10 Leadership Secrets Whispered by Horses

10 Leadership Secrets Whispered by Horses

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Using Her Feet

In the summer of 1998, I spent six weeks at Pat Parelli’s International Study Center in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. In addition to all of the horsemanship I learned in that course, I learned some things about leadership and management. One lesson came from riding up a mountainside.

The ride would start out pleasant enough. We’d ride up a path to the edge of Pat’s property, then follow a forest service road for about a half mile. Then, we would leave the road and head up a ravine. The path would give way to a rocky creek bottom that got narrower and steeper as we went higher. The first couple of times I rode up there, I got off because I was afraid my horse would fall in the steepest parts. There were a couple of times when she did go to her knees on the rocks while I was on her back.

Over the course of the six weeks, we probably went up that path six or seven times. Although I sort of got used to it, I was cursing Pat under my breath most of the way most of the time. I remember the misery, but I also remember how wonderful it was to get to the top and look out north over the San Juan River valley around Pagosa Springs and south to New Mexico. That hardship also taught me to not be afraid of climbing steep or narrow passages. Several times since that summer, my wife and I have been on rides that others thought were scary, but to us, they were nothing compared to the rides Pat took us on. So, for every time that I cursed Pat I have thanked him a dozen times since then.

But, as usual, the biggest lesson I learned from those rides was about my relationship with my horse. At first, I would decide each step Baby would make. “Go to the left of this rock. Step around this log. Be careful: this rock looks loose and slippery.” Some time after we had made this trip more than once, I realized that Baby knew better than I do where to put her feet. My job was to decide where to go. Her job was to figure out how to get there. If she wanted to go to the right of the rock, rather than to the left, she knew the best way to get there. Her innate abilities to choose the best path was much better than anything I could learn to do. They are her feet, after all.

So, I often just dropped the reins and let Baby follow the horse in front of her. I think she appreciated not being yanked on so much and allowed to do what she knew best. And just maybe she was watching the horse in front of her to learn where to step. Sometimes we took the same steps as the horse in front, and sometimes we didn’t. But, it was Baby’s decisions that got us up and down that hill.

Looking back, it was when I began to understand the difference between being a manager and being a leader. I was managing Baby when I told her the path to take. I became a leader when I set the agenda and let her choose the path.