10 Leadership Secrets Whispered by Horses

10 Leadership Secrets Whispered by Horses

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Why Will a Horse Allow You to Ride Him into Battle?

I was having a Twitter conversation with Daniel Berman (@danielcberman) this morning about horses, and I had some thoughts that just wouldn’t fit in 140 characters.

I was talking to Daniel about how smart horses are. They aren’t smart in the same way we are. They are smart in the ways they need to survive. Since horses are prey animals, they must always be aware of their environment. Their survival depends on being able to discern what is dangerous and what is not. If they perceive something to be dangerous, they are hard coded to run. On the other hand, they can’t run at every leaf that rustles in the bushes. As a result, horses are black belts at reading body language.

Daniel then asked an astute question: “Why do horses allow us to ride them into battle?”

My tweet was: “Leadership. Develop a strong relationship with your horse, and he will follow you anywhere. Same w/ people.”

Here’s the part that doesn’t fit in a tweet:

Horses crave leadership. In a wild herd, the lead stallion or mare, or the two working as a team, are always on the look out for danger. This allows the rest of the herd to relax and graze. When you meet a horse for the first time, his biggest question to you is, “Can you keep me safe?” If you can show the horse that you can be an effective leader and keep him safe, he will be happy to let you lead him.

As your relationship grows, and the horse trusts you more and more, the two of you will be able to work together and do things you could not do separately. This includes going into battle.

The same thing works with people. Most people are better followers than leaders. They are happy to let someone tell them what to do and where to go. When a leader can convince his followers that he has a vision and can protect them, they will follow him anywhere.

Horses are great teachers of leadership. If you are not an effective leader, your horse will not follow you. Unlike with people, a horse’s feedback on your leadership skills are unadulterated, immediate, and honest. There is no pretense. You are either a good leader or you are not. The horse will follow you only if you can lead.

9 comments to Why Will a Horse Allow You to Ride Him into Battle?

  • Hi Jay,
    I think this is the first time I have been the cause of someone else writing a blog post. Kinda of a little weird when it happens the first time. Wonderful post!

    Anyway you make some very astute observations, which are equally applicable with Horses as people.

    Now if I could only figure out why my Childhood horse wanted to take off at a dead run, the moment I was in the saddle. He was fine and quite handleable on the ground, and saddling, but the moment I touched the saddle He wanted to run. He wasn’t mad, unless I held him back to a trot. That’s one that will puzzle me for a lifetime.

  • admin


    Of course it’s hard to diagnose a problem from years ago, but I have a guess.

    It may be that your horse figured that it was expected of him to run. He may not have known anything different. I have seen this before. A previous owner may have held on to the bit really hard and only let it go when it was time to run. Your horse may have thought, “Person on back, no pressure on bit: I am expected to run.”

    If I were instructing you today, I would probably put you in an arena with just you and your horse. Ask him to go, and let him run for as long as you like. You’d have to have the courage to hang on and ride him out, though. It wouldn’t take but five minutes before he would be breathing hard and tired. He would suddenly say, “Why am I running?” You would allow him to stop and rest a minute or so. Then, ask him to go again. If he runs again, let him, but I guarantee he won’t go as long.

    Eventually, when you ask him to go, he will move at a walk. Stop with a few steps and praise him mightily. Let him rest a long time. Ask again for him to move. About this time he’ll be saying, “Really? It’s OK if I just walk?” “Yup, buddy, let’s just walk.” Both of you would be a lot happier.

    The point is that it is the horse’s choice to stop running. And reinforce that idea with praise and rest. That’s the point you two start communicating and forming a partnership.

    How many times have you heard someone say, “But, that’s the way we’ve always done it?” And even though you are suggesting a better way, they resist the change? It’s a similar problem.

    One time I went into a colleague and said, “Kathy, I have written a new computer program that will make your daily balancing easier.” Kathy told me that she knows and understands how her system works now, even though it’s a lot of work. Rather than insisting that she use the new program, I just said, “OK. I have an easier way to get your work done. When you are ready to use it, I’ll be here.” She came in the next day and asked how to use the new program. I set up the situation to help her change her mind, but it was her idea.

  • Hi Jay, in re: my horse, that was probably the right thing to do. I think the big thing was I didn’t have the courage to let him run, a. for fear of getting throne at speed and b. for fear of getting throne at speed into the fence or fence posts in our arena. Unfortunately, I never gave him the chance to choose to stop running. He had heart, and He was large and powerful but somewhere the partnership was never fully realized. At minimum a cautionary tale.

  • Jay Koch

    Ah! There’s the hard part. That courage thing.

    In a horsemanship clinic one time, I saw a woman who had a problem with a runaway horse. The instructor stopped the clinic and told everyone else to watch. He told her to just let her horse run. I could see that she was afraid, but she had faith that the instructor would not lead her astray. With his leadership, she was able to conquer her fear and allow that horse to run.

    So, again, trust in the leader is key.

    It’s unfortunate that you did not have someone to lead you through this problem when you were a kid. I don’t know if I would have had the courage to just let my horse run. But if my instructor told me it was OK, I would do it. You probably would have, too, if there were someone to guide you through it.

  • Read with interest your take on horses and leadership. Have a few questions, How do you know that horses crave leadership from a human? Do horses ever view humans, who are predators, as an Alpha mare or herd stallion? That seem to be a pretty big leap of faith. Or could the response you are getting be attributed to something else?

    Also, are there times when you would tell someone not to let their horse just run? It has been proven that horses are creatures of habit, if they find the release from pressure in running will they not learn to keep running? and what about those of us who do not have the skills to sit on a run away horse? Isn’t there an easier way to control the horse?

  • john shipe

    Hi Jay,
    I did what you said (I always do what I’m told – just ask my wife) and checked out your website. It is fun and enlightening! With respect to Dan Koch – He might want to check his premise that man, by nature, is a predator.
    Bless you and yours!

  • […] Why Will a Horse Allow You to Ride Him into Battle? […]

  • I love horses, I have never had one of my own though and would love.
    I have really enjoyed reading this post and comments and other blogs
    as well. Will be looking for your tweets.

  • alba

    Good POV. Was wondering myself :) I know some horses (just like people) are competitive but except for the 3 ninjas who want to fight when asked I just said that they’re broken and that’s why they do what they’re told. Your way sounds better. :)

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