Understanding how horses interact with one another, and how you interact with them, can help you determine and develop your leadership style in the workplace.
A long time ago, when I first started taking in horses to board, I noticed something strange. Every woman who brought in a mare for boarding claimed the horse was the alpha mare in the herd. How could this possibly be? Not every mare is alpha. At first, I considered all the human foibles — projection, pride, a thousand possibilities. But could all those women be wrong? I began to look very closely at herd dynamics in groups of horses. Who was really the leader, the “boss hoss”, the alpha? Who fell in the middle? Who was last in the pecking order?
The happy herd
I learned that a well run and happy herd is amorphous. Leadership changes constantly, as horses are needed for their skills in different areas. It’s not as simple as the lead mare leading the horses to food and the lead stallion fighting off invaders or chasing the stragglers. Horses who live in the same herd for a long time develop relationships. They have friends, enemies and “frenemies”. They have besties. Some bully the weak. Some protect the weak. Some are loners. Some are social. But they all have one overriding instinct: to survive in a herd.
Because of this, horses respect leaders who are sane, sensible and strong. They avoid the “bowling ball” — horses that smash into the herd with the intention of breaking them up and taking control. Those who kick and bite, trying to get to the top, are shunned. No horse wants a violent herd in which they have to constantly look over their shoulder to avoid being hurt. Horses aren’t going to follow someone who overreacts to every threat; they’d spend their lives spooking. Most horses don’t want to live in violence and fear. They seek peace, calm, friendship, entertainment and exercise.
Leaders emerge because of their intelligence and willingness to calm the others. But there often isn’t just one leader. It’s too hard a job for one horse. Horses take turns leading, according to their strengths. Some are, as Mark Rashid calls them, passive leaders. They stay behind the scenes, quietly surveying, usually while eating. They will alert the herd if either danger or dinner appears. They never fight because they are too smart for that and don’t want to be hurt. Some are active leaders, taking over when there are social issues that need to be resolved, a new horse in the herd, or someone making advances on their best friends. Another horse might take over when it’s time for entertainment, instigating races or play fights, or a round of pretty prancing. A good horse herd is a productive, peaceful team, led by consensus and multiple individuals with different styles of leadership.
Applying herd lessons to humans
What I learned from watching the herd, I applied to the human world in the areas of teambuilding and leadership. Human leadership styles vary wildly, and strategies depend on the task at hand. In The 8 Leadership Lessons from Nelson Mandela,* Richard Stengel explores leadership techniques that correlate strongly with the art of leading horses.
- Mandela’s first rule of leadership: “Courage is not the absence of fear — it’s inspiring others to move beyond it.” If you are leading a horse that spooks at an object, what is the first thing you do? Act calm. If you feed from your horse’s fear, you compound the cycle of fear. If you act brave and confront the obstacle with confidence, you can move the horse beyond it.
- Mandela’s second rule of leadership: “Lead from the front — but don’t leave your base behind.” If, when leading a horse, you get too far out in front of him, you lose sight of him. He loses confidence in a leader who is not paying attention to him. How can he pay attention to you if you are not paying attention to him? You have dropped the connection and the horse is no longer walking with you.
- Mandela’s third lesson of leadership: “You can only lead them from behind.” He draws this teaching from his childhood herding cattle. The lesson is to lead from the back — and let others believe they are in front. As horse people, we know that you can’t drag a horse anywhere; but if you send him forward from behind, he will go. Ground driving or long lining, in the right hands, is a good way to teach people about leading from behind. Without the energy to inspire the horse, it’s like pushing a rope up the street. With too much pressure from behind, it’s arena skiing. But a horse that goes freely in front develops confidence while still listening to the person behind him, and teamwork ensues.
I learned from horses that leadership is a big part of both herd dynamics and teambuilding. People, like horses, respond differently to leadership styles, and good leaders use a variety of styles to accomplish the task at hand.