Horsemanship and Leadership: How They Connect

When a man or woman needs to be a strong leader, many different qualities come into play. Some people seem to be natural born leaders, some need to develop leadership skills and others just need to improve their existing skills. A person who works with horses as a handler, rider or trainer will need some of the same qualities as a leader. This is so true that horsemanship and leadership can go hand-in-hand and a person of any age or gender who becomes a better horseman will also become a better leader. 

A powerful leader must learn awareness of his or her surroundings and keep an eye on all aspects of an organization. If you are a young person in charge of a group project, you will need to stay aware of how you have delegated tasks and what is being done or not done. If you are a businessman in charge of a team of employees you will also need to watch all the moving parts within the organization to be sure that nothing is slipping. No matter what kind of organization you lead, one gear out of whack can throw off the whole system.

When you work with horses, awareness is also a critical skill. I used to ride with a group of other people and we would have our horses tied up in a row along a fence so we could groom and saddle them. I learned the hard way that I couldn’t always know for sure that horses would behave predictably, especially since sometimes a new horse was introduced to the group. When passing by the row from the back I startled one horse and I was kicked!  It was lucky that it was a minor issue and no one was seriously injured, but I became much more alert about my surroundings while maintaining a relaxed attitude that wouldn’t trigger anxiety in people or horses. This was a valuableleadership skill for me.

This relaxed attitude is another quality that comes in very handy for both leaders and horse people. It has to do with maintaining a sense of positivityat all times while dealing with people and animals. I have worked in a setting where my employees were young college students and they were sensitive to my moods and the tone of my voice. If I was angry or acted with low energy they would pick up on this and reflect my own attitude back to me. I didn’t try to cover up my feelings or push away my problems, but I did learn to take a deep breath and relax before starting my day. I would tell myself positive things about how the day would go. My attitude carried over. 

Horses are even more sensitive than people when it comes to our state of mind. If you are riding and you become anxious about falling or angry with your horse because of a poor training session, the horse will sense what you are feeling. Tense horses aren’t going to learn easily and they aren’t going to move forward with confidence and fluidity. We must maintain positivity as much as possible when we are working with our horses.

Communicationis another major key for leaders and horse handlers. You may have been involved in a school or business situation where communication wasn’t good. This can be due to language barriers or just due to people who don’t convey their intent in a skilled way. When you are asked to perform a task and you think you understand, you hope to complete the task and feel a sense of accomplishment. If it turns out that there was no understanding, you might instead be criticized for not doing what you were asked to do. This is terrible for morale since you did your best.

When we communicate with horses, the horse learns what we are asking for and we learn what the horse is thinking. Dan, one my favorite mentors used to tell me that when I trained a horse I should “make it easy for the horse to do the right thing” and make it “tougher to do the wrong thing.” I was having difficulty with one of the new horses at his stables since the horse would move away from the rider during the mounting process. I was still new to horse training at the time and I was having trouble. My mentor, Dan, watched for a few minutes and then showed me that I was teaching the gelding to step away from me. Each time I would put my foot in the stirrup, the horse moved away and I stepped down. I would verbally scold the horse while he stood still. 

My mentor told me that I was allowing my horse to rest and do nothing which accidentally “rewarded” him for stepping away. Dan took the reins and started to mount. When the horse moved away, Dan did step down since most of the riders would have to do the same. Instead of leading the horse stand still, though, Dan quickly shook the reins and made the horse back up quickly and even when the gelding wanted to stop, he was pushed further. Dan was making it difficult for the horse to rest after doing the “wrong” thing. The horse quickly learned that standing still while being mounted got him a better rest than moving away. This was all a matter of communication. I wasn’t communicating what I wanted in a way that the horse understood but when Dan took over, he communicated well and rewarded the horse for doing the right thing.

Awareness, positivity and good communication are all vital qualities for those learning how to lead well and for those working with horses. The great thing about horses is that they will naturally teach their handlers how to do these things better!  Horses bring out the best leadership skills in us and we can carry those forward and utilize them in other aspects of life.