Horse Sense…

“… the intellectual ability of people who exceed others in practical wisdom.”

Horse sense is the thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people.” – W.C. Fields

Equine-Assisted Learning

We have almost forgotten how strange a thing it is that so huge and powerful and intelligent an animal as a horse should allow another, and far more feeble animal, to ride upon its back.” – Peter Gray

Horse Farm 2 Nov 4 10 (2019_06_01 05_07_23 UTC)

Before I begin, I need to bring full disclosure to this post – I’m a city guy who knows very little about horses, but what I do know, I’ve learned from master horse whisperer, Beth McCann, owner of Nobodaddy Farm, north of Hershey.  Thanks to my colleague, Melissa McNair, I was introduced to Equine-Assisted Learning about fifteen years ago, where teams come together and use the wisdom of the horses to learn more about themselves.

I’ve taken a few teams through the experience and have found it to be transformative.  Beth begins by sharing a bit about horses (that I never understood until she did):

  • That horses are “prey animals” and, as such, the herd is essential to survival.
  • They only see in black and white, but see over 700 shades, which enables them to see movement much more quickly than we can discern.
  • They can see out of one eye in order to assimilate what’s going on around them, but also can focus on a given object with both eyes.
  • They find safety in numbers but also experience contests for who the leader of the herd is. Younger horses often challenge older leaders.
  • Humans need to establish relationship with a horse before he or she will allow you to ride, lead, bridle, clean, or saddle. Without relationship, you’re a threat.

Can you begin to see how the horses have much to teach us about leadership and organizational behavior?

In Equine-Assisted Learning, the participants are given a set of challenges to accomplish, usually in groups of two or three with no talking.  There’s no “riding” the horses.  Oh, and did I mention that most of these people are just like me – no experience with horses, so there are usually no “experts” in the ring except Beth.

One, particularly memorable “team-experience” activity required the entire team to stand in a circle around a pony and lightly touch each other’s hands and, by sheer will and presence, keep the pony in the circle.  The pony is smart enough to know who’s serious and who isn’t.  After all, the circle is either a safe place or not, and remember that they’re on the watch for safety and security.

One group I worked with had two guys who were not serious about the experience.  They were laughing and joking around during this exercise.  And the pony came up to them and walked right between them out of the circle.  He knew where the weakest link was and exploited it.

We called a timeout and explained the point of the exercise – that as leaders and teams, we need to make people assess that it’s safe for them to do their best work and that it takes all of us to create the safe space in which we can get our work done.  Sometimes success is only achieved through collective commitment.  But these two guys kept on talking and joking.  When we reconvened the circle, the pony came up to them and this time, stopped and pooped right in front of them before walking out of the circle between them.  They seemed to get the point after that.  Horses don’t “beat around the bush.”

Camp Grandma

All horses deserve, at least once in their lives, to be loved by a little girl.”

Beth, Ella and Preslie

My granddaughters, Ella (left) and Preslie, with Beth McCann.

For some reason, I’m surrounded by girls who love horses.  My sister, Emily, loved horses when she was a little girl and she had horse pictures and horse books adorning her room.  My wife loves horses and briefly took riding lessons early in our marriage.  My two granddaughters, Ella and Preslie, love horses and for the last several years, whenever they come for visit, I ask Beth to give them a “lesson” (how much can you learn once or twice a year?).  This past August, I saw the experience differently.

They arrived for “Camp Grandma” on a Saturday, knowing that the horse farm – the high point of the week – wouldn’t happen until Friday.  All week, the weather forecast was checked, preparations were made and the night before, they laid out their clothes, went to bed early, and made sure they had a good breakfast before we headed out for Nobodaddy Farm.

Beth greeted them and immediately put them to work, brushing the horses, carrying the tack, and helping her.  She insists that they do the work, not simply “go for a ride.” They prepared themselves with the proper boots, helmets, and led the two horses into the riding ring.  Beth was constantly instructing and encouraging them and finally, they were up and riding.

Ella and Beth

What I heard from Beth as she worked with Ella made me immediately think about leadership (and the genesis of this blog post).

  • “Ella, breathe. Don’t hold your breath.  Inhale deeply and exhale deeply.”
  • “Keep your hands forward. The horse knows where your hands are.”
  • “Work with your eyes. Look corner to corner.  To be the leader, you have to know and look where you’re going.  If you look where you’re going and focus on being the leader and riding him, it will help you calm down.”
  • “Sit tall and relax your elbows. Bend your knees and have your feet under you.  Use your core muscle. Shoulder blades back.”

That sounds like a lot for an 11-year-old to remember, but Beth constantly reminded her of these principles and called her attention to them when she was and wasn’t doing them.  And Ella rode better than she ever had, for longer than she ever had, with less help than she ever had.  Her confidence grew and she left the horse farm happy and joyful.  And she’ll begin regular riding lessons in Richmond, VA this month.

Horses and Leadership

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from a horse master. He told me to go slow to go fast. I think that applies to everything in life. We live as though there aren’t enough hours in the day but if we do each thing calmly and carefully, we will get it done quicker and with much less stress.” – Viggo Mortensen

What does all this have to do with leadership?

  • Bob Dunham defines leadership presence as “showing up with heart, energy, and presence in alignment with your words.” Bob writes, “Our bodies are always speaking louder than our mouths. What we communicate is most fundamentally shaped by our presence, and whether it is coherent or not with our message.” (“Leadership Presence – Where are You?”  Institute for Generative Leadership, 12/2/2013).  Our breath is affected by our emotional state and deep breathing can help relax the body and produce clarity of thought.
  • If you constantly know and look where you’re going and help others to see that destination and why it matters, you’ll more likely be engaged with people differently and that will contribute to enthusiasm and commitment. If you focus on where you’re going and your leadership responsibilities, you’ll calm down.  When you’re calm, your people will calm down.  A leader’s emotional state is a strong influence with those he or she leads.
  • Every athlete knows the importance of “center” – the area about two inches below the navel and the set of “core” muscles. It’s the source that generates power in virtually any sport – hitting a baseball, pitching, shooting a basketball, kicking a soccer ball.  “Centering” is an important concept for leaders as well.  Being able to find your center, breathe deeply into it and get in touch with what is has to say can be an additional source of wisdom that can help generate leadership presence and different ways of thinking.




© Geoff Davis, 8/23/19

4 thoughts on “Horse Sense…

  1. Brian H Norcross


    Another great leadership blog. I wanted to share a horse lesson that I learned about conducting. I attended the PA Horse show in Harrisburg with my daughter. I had little interest or experience with horses, but she was really into riding, so it was a dad thing to do. As I walked through the exposition I could feel my brain beginning to atrophy. This was not interesting to me. Come lunch time we grabbed something to eat and sat down around an indoor horse ring, where a trainer was demonstrating “leashless” training. By using hand gestures, and very gentle use of a small whip, the trainer was able to motivate the horse to go where they wanted the horse to go. They only used positive reinforcement, but also had immediate high expectations. If the horse didn’t respond the way the trainer wanted, there was immediate hand gestures that let the horse know. As soon as the horse was headed in the right direction, there was immediate positive reinforcement with hand gestures. It was a conducting lesson! Later that day we attended a show with horse trainer Tommie Turvey. Using only hand gestures his horses responded in amazing ways. But during the show one horse choose to behave unexpectedly. Tommie stopped the show and said to the audience, “You all understand, I have to deal with this now.” He and the horse went to one end of the ring and had a little chat and reviewed some hand signals combined with positive reinforcement. Tommie then left the horse standing where they had talked and walked to the center of the ring. He did a hand gesture and the horse galloped to his side and with another hand gesture sat down next to Tommie, and received more positive reinforcement. The crowd went crazy and I had just learned another lesson in leadership and conducting. You can learn a lot from horses. Be positive, but have high expectations, and always be consistent.
    Brian Norcross

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