.

happy-to-see-you_200I loved it.  To be clear, I was not good at it, but I loved it.  I learned that, just like people, horses have personalities and moods that can change from one day to the next.  Each horse has certain capabilities and needs; some can do amazing feats of athleticism and some are more inclined to stick to the basics.

Don't get me wrong.  It was not all glorious and romantic.  I had an accident that left me unable to move for a week.  I was stepped on (I still say on purpose), bitten (definitely on purpose) and tossed to the ground on more than one occasion.  But through it all, my respect and admiration for horses grew, as did my realization that they could, if we let them, teach us all something about leadership.

falling-off_400If I won a lottery, I might even start up an Executive Development program centered around teaching executives to ride a horse, and translating that learning experience into their working environment.  The capital cost to starting up such a facility would be significant, but the insurance would probably be the stopper.  Imagine the lawsuits if an egotistical executive got tossed off a horse and blamed the horse (and the facility owner) for getting hurt?  Having said that, if anyone does ever carry this idea forward, feel free to share your royalties with me ...

But I digress.  Why does this idea make sense?

In a prior time, I launched and managed an Executive Development Centre whose mandate was to bring the best management training to senior business leaders.  We believed that by doing so, we helped build the community capability so we would have a sustainable job base and solid economy.  We did great things and had some very interesting programs, many designed to help executives create strategies and align resources to accomplish priorities.

Most of our programs were classroom based.  We did the best we could but I often thought it would be nice to have a more experiential program, one that was relevant to leaders (ie not too touchy-feely) but NOT oriented around PowerPoint / webinar / ... technologies and techniques.

And then it hit me.  Horses.  OK, so a horse did not actually hit me (this time) but the idea was born.





To ride a horse well, you need to do two things: Lead and Adapt.




You need to lead since horses are pack animals and, unless you are talking about the alpha-male horse type (a small percentage of the total) a horse with a rider on its back expects to receive direction.  If it does not, it gets nervous and starts being fidgety, not something you want if you want to stay on the horse.

However, you also need to adapt to the needs and capabilities of the horse you are riding.  I have seen many examples of people who believe that since they "own" the horse, the horse darn well better do whatever it is told, regardless of whether or not:

  • you have earned the respect / trust of the horse to lead ithorse_jumping_almost_400
  • you are asking the horse to do something it believes it is capable of doing
  • you are NOT sending the horse conflicting signals (kicking it to go while pulling on the reins for balance)
  • the horse is warmed up, feeling good, trained to do what it is being asked to do
  • the horse feels "up to it" that day and is ready to face the challenge you are asking of it

Son of a gun.  Does this not sound like most of the management training books out there?  You need to set direction and then adapt as you go?

My premise is that by learning to ride a horse, you physically learn the paradoxical requirements of leadership.  You will quickly fail if you do not.  A horse is at least 1,500 pounds (680 kilograms for those of you who are metric inclined) of powerful beastie, and if it does not like you or just really does not want to - or believe it can - do something, it can get rid of you in a fast, and sometimes painful, way.

Once that physical reality has sunk in from your horse-riding lessons - that you need to lead AND adapt to be successful - it is not a big stretch to apply those lessons back in the workplace.  Or at home.  And the results will be positive.

As much as I respect many authors of business books, and have learned a lot from many of them, I do think the physical learning that would be ingrained in you by learning to rise a horse (well), would benefit many of our executives today.

If an executive has been successful and has attained a senior position in an organization, they often lose any real feedback mechanisms on how they are doing.  Some because they demonstrate, by their actions, that they are not open to feedback.  Some just because their staff don't want to risk being the messenger and telling the boss about problems in their leadership style.

So, if you are a leader, and particularly if you are a senior leader, go learn how to ride a horse.  It will give you all the feedback you need to learn what you are doing right - and wrong - and give you an opportunity to adapt your methods with real-time, unmistakable feedback.


"If you want to go quickly, go alone.
If you want to go far, go together."

... African Proverb"

Posted in General Leadership.

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