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I recently had the opportunity to attend a leadership workshop led by Axiom Equine on Vashon Island, Washington. It wasn’t my first experience around horses, but it had been years since I’d interacted and attempted to forge a relationship with this very large animal. Axiom’s goal with their workshops is “to help others recognize the signs and symptoms of the unconscious gap between their action and intention.” Thanks to the horses I worked with and the team of trainers at Axiom Equine, the learning I experienced during the full-day leadership workshop was powerful. Not only did I learn more about these graceful, trusting giants, the feedback the horses provided also revealed new insights about who I am as a leader and how I interact with others.

Horses (and teams) are guided by their leader’s level of confidence.

It was immediately clear that horses gauge their readiness for a task based on the sense of confidence and direction their leader demonstrates. If I wanted a horse to follow me I had to learn the dance of both leading and yielding to my four-legged friend. Demonstrating this dance was natural for me when we were weaving in and out of a series of poles collaborating and navigating our course together. But when we were moving into the course or coming out of the series of poles my level of confidence faltered and my partner wandered away.

During one exercise, without realizing it, my body language changed and the horse sensed the hesitancy that I didn’t even realize in the moment was happening. He immediately stopped following me and it took some time of leading and yielding to gain back his trust to follow me. I learned I had to be mindful of not only my words, but also my body language, eyes, and tone of voice to elicit the confidence needed to ensure the horse understood that I knew where we were headed. If I didn’t convey confidence with every part of my body, the horse would doubt our direction and veer off path.

For my role as a leader this helped me see that while I may think I’m demonstrating that I know where we’re headed and have a clear understanding about the next course of action, the team—like the horse I worked with—will sense any uncertainty I have about our direction and decisions. As a result of my subconscious cues, they may lose confidence, feel unsure about their role, or be concerned about the road ahead.

Lesson learned: When we are aware of all that we’re communicating through our words, actions, and subconscious signals, we are better equipped to lead our teams.

Horses (and people) are shaped by previous encounters.

Although you know what you bring to the stable, you don’t always know what past human experiences the horse is bringing — with a rider, owner, or previous trainer. For better or worse, those experiences shape horses. We may or may not be aware of those experiences but our reactions to the ways in which those experiences are revealed through a horse’s behavior are important to our relationship with the horse today.

Similarly, previous employment experiences shape the people with whom we work. Our reactions to those experiences have an impact. For example, do we see and differentiate someone’s behavior as:

  • Bossy or brave?
  • Intimidating or confident?
  • Greedy or ambitious?

While we all show up with some baggage, how we see those previous experiences in others’ behaviors makes all the difference in how we are able to leverage each other’s experiences to strengthen the team.

Lesson learned: When we consider how people show up, we can reframe our perspective from the negative to the positive. As members of a team, we can leverage these positives to make us stronger.

Horses live in the moment.

As I worked with the horses throughout the day, I realized I had to be attuned to them and be present in the moment. Rather than focusing on the outcome of an activity, the next step we had to take, or completing the workshop with a “perfect score”, I had to breathe. More importantly, I had to be willing to receive, trust, and yield to what these horses were willing to teach me.

As leaders, we’re often focused on the next challenge even before we’re out of the gate. That’s understandable. When you’re responsible for leading a team to implement against a strategy and deliver as per the plan, forward-thinking is part of the job requirements. But those next steps aren’t possible if we don’t also allow ourselves to be in the present moment and allow space to build, enjoy, and feed the relationships that make progress possible.

Lesson learned: When we are present in the moment, and attuned to those around us, we’re able to trust and receive in ways that will help us move forward and meet challenges.

I didn’t anticipate learning so much new information about myself from spending a day with horses. But in fact these unexpected teachers provide a powerful and direct means of bringing students like me to a place where I was open and able to discover important lessons about how I show up as a leader. The true sign that my experience at Axiom Equine had a real impact is that I can’t wait until I get to hang out with those giant, trusting teachers again. I know they have more to reveal.