What horseriding has taught me about leadership

A few weeks ago, I found myself back in a stable for the first time in years. I had my beloved team to thank, who kindly treated me to a day’s horseriding for my birthday. I used to ride horses a lot when I was younger, but when I found myself around them after all this time, I got scared.

I had no idea what to do, how to approach these unknown animals, how to become the “alpha mare” and gain the horse’s trust. All my confidence drained away. I didn’t know how to bring the horse to a stop when walking slowly. I wasn’t even unsure if I was holding the reins right. And then I was told I should not hold the reins at all.

The poor, confused horse didn’t recognize any of my signals and was quick to provide some pretty candid feedback! He refused to collaborate with me and instead ran off, looking for a real rider.

At that point, I realized the analogy staring me right in the face. In many ways, good horsemanship is like good leadership. And thankfully, both can be learned.

Earning trust and respect

If you work in the corporate world and don’t want to wait for your annual performance review, go and ride a horse — you’ll get instant feedback whether you like it or not! On a horse, you have just a few seconds to establish yourself as an “alpha mare” or risk losing the horse’s trust for good.

You need to act confident, as the horse is looking to you for instructions. You have to be clear about where you are heading. Otherwise, the horse will get confused and reject you as a leader.

The same thing applies to leadership in the workplace. Just like good horsemanship, leading a team requires focus and effort. You need to develop a mindset, learn emotional management, and gain the respect of others. In fact, as horses have shown me so many times, you need to earn it.

Your team needs a sense of direction, consistency, and your unwavering commitment to stick by them. You need to lead with strength, keep your emotions balanced, and be there for them every day. If you earn your team’s trust and respect, they will follow you anywhere. Together, you’ll become unstoppable.

Emotional management and confidence

Horses are extremely sensitive, probably even more than us humans. Spending time around horses is a great way to practice empathy and emotional intelligence. When the horse is agitated, you need to keep calm and remain confident, even if you are stressed yourself.

I remember riding Šiml for the first time years ago. I had no idea what to do or how to make him turn left. He immediately picked up on my fear and confusion and become scared and confused himself. He needed a leader who could direct him, who knew what was happening and where they were heading. Any sign of doubt — even if it was just in my head — and he would lose trust in my signals.

I knew that I needed to work on my confidence. I knew that I needed to be straightforward and clear with my instructions. Otherwise, I would never be able to ride a horse. The very next day, I came to the stable and focused on my body language. I learned how to control my emotions better. A month later, I was able to take Šiml for a long ride into the forest. He would never have left the stable voluntarily if I hadn’t worked on myself first.

The same applies to your team. They need to trust your decisions, so they know that their work has a purpose and will help them achieve their and the company’s goals. You need to provide them with guidance. You need to be consistent in your behavior and steady in your thinking, to avoid any confusion or doubt.

The power of pulling in the same direction

You can try and apply force or rule through fear, but you will never earn the loyalty and trust of a horse this way. You are a tiny human, and the horse is a huge animal weighing half a ton. You have to work with it, not against it.

The same goes for your team — you need to find a way to harness their strengths and get everyone pulling in the same direction. You have to build trust and loyalty by showing up, being empathetic, being aware of their needs, keeping your emotions in check, and communicating clearly and consistently. If you do this, your team — like your horse — will happily follow you.

VC | Startups | Feminism | Tech | Leadership | Brain