You Lead Like This – Stop Horsing Around!

horse and rider cr

Leading by example – whether you like it or not, as a leader, that’s what you do. Everything you do trickles down and has an impact on your people and those in your circle, whether you lead from the front, or lead from behind. In fact, you are training your people by the way you interact, communicate, and handle challenges. And that’s not all! Your attitudes, habits, fears, etc. are influencing your people in powerful ways too. The question is, are modeling what you want to be modeling?

Recently my husband and I began watching a Canadian TV series called Heartland. It’s a wholesome binge-worthy watch with more than 12 seasons to indulge in during the pandemic. In a nutshell, Amy, one of the main characters, works with horses that have behavioral issues. Some horses misbehave because of trauma or physical/health issues in the same way that trauma and physical/health issues cause humans to act out. What I’ve learned as we have been watching the show is that most of the time the real issue behind a horse’s bad behavior is actually an issue with the rider, not with the horse.

So, what does all this have to do with leaders?

Well, I’m glad you asked! While riders often blame their horses for misbehaving, leaders often blame their people for the issues in the workplace.

Ideally, there is a synergy between a horse and rider and they ride as one unit. Problems arise when the rider has bad habits like slouching, leaning too far forward or too far backward, making it harder for the horse to do its job. Seemingly small things like gripping with your legs, leaning into the turns, or keeping your elbows too stiff throw a horse off. These poor habits affect the rider’s balance and send the horse the wrong message.

Think about it this way – it’s a little like making typos: your keyboard does exactly what you tell it to, but you don’t always tell it to do the right thing. Riders inadvertently send the wrong message to their horse and the horse obeys. Horses, like humans aren’t mind readers. They do exactly what you tell them to do, not what you want them to do.

Here’s a common problem a horse might have: they resist getting into the horse trailer. There are some understandable reasons why. First of all, horses don’t like the dark. If a horse has experienced reckless driving while in a trailer, they will not be eager to get back in. And if a rider coaxes a horse into a trailer with a carrot before getting into the trailer, they are ensuring that the horse will not get into the trailer. The reward is only effective if it is offered after the horse gets into the trailer.

There are other examples, but I’m guessing you get the drift. In many ways, riders create their own problems and then blame their horse. Sadly, leaders often make the very same mistake!

So how do you resolve horse issues? The same way you handle your people problems: you back up and retrain. But before you do that, it’s an excellent idea for you to first….

1. Look In The Mirror

Just like horses naturally respond to the information that comes their way, humans do too! You have to pause and ask yourself, “What role am I playing in this situation?” What are you really modeling? What are you actually communicating?

Most riders have no idea that they are contributing to the issues their misbehaving horse has. And many leaders are unaware of how their actions, or lack of action, contribute to the problems they experience with their people.

In the book Integrity by Dr. Henry Cloud, he talks about the “wake” that people leave behind them. By that he means how your intentions, actions, and communications impact that people around you. Being unaware of the “wake’ you leave behind may be limiting your ability to influence and be contributing to the problems you’re having with those you lead.

Taking a good look in the mirror and exploring the ways you might be contributing to the problem is something leaders needs to do before assigning blame to their people. That’s a hard pill to swallow, but  the good news: if you are a part of the problem, you can do something about it!

2. Deepen Relationships

Sometimes a horse misbehaves because of the experiences they’ve had with other riders. The same is true with your people. We all come with baggage; experiences that cause us to act in funky ways.

Take the time to get to know your people at a deeper level. What experiences have they had with other leaders? How are those experiences contributing to the problems you might be noticing now?

You have an opportunity as a leader to redeem how the people on your team view leaders…or you can reinforce those negative experiences.

When a horse is in pain, it may resist doing activities that trigger that pain. Your people may have painful things going on physically or in their personal life that are contributing to them not performing the way you would like. Taking the time to understand what’s going on is a helpful starting place to determine the best way to respond.

Most people want a leader that takes the time to get to know them, know their strengths, and understand their personal goals. When they feel understood and appreciated, they are more likely to cooperate and respond to gentle redirection.

3. Build Trust

In order for a horse to trust the rider, they need to know that you will…

  • Provide enough food and water
  • Invest time in them – talk to them, go on walks, groom them, and offer occasional treats
  • Be there when they need you
  • Comfort and help the horse relax
  • Not overwork them
  • Help them confront fears
  • Develop and train them
  • Not allow the horse to take advantage of the rider

Hmmm…think about it – these are the same needs that the individuals on your team have!

And remember, nothing breaks trust faster than not doing what you said you would do!

4. Lead!

If you give a horse an inch, they will take a mile! As a rider, it’s up to you to maintain the upper hand and be the one in charge. If you aren’t the one in charge, the horse certainly doesn’t mind filling those shoes.

As a leader, you don’t want to be a dictator! That style of leadership has been out of vogue for a while! You want to be someone worth following – someone that collaborates with your people, plays to their strengths, and has their goals in mind whenever possible. Your job is to facilitate the process. If you do that well, your people will be more engaged, happier, and less likely to cause problems!

I’ll be honest – I’m no horse expert. In fact, I am highly allergic to horses! Even a quick ride has me all itchy, sneezy, and running straight for the shower immediately following a ride. As a kid, I was willing to put up with that kind of nonsense, but as an adult, not so much! What I do know, is that there are some fantastic leadership lessons to be learned from the relationships between horses and their riders!

Making a few changes in how you lead just might eliminate or lesson the problems you are having with your team! That’s encouraging! You don’t have to operate at the mercy of your people.

What change would make a positive difference in your ability to lead?

What are your leadership challenges costing you? Ready to remove the barriers and lead with confidence so that you can influence your people more positively? Take the next step: schedule your complimentary consultation here.

© Can Stock Photo / Nejron

Marvae Eikanas

Marvae Eikanas is an author, entrepreneur, ICF certified coach, Career Direct Consultant, DISC consultant, and HBDI practitioner. She helps her coaching clients sharpen their skills, face their fears, eliminate funky mindsets, hone their habits, and cultivate clarity so they can THRIVE personally and professionally. Schedule a consultation with Marvae here.


  1. Patti Harris on July 8, 2020 at 9:46 am

    Great advice! Thanks Marvae!

  2. Marvae Eikanas on July 8, 2020 at 9:59 am

    Thanks Patti!

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