More on Leadership and Relational Horsemanship

One day last month Galahad and I were walking by the barn. There was lots of commotion going on: They are putting a roof on the small arena, and things are a bit torn up. That day, the red arena gate was leaning against the hitching post, and there  was a black trash bag underneath it.

Well, Galahad took exception to the changes. As we got close, he pranced, he snorted, he danced and squirmed. His eyes got as big as saucers, and he made it known that this was NOT RIGHT. But interestingly, he never once pulled on the lead rope.

I pretty much ignored his reaction. We kept moving, and along the way I asked him to yield front and hind and back up for me. After that first pass, we made another, and another, and another, until finally he walked by the red gate without reacting.

Then he got curious, and on the next pass I let him stop and look at it. He jumped when I rattled that plastic bag, but quickly touched his nose to it to be sure it really was a plastic bag, not something deadly. Then he sighed and started asking to graze.

So: leadership. After I posted the entry about Dugan, Jay asked me to clarify a couple of things about relational horsemanship. He was concerned that some folks might misunderstand and think I was suggesting that relational horsemanship was all about the horse’s feelings, and letting him express them. Nope. If you do that, you’re apt to get hurt; if not that day, then sooner or later, because the horse is going to take advantage of you.

Relational horsemanship is actually about leadership more than anything else. Leadership, the way I practice it, is NOT about bossing people (or horses) around. Rather, true leadership is the art of getting your followers, or your horse, to cooperate and follow your lead willingly and enthusiastically because they trust you and want to do it.

I posted recently about the qualities of leadership that I find most important here. One of these seems to me particularly important in the episode of Galahad and the Gate. That is the fact that in true leadership (that is, in Relational Horsemanship), the follower is permitted, even expected, to have his or her own opinions. Galahad definitely had an opinion, and he expressed it; but he expressed it respectfully. As a leader, I considered his opinion, but I made the decision. And because he trusts me, because I am his leader, he did what I asked.

My issue with the way I handled Dugan is not that I didn’t lead, but that I led without consideration. I ordered Dugan to obey, rather than asking him to cooperate. It is quite true that Dugan might well have refused, and at that point, as the leader, I would have needed to insist on his cooperation–obedience, if you will. But relational horsemanship, and (IMO) good leadership, requires that we give our partner time to respond willingly.

Of course there are times when an emergency arises and we have to demand instant obedience. That’s part of leadership, too. But if we’ve taken the time to build a relationship of trust, our followers (horse OR human) will respond appropriately and immediately in that moment because they do trust us and accept our leadership.

One more thought on leadership: A leader always has to have a plan, or at least, she has to be able to act like she does. If a leader shows indecision, trust evaporates.

I was surprised when Galahad spooked at that red gate, because it didn’t look scary to me. But I had a plan–the same one that Jay taught me and that I use every time something like this happens. Keep his feet moving, keep going, and pretend the scary object doesn’t exist. And that’s what I did. Galahad didn’t doubt my leadership–he never tried to get away from me. He never pulled on that lead rope. All he did was express his fear, but because I didn’t acknowledge it as necessary (in fact, I ignored it), he soon calmed down.

(One of these days, maybe, I’ll be as good as Jay is: Galahad will come to believe that those scary things actually do not exist! We’re not quite there yet, but we’re on our way.)

Once Galahad’s fear was out of the way, his natural curiousity resurfaced. Only then did he get to investigate, and that, plus the grass, was his reward for trusting me.