Leadership coaching, with Horses
And the difference between knowing and experiencing
During the pandemic I’ve been assisting my team lead with the multi-year plan for my company. I’ve invested quite some energy in that, and this didn’t went unnoticed by my lead and his. I’ve received a voucher with a certain amount of credit that I could spend on an activity that would help me progressing in my career. I chose to do something ‘different’. I chose to do a leadership coaching session with horses.
Horses hold no grudge, no future, no history. They are not opinionated by the clothes you wear, the words you speak or any of the things we value highly as humans. They drill right through these layers of facades and act like a mirror on what’s beneath.
Now, I’m not a spiritual person. Science is my go-to place to understand the universe. I believe in logical explanations, so this horse mirror stuff cannot be the magical fairydust that slips through the cracks right?
That’s right. Horses are naturally prey animals, rather than predators. And it’s easy to recognise.
- They do not having an intimidating set of teeth ready to devour you
- they move in groups and outnumber potential predators in masses
- they are fast and skittish, built to run away from danger
- their eyes are on the sides of their head, allowing them a more all-round view to observe predators sneaking up on either sides of them
In other words, years and years of evolution went into evolving the brain of a horse to be able to scan its environment to make sure it is safe. They search for, and understand who to rely on in case of emergency. They need to understand who’s friend and who’s foe, who’s leader and who’s follower as a necessity to be able to survive.
It was a beautiful day and there were two horses standing in front of me chewing away grass in this big field. ‘You can pick the horse you’d like to work with’, the nice lady in front of me said. I hesitated a bit. Both of the horses had different traits, but one of them intimidated me. He was big, and with big I mean, BIG. At least, to me he was.
I’m here to learn, and that one intimidates me. I’d like to work with that one please.
In the past years I’ve learnt that growth is obtained by being in the zone of discomfort. It sharpens you and resets your perception. As a matter of fact, I’ve learnt about this during a small study artificial intelligence as well. Adding variety to your experiences enables your feedback loop to recalibrate to a new standard. Anyways, I diverge.
She retrieved the horse from the field and brought it to me. I felt intimidated, but I also felt energised. I knew that even if nothing would work out, this step and realisation was already worth it.
What I’ve learnt
We started doing some walking exercises. Now, looking back on it, I see that I’ve learnt a couple of things, and I’d like to document and share those with you.
Especially big things like to follow
Groups need a leader. This huge horse symbolised a big group for me. It’s intimidating. It has more strength, more speed, more mass than I do. My gut says it intimidates the shit out of me. But the reality is that it likes to be safe and to be lead by someone that has a clear goal and purpose.
This is no different than when standing in front of a group and telling them where to go. You aren’t telling them, you are helping them. This is such a contrast to what I’ve felt before. Groups, like horses, actually want to be helped. The fact that they accept you walking in front of them, means that they trust you to help them a bit further. This helps me come out of the imposter syndrome a bit.
They decide themselves who to follow. Not the leader.
Be creative in interventions
My natural way of intervening the behaviour of the horse was by changing direction. I knew that I wouldn’t have the strength to pull him where I wanted him to go. So instead I took a sharp turn, which turned his neck, which made him require to move his foot, which I rewarded by loosening the line. This made him move with me for quite some time, but at a certain moment he was done.
The intervention that I lacked in my arsenal however, was being more firm and demanding. “Come on!” and a pat on the back already did the trick. But it didn’t come natural to me. I tend to go into self doubt and analysis, which is in fact detrimental for leverage in the situation.
The horse notices that I’m unsure, you shouldn’t follow unsure members of the herd, I’ll stop here and eat some until you’ve figured your shit out.
The horse notices that I know where I’m going, I have a goal and purpose for him and expect him to follow. There must be good food there if this guy is so sure!
When you have a goal, don’t shy away from taking different, and even stronger measures to get there.
Don’t expect others to see what you see
To me, the goal was super clear, we walk this circle. You follow me. I’ll be good to you.
But the vision that I have isn’t necessarily understood by the people that follow me. I tend to show people where we should go, and expect them to understand how to get there themselves. In this case, the horse followed me for a quarter of a circle and stopped there. As if to say, dude where were we going again? My takeaway was that I need to not only show, but also guide more. That doesn’t come naturally to me, since the route often seems so obvious to me.
One thing that helped during coaching was looking clearly towards where we want to go. Your entire body needs to be in line with your goals. Otherwise the goal is probably less important than I seemed it to be. That’s a common pitfall in organisations as well. We tend to get so distracted, that we forget to bring people along to the places where we need them to be.
Be sensitive for the perception of those that follow
When the session was over, we spoke a bit on the field. I felt empowered. All tension was gone. The interesting thing was that the horse still stood next to me, as if it was listening in on the conversation. I was rewarding him with my hands and made him feel seen and valued. I did it naturally without being asked or told by anyone. He felt safe, he felt well treated.
We’ve helped each other that day. It was a two way exchange.
I already knew these things, but I’ve never seen them so well played out before me. By working with this horse I very vividly understood my position on these matters and saw how I could improve. More than I thought it would beforehand. Even more than I thought it would during the session. I can definitely recommend coaching with horses combined with a personal retrospective.