By force or by persuasion?

The same mistake as my neighbour

Two days ago I was talking to one of my neighbours about learning to ride a horse. Both of us have been riding for a number of years, but neither of us started doing it as a child, contrary to our kids, who grew up riding horses. And during the talk I realised that both of us had made exactly the same mistake when we started out, a mistake our children never made. It is also a mistake which I see happening to many people who start out managing a team … and it entirely avoidable and avoiding it will make your life much better.

Some information about horses

Let’s look at horses first. A horse is a strong animal that outweighs its equivalent human by a factor of 6 to 10: a really big horse can weigh up to 1.000 kg, but an average adult dressage or jumping horse weighs about 600 to 700 kg. Even a heavy adult human who rides horse weighs no more than 100 kg, hence the ratio. This also means that no matter how hard you are going to pull such an animal, if it does not want to go your way, it will not go your way. Horses are also flight animals. When in danger, they will try to escape and run away from the danger.

Bending to the will of the rider? Not really …

What was the mistake this neighbour and I both made? We tried to ride a horse by force when we started out … while the only way to ride a horse is by persuasion. Considering the weight and strength of a horse, there is really no way that one can force a horse to do something. When they feel threatened, they will try to escape and temporarily, as a rider who employs only force, you may get the impression that the horse “bends” to your will. Actually, it doesn’t, it just tries to avoid as much pressure as possible. Anyone who knows horses can see whether a horse is relaxed or not. And a horse under duress of being forced to “bend” is certainly not relaxed. And such a lack of relaxed attitude shows up in performance as well. The horse will walk, trot and canter in a fundamentally different, a lot more stressed and less fluent manner than if it is ridden by an experienced rider.

Persuasion by support

Our children, on the other hand, all learned that you need to persuade a horse to follow your lead. They never had the force to temporarily “bend” the horse in the first place, therefore they developed the skill to continuously interact with the horse, as if negotiating with it to execute what had been asked of it. The results were amazing: by interacting with the horse and supporting it in its execution of a movement, the horse became both relaxed and a lot more fluent in its movements. And the interaction between rider and horse was not one of dominance of one being over another but a deep and beautiful collaboration between two beings. Almost as if watching poetry being created.

As with horses, so with teams

The point is that this often happens with teams as well. A new manager comes into a team and starts to bend the team to their will, without interacting with the team members at all, without considering them, supporting them … and as a result, the team freezes, or panics, or completely locks up.

There are other ways to handle a team. Building an interaction which is based not on force but on a collaboration, with a clear division of roles but mutual support makes a team both relaxed and at the same time performing at a much higher level than under any situation of duress.

And that is one of the many things I have learned from my children. And the cover picture? That’s me hugging one of the most wonderful horses in the world … Almira, the Belgian warmblood I share with my wonderful wife.