Balanced Leadership Through Horsemanship

Written by Shawn Carlin

Here at Horse Empowered, I speak a lot about the connection between horsemanship and leadership.  The recognition of the connectedness between these two ideas is what truly hooked me forever into the equine world.  I didn’t grow up with horses and I have spent my entire working career in the corporate world. In my mid-twenties, I had hit rock bottom in my life.  But thankfully, I found horses. Fate intervened and introduced me to an owner of a small ranch in Colorado. It was his first lesson with me, that changed the course of my life and connected me with my calling to help people rediscover the best, most authentic version of themselves.    

Rather than immediately jump in the saddle and take a mindless, head-to-tail trail ride, instead I discovered the horse’s ability to teach me how to be a better person, a better leader.  Importantly, the horse showed me a way to heal and recover.    

Horsemanship and leadership are directly aligned.  Both require an awareness of how we influence the outcome we desire.  Whether you lead a team of 100 employees or a herd of two, effective leadership is essential for success. 


Horses demand to know who is leading at all times.  In fact, their survival depends on it, so they don’t take leadership lightly.  To a horse, you are either leading or following. In my experience, horses seek five primary qualities in their leader. 


The 5 Qualities of Effective Leadership

  1.     Control
  2.     Communication
  3.     Compassion
  4.     Character
  5.     Competence/Confidence


Control- As a baseline, a good leader needs to be in control and under control.  Keeping a level head can be relatively easy when things are going smoothly with your horse, but how do you respond when things get a little hairy?  Your horse will become a mirror to your behaviors. You get agitated, your horse will too. The more control you have and feel in all areas of your life, the more confidence you will have.  

Question:  What level of control do you have in all areas of your life?  Emotionally, financially, spiritually and physically? 


Communication- As a leader to your horse, your effectiveness is directly related to your ability to communicate in a clear and concise manner.   Do you have a vision for what you want to accomplish? Is there clarity in your messaging? 

Effective communication is not just in your words, but in your body as well.  Research has shown that anywhere between 70-90% of human communication is non-verbal.  With horses, it’s 100%. They are extremely efficient at reading your body language, as are humans.  Pay attention to the message you are sending as a leader, with your body language. Your non-verbal communication is saying more than you know.    


Compassion- In order to build trust with a horse you have to show compassion.  You have to demonstrate that you have the best interests of the horse at the center of what you do.  The same goes for leading in any position. No leader will stay in a leadership position for very long if they don’t demonstrate the good of the group is the highest priority.  Data suggests the idea of emotional intelligence or EQ is a better determinant of success in the workplace than intellectual intelligence or IQ. The ability to be aware of the emotions of self and others to manage interactions is at the core of effective interactions with people and horses. 

Chris Cox, a well-known horseman and clinician said it well, and I paraphrase, “To be a horseman you have to look through the eyes of the horse.  Feel like a horse and think like a horse. The less human we put into the horse and the more horse we put into ourselves, is the start of an ultimate connection.”


Character- Are you a leader of good character?  Do you live by a set of values that acts as your moral compass, guiding you in the good times and the bad?  Being of good character means being authentic. Being authentic means being congruent or being your true self, and not faking or being someone you are not. 

Partnering with horses gives us an opportunity to learn a lot about our character.  A horse provides a mirror to our inner thoughts, feelings and attitude. They reflect what we are feeling and not what we are thinking.  When these two things are not congruent, the relationship with the horse can break down because the horse can become confused or frustrated.  Interactions with horses provide the opportunity to see where we are not being authentic in our lives and adjust course. 


Competence/Confidence-  In psychology there is a concept known as the competence-confidence loop.  In order to be confident in something you have to have a level of competence.  In addition, in order to be competent in something you have to have level of confidence to make it happen.  To be an effective leader, those who follow do so because they believe you have a level of skill or competence to do the job at hand.  A horse will follow if he feels you have the competence to be an effective leader. A horse will follow in your training efforts, if you are communicating what you desire in a clear and concise manner.  You can have all the confidence in the world, but if you don’t couple this confidence with a similar level of competence, it won’t get you very far. For example, let’s say you are on an airplane and something has gone wrong with the pilot and the flight attendant asks if anyone would be willing to land the plane.  You could be an extremely confident person, but without the necessary competence to land a plane, the confidence is useless. 

Where in your life do you need to develop a higher degree of competence or skill?  What is your learning plan? The good news is, you can develop a high degree of skill in anything you desire if you have the will and the way.  If you want to develop your horsemanship skills, develop a learning plan. Invest in yourself and your competence by going to a workshop, buy a training video or read a book.  Improve your competence and you will improve your confidence in whatever you put your mind to.

Be sure to check out the Horse Empowered Podcast in Apple Podcast

With Gratitude,

Shawn Carlin- Founder of Horse Empowered


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