A few weeks ago, I interviewed Warwick Schiller on my podcast in a long conversation that barely scratched the surface of his wealth of knowledge in working with horses. On a podcast about the balancing acts of work and life, you might think he was chosen as a guest to add weight to the “life side” of the equation.
It’s actually the opposite. When people ask me “Lynn, what’s with the horses?” my answer is about work as much as life.
Since I had a pretty severe accident falling off a horse three years ago, my quest to “get back on the horse” has taken me to the edge of my pressure threshold, forced me to face my fears and deepest insecurities plus it’s reconnected me to one of the joys of my childhood.
Mostly working with horses has taught me about the trust and connection that is possible in leadership.
In horseback riding, there are two main styles: English and Western. I grew up in Texas dreaming of being a barrel racer, so riding Western feels more like home to me.
However, I have found a more subtle difference in two main styles of leadership between horse and rider.
One the one hand, I’ve seen those who use force, fear and intimidation to get their horses to do as they are told. This was me at the beginning. I thought once a horse was “broke” and safe to ride, he would do as I said as long as I knew the command to give him. Compliance was all I needed – and please don’t throw me off your back!
My accident opened my eyes to the dark side of compliance. It works great – until it doesn’t.
On the other hand, I started discovering people like several of my podcast guests Warwick Schiller, Nikki Porter, Bruce Anderson and my trainer Lynn Brown, who showed me that trust and connection was not only possible with horses, it was safer.
Rather than compliance, I could set the conditions for commitment.
The stark difference reminded me of the different leaders and cultures I experienced in the business world. Some people and places cultivated a sense of belonging, mutual respect and most importantly, a sense of psychological safety. Others were ruled by domination, command and control and the constant need to prove we belonged there.
It was this difference that intrigued me. For the first half of my career, I led by fear and intimidation. It wasn’t a conscious choice; it was just what I had absorbed from watching others and it really worked with my fear-based personality. I didn’t have too many tools at my disposal, but I could wield anger and that seemed pretty effective at getting people to do things.
My lack of awareness of the option for trust and connection kept me doing the same things over and over again – until my health started crashing, my relationships frayed and my daughter showed me through her addiction that there’s a cost to using the acid of anger as your primary tool.
Thanks to the many awakenings in my life twenty years ago, I started down a new path to release my anger and start doing mindfulness practices. Slowly but surely, drip by drip, I became more calm, connected and grounded. My health returned, my relationships started deepening and my daughter survived addiction.
I thought I had come a long way. And I HAD come a long way. Still, the accident showed me that I had much more to learn, especially about being mindful and present under pressure.
The very situation that almost killed me would turn out to be my best teacher. Horses are wonderful mirrors our presence. They have been masters at showing me the energy I’m bringing to a situation.
But they bring an even bigger gift, especially in today’s world when we are being bombarded with fear-based messages that send our brains into the survival mode of fight, flight or freeze. Horses are prey animals with a finely tuned sense of survival. They have shown me how to detect when they are not feeling safe and how to restore trust and connection.
In doing so, they have shown me when I’m not feeling safe. They have helped me bring awareness and presence under pressure. It has fundamentally changed my approach to how I treat myself and how I treat others.
When I spoke with Warwick Schiller, he described a similar journey to mine. In this article, he dives even deeper into how he started changing himself and in so doing, dramatically changed what was happening with the horses. He came to realize that many of the shortcuts and fear-based methods that were meant to speed things up and make them more effective actually did the opposite.
In business, we often need to go slow in order to go fast. However, for impatient people like me, it can be difficult to slow down, create safety, cultivate relationships and care about how someone else feels. It seems on the surface to be counterproductive.
Developing trust and connection actually solves many of the common problems we are trying to solve with our hard-assed tools.
Fear and intimidation works if compliance is all you need.
However, if you want true commitment and people operating from choice, trust and connection is the only way to get there. And this is what the horses are teaching me.