Transformational Leadership with Your Horse
When we built our summer home on Prince Edward Island (PEI), we also built a shed with a stall and a paddock so when we come for vacation every summer I can bring a horse with me and ride on the beach. There is something about riding on a beach that soothes my soul and the two weeks I do this every year is the highlight of my year.
Today was Kalimo’s return to PEI after his first visit last year. He knew exactly where we were going this morning for our early morning ride. Normally quiet and patient to be tacked up, this morning he was impatient. He was definitely “up” when I mounted and as we headed out for the ten-minute walk to the beach we had several conversations in which he suggested that a fast trot was in order and I suggested walk would be better. We compromised on a very fast walk. Kalimo is a powerful Andalusian stallion so when he is “up” he is a lot of horse to ride. I kept calm and grounded and just guided him to the beach, consistently letting him know that fake piaffe down the clay road was not the plan. He relaxed as soon as we reached the beach with a few mighty snorts.
At the beach, I let him explore. He sniffed the air and seaweed. He chased a retreating wave and ran backwards when it came crashing back towards him. He splashed in a tide pool and tried to dig a hole in it, soaking us both. Then it was time to ask him to cross the flowing stream which he had pointedly avoided since coming to the beach. But by crossing it we would have access to a much larger expanse of sand, perfect for a good gallop.
There is a tidal pond by the beach and since the tide was high and just going out, the stream was flowing faster than he had seen before. It is not a deep stream (only about halfway to his knees at the deepest part), about 12-15 feet across, with somewhat “squishy” sand along the edges in some places. Kalimo was not sure this was a good idea. As we approached he tried to impress me with his half pass skills to convince me that lateral work was a better idea than trying to cross that running water.
“Well buddy,” I said, “here’s the deal. We are definitely crossing this stream. I don’t care how you do it or when you do it. The end goal is the other side and you figure out how you get us there.” And that is just what he did. I kept my intent clear the whole time, focused on the other side. He approached in one area, found the sand too squishy, tried another place, didn’t like it and so on. Within three minutes we were across the stream. When we came back to the stream about 30 minutes later we did the same thing. It looked different because the tide had gone out further. He investigated a few places and this time decided to stride out into the ocean a bit and go around the end of it. He preened just a little bit at his cleverness.
After we returned home I was reflected on how much fun we had together. And about leadership. I recently coached a new manager about the difference between transactional and transformational leadership and my experience with Kalimo today stood out as an example of how I try to be the latter. Transactional leaders tend to be task and outcome oriented within a defined approach, and use rewards and punishments to promote performance that meets expectations. Transformational leaders create the vision, focus on the strengths of those they lead, and create situations that enable people to find their own path to the outcome, leaving people feeling more empowered and with stronger capacities as a result.
Today I created the vision for Kalimo (crossing the stream), encouraged him to figure out the way across without any expectation of where or how we would get there – only that we would get there. And we did, even though he did not choose to cross where I thought might have been the best place. Whether we are helping our horses learn to cross a stream, learn a shoulder in, or execute a correct flying change, we are leading them through this process and have a choice about whether we are a transactional leader or a transformational one. I believe the latter is not always the easiest but is ultimately the path to the greatest success.
Take Home Message for Riding Instructors
Are you a transactional leader with your riding students or a transformational leader? A riding instructor who is a transactional leader will teach a “command” lesson with most of the lesson being a series of instructions (turn left, now shoulderb-in, change the rein, lower your hands, etc). The transactional riding instructor tends to talk a lot during a lesson. The transformational leader will also use commands, but there will be periods of silence as she allows the rider to feel what is happening or she may work the horse in- hand with the rider mounted so the rider can experience a particular movement and then go try it on her own. If we use a transformational leadership style while coaching as much as possible, we will have a better chance of creating curious riders who are able to work through riding questions and problems.