Lessons from my horse – becoming your own best leader
As leaders, we need to know who we are, what we stand for and how we want to live our lives. We need to know how we want to treat others and how we want to be treated. We need to know what we believe in, what we want to create and what we want those around us to create.
Our first leaders as children are our parents. The more our parents know how they want to raise us, and if together can share a vision that both feel passionate about, the better adjusted we, as children, will be. That consistency, fairness, and lack of contradiction goes a long way in raising well-adjusted children. If our parents don’t share the same vision on how they want to raise their children, there are going to be a lot of arguments, inconsistencies and confusion.
A child won’t know what is right or wrong and may find it hard to know what is expected of them on a consistent basis. In some instances, they may not feel as they have a true leader, or may not know which “leader” they should follow and model after. Sometimes, in this case, they end up choosing on their own who they want to be, what they want to believe, and what they want to create in their lives.
Sometimes we are forced to become our own leaders, early on in life. Sometimes, when it is time to leave home and forge our own path, we become our own leaders later. Regardless of when this transition must be made.
We all choose to take on other leaders in our lives – coaches, mentors, or bosses. We thrive when we have great leaders and sometimes suffer when we don’t. If our inner leader has our best interests at heart, we will always find our way to the best possible forms of leadership to help us achieve our goals in sport and life.
Some of the most powerful lessons in leadership I learned from my horse. When I rescued my horse, I was a complete novice. The story goes like this: I remember Sarah my trainer saying, “Okay, you should watch your girl move in the arena.” She galloped with such insane speed and powerful strides – it absolutely blew my mind and scared the shit out of me! How in the world was I going to be the leader of this beast? Sarah smiled and said, “Show the same leadership skills you use when coaching your athletes. Don’t be intimidated. Be certain in your ability to guide Savannah and make her feel safe.” She continued: “You would never let your team of athletes push you around, so you cannot let your horse push you around. That would be especially dangerous! If you don’t provide the leadership, your horse will!”
I thought to myself, “The same holds true for my own leadership of myself. I can’t let myself walk all over me. I need to be certain in who I am – in my strength, my abilities, and my character. When I am in this space of truth, I will perform to my best as well.”
In providing leadership, the human owner needs to be CONSISTENT, CLEAR, CALM and FAIR. We also need to be authentic.
As athletes and human beings, we need to be the same – for ourselves. Know what you want. Have a vision. You will know it is your vision if it brings you passion and brings about emotion when you think about it! Be clear in your goals. Have a plan for how you will get from where you are to where you want to be. What needs to be done? How will you execute this? What do you do if things go wrong?
Be calm in executing the process through which you hope to achieve those goals. If you fall, get straight back up again. Learn from the disappointment, and slightly tweak your course. We fall many times before we rise to our greatest heights.
Be fair to yourself and to all those around you! Respect yourself; respect all those around you. When we can bring out the best of ourselves, we can bring out the best in all those around us. This will allow for an environment of the greatest possibility for not only success but also fulfilment.
A horse doesn’t care who you are, what you look like, what you have accomplished or how much money you make. They will give you honest feedback. If you are not leading them in a calm, clear and consistent manner, they will take over. If they sense confusion or uncertainty, inconsistency or irregular leadership they will perceive this as instability and will, therefore, take over. Their primary mission is to keep the herd safe. In taking over, they can become aggressive, anxious, fearful, frustrated and bump into you, literally to take your place.
If we, inside, as athletes are distracted in our mission, if we are up and down with our commitment, our training practices, our recovery or our self-care, our bodies will revolt. This is when injury or sickness can occur. This is when we plateau, and this is when we lose focus, and things can very quickly fall apart.
The goal as a horse owner, and leader is to get the horse to respect you, to trust you, to feel safe with you and to be willing to cooperate when you ask them to. The best relationships see the horse truly wanting to cooperate and be the best that they can be for you.
A balanced horse, with a good leader, has all the same traits as a balanced employee with a good leader. They are calm, willing, and cooperative. They are fulfilled physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually (proud and confident of who they are and what they represent). As athletes when we live balanced lives, our bodies respond in the most powerful ways. Doing our best in our training, taking care of our bodies, and taking care of our relationships all come together to create a beautiful framework through which to achieve your very best.
When we maintain balance and don’t make our sport the BE-ALL and END-ALL, that balance takes some of the pressure off. It saves us incredible amounts of energy – that, like gold, fills our pockets with all the reserves we need to dig deeper than we have ever dug before, on race day. When I mean balance, I don’t mean not giving 100% to your training and preparation for the BIG DAY. I mean having the ability to understand that taking care of your body, yourself, and all those around you will strengthen the foundation necessary to achieve your ultimate goals.
Horses are so honest and perceptive. They pick up the subtlest signals. Forget about trying to hide your fear or your anxiety or your frustration. They pick up on it, easily.
Your body also will respond to the subtlest signals of your anxiety, and fear, by slowing you down, and quickly sending you physical signals of pain and exhaustion. Your mind is there to protect you. It is there to protect you from pain and harm. So, if it senses your fear or your anxiety, it will likely send signals to your body that tell you to slow down or worse yet, to stop – to quit. Protect yourself.
So, like working with horses, when you are working with yourself really think about what you want to feel. If you want to feel strong, fast, powerful and resilient, you must think these thoughts. When the mind tries to sabotage your efforts by convincing you that it hurts too much and you should slow down, remind yourself that going fast hurts. So, pain is a good thing. It means you are working hard; it means you are racing to your potential. It means you are ALIVE and going after your dreams with all your heart!
This lesson doesn’t just work for horses and people – it works in business as well. People just like horses can pick up on nervous energy, angry energy or negative energy.
So, before you step into a potentially confronting situation or meeting, take a moment to take stock of your energy. Breathe. Try to relax. Set an intention for a positive outcome, or at least a peaceful outcome. Picture yourself bathed in love and light, and going into the meeting emitting that energy at all within the room. Instead of anticipating an unpleasant exchange taking place, set the intention of being able to resolve the issue with good communication, good energy and positive intent.
The same goes for setting the intention for race day. See the similarity? Horses are motivated to work for many different reasons. Some work for food and rest. Others work for safety and security. Others work to receive play as the reward. When they know, they get rewarded for their hard work; they are more likely to present their best selves forward and do the job with passion, focus and commitment.
What is your WHY for doing this sport? Why is this race so important to you? What will you feel if you have your perfect race on race day? How much joy will that bring you? What else will it bring you?
When you think of how good it will feel to race to your utmost potential, that intensifies the hunger you have for working hard, and doing absolutely everything you need to do, to make this dream come true.
Knowing your why is key to maintaining your best effort and best attitude day after day, after day, and especially on race day.
Horses teach us that we must be flexible! In life, and as leaders we all must be flexible. We can never assume that things will always play out in exactly the way we planned. What is the saying? ‘If you want to make God Laugh, make a plan!’ The best-laid plans don’t always work that way. It’s not about having the perfect ride on any given day, but instead, it’s about building a foundation for tomorrow’s ride.
I may show up to work with my horse in my one-hour break from work. I imagine that we are going to have an incredibly productive, perfect training session. I show up, and Savannah may have an attitude that day or an issue that prevents us from having the session I had anticipated. But instead of getting frustrated, or upset, I must think about what I will learn by working through this problem and how that will lay down the foundation for a better tomorrow.
You may not nail every session leading into your key race. You don’t have to. Know that through every successful session and every struggle, you are learning, growing and making progress. The greatest growth comes from struggle. So, embrace the struggle and don’t let those “bad days” get you down. Embrace them as part of the beautiful process.
On race day – the same thing. You cannot expect to have everything go perfectly on race day. Expect the unexpected but commit to keeping a strong mind, a positive and proactive attitude and a relentless spirit! I won a World Championship in 2001, off one of my worst swims ever. Had I given up then, I wouldn’t be a World Champion today. I just shook off my bad swim and said, “What can I do NOW to make this the best race possible?” I put my head down, dug deep and gave my best every second of the way. It led to the greatest accomplishment in my career.
The best horse/owner relationship has a true leader – the owner – but also allows for collaboration. We can learn so much from our horses. They often provide us with not just the ability to take us from point A to point B, but they take us on a much deeper, emotional journey. We can only benefit from these lessons by allowing the horse to collaborate with us.
Open your eyes and your ears, and you will find that there is so much to learn from your coach, your loved ones or your horse. Be willing to be open and listen, and you might just learn something new, or find a new way of tackling a problem that can take your performance to a whole new level. I have such a high level of communication with all my athletes. This allows us to tackle any problem head on, and to ensure that every single day we are being as efficient and productive as possible.
The last thing that horses express so openly and beautifully is – it is meant to be FUN! Don’t take yourself too seriously. Either as a rider or as a successful businessperson, if you approach the situation at hand with joy, curiosity and gratitude you will have a much better experience.
It is so much fun to grow, succeed and to push outside your comfort zone. Embrace the opportunity to do so. Show up. Step up! Try new things. Embrace the victories, embrace the learning experiences, and embrace it all!
Wishing you all the best on your journey.