Learning from horses

Jun 18 2014 by Lisa Brice Print This Article

Great leaders are empathetic. They understand that communication and relationships are enhanced by someone else’s perspective. Horses are prey animals. Humans are predators. Our wiring is completely different. Horses’ primary instinct is awareness, their second is flight. As prey animals, their survival depends on reading the environment for signs of danger. Humans are into focus. Horses are concerned about how they are going; humans tend to be concerned about where they are going.

Working with the horses allows us to really understand a perspective that is completely different to our own. So if we can find a way to build rapport and gain the trust of a completely different species, it will be so much easier to handle the human-to-human confrontations or mis-communications that we all come across in our working lives.

Horses play “push or be pushed”; they push each other into boundaries to establish the hierarchy in the herd; they need to know who will lead them from danger should the need arise. The leader of the herd is the horse who is the most aware.

By mirroring a horse’s communication strategies we can become the “better horse”. By accepting a human as his leader, a horse can relax. If he can trust us to protect him, he doesn’t have to be scanning the environment for potential predators. So as with any successful leader-follower relationship, there is a win-win.

Consider the meta-message you are communicating

In times of challenge and change, leadership success relies largely on our ability to communicate. But it isn’t so much what we say that matters as how we say it - and how others understand what we have said. Non-verbal cues are a critical part of our communication, so it is important that our communication is aligned and congruent.

If our words say one thing but our body language and tone are saying another, then others will rely on the non-verbal clues to determine what we are really saying! In such situations, Albert Mehrabian attributes 93% of our communication as being non-verbal.

Horses are experts at reading body language - their survival depends on in it. After all, 100% of the horse’s communication is non-verbal. When we take away the words it allows us to focus on what is actually being said. One of the keys to effective communication with humans is the ability to heighten our sensory acuity and read the subtleties of body language. Working with the horses enables us to really experience the power and impact of our body language and non-verbal communication and get immediate feedback about the effect we are having.

Manage your emotional state

People often talk about being in the “zone”, in “the flow” or in the right frame of mind. Many situations can prevent us from being present; stress, a diary that is busting with back-to-back appointments, a challenging decision we need to make, concerns over production schedules, customer demands, a new launch etc.

We can all recognise times when we have been in a state of peak performance. HeartMath calls this state “coherence”, an optimal state in which the heart, mind and emotions are operating in-sync and balanced.

Physiologically, the immune, hormonal and nervous systems function in a state of energetic coordination. When we are coherent we are energetically centered, increasing mental and emotional flexibility and our capacity to be in charge of ourselves. We can avoid having an amygdala hijack and making a rash decision that could have serious ramifications.

The key to achieving high performance on demand is changing how our body, more specifically our heart, responds to negative emotions. Research shows that we naturally entrain to other people’s heart rhythms and can sense the electromagnetic transmission that is quite literally being pumped from the heart. We notice this when we have walked into a room where there has been an argument or when a colleague has just returned from a pressured meeting. As the leader your colleagues will be noticing this about you!

Interestingly when horses have been wired up to the HeartMath system, they have a consistent coherent heart rhythm (unless they are in flight). In other words, they are naturally in coherence. And because their heart is typically nine times bigger than ours, the electromagnetic field they transmit is significantly stronger. We, as humans, will entrain to their heart rhythm and this is part of the reason why people often purport to feel calm, even serene, and better able to focus on the task in hand and able to think creatively and strategically when they have interacted with the horses.

Horses are also masters at reading our electromagnetic field and so if we approach them in an incoherent state they will very quickly pick up on this and often move away from us. To them, as with humans, an incoherent heart rhythm is a sign of danger.

Trust and authenticity

Credible leaders are conviction-driven and have set of values that underpin their behaviour. Horses and people have a canny knack of knowing when we don’t have courage of our convictions and are not being true to ourselves.

So leadership starts from within. If we want to lead others we need to be personally aligned, otherwise people find us incongruent, inauthentic, don’t trust us and certainly won’t be led by us!

Horses establish the leadership position by invading each other’s space. They will move their foot just an inch or two or put an ear back to see if it is noticed. If it isn’t they assume a leadership role and completely invade the other horse or person’s space.

So if we want to earn the right to be the horse’s leader, we too must pay close attention to our personal boundaries and when they are being challenged. Horses, like children, employees and people in general, feel more comfortable when they know where the line is, what is acceptable and what isn’t.

Just like horses, people often test the boundaries of relationships. In times of challenge, change or difficulty they will do this even more really just to reassure themselves that they haven’t moved.

Defining our boundaries requires us to really pay attention to what is going on within the dynamic of the relationship. Great leaders notice the little things and take, consistent, action immediately.

Horses link trust and respect in their minds. If they can’t respect us then they can’t trust us to protect and lead them from danger. By gently reinforcing a consistent boundary we can earn the respect and consequently the trust of the horse.

Horses - and many people, too - view consistency as being the same as integrity. Trust, it is said, is built with consistency. People want to know where they stand and what our likely response will be in a given situation. So during difficult times, having a “bad day” is just as unacceptable when working with people as it is when working with horses.

Be aware, be present

Being ‘in the moment’ with people and actively listening is a key leadership skill. Horses live in the moment. They don’t post-rationalise situations and because they don’t distinguish their emotions from their behaviour, you can tell exactly how they are feeling at any given moment.

One of the key learnings people report from working with horses is how powerful it is be fully present and totally attentive to another being. People often spend their time worrying about what happened in the past and planning what will happen in the future. As a result, they’re not really present in the here and now when they interact with others.

Listening to what is being said and what is not being involves heightening our awareness and focusing 100% of attention on the other person. It is about being totally present with the other person and using all of ourselves, not just our ears, to listen. I like to call it ‘full body listening’. Just spend some time with a horse if you want to learn how to do it.


About The Author

Lisa Brice
Lisa Brice

Lisa Brice is a regarded trainer, executive coach and business consultant who specialises in using experiential learning in management, leadership and coaching programmes. She is the founder of Horses for Courses programmes , which combine her two biggest passions; unlocking people’s potential and horses.