In 1997 I discovered Monty Roberts, who is now a well-known horse whisper, author and leadership trainer. During a live demonstration I saw Roberts’s approach breaking horses, not as portrayed by Hollywood’s broncobusters, but rather as he has coined the term “starting” a horse, which is a more actuate description of his methods. The objective is to take a wild horse from unbridled fear of humans to a state of calm cooperation with humans. From unfettered freedom to willful acceptance of bridle, saddle and rider. The starting of a horse doesn’t begin with bravado, ropes and forceful coercion, rather with a human to horse dialogue, a proven technique that Roberts calls “join-up”.
The dialogue used during join-up is a set of non-verbal body queues or language that Roberts has named “equus”. The procedure for join-up is a regimented set of discernable non-verbal milestones. The process begins as horse and man literally face each other in a round pen, about 50 feet in diameter. Roberts stands in the center of the pen. The untamed horse will naturally gravitate to the sides of the round pen. With Roberts’s shoulder axis square with the head of the horse and eyes fixed directly upon the horses’ eyes, the process commences. Roberts holds in his hands a light sash about 30 feet long. The sash is pitched toward the hind rear quarters of the horse. This causes no pain to the horse, but immediately it will take flight, circling around the pen with great haste.
As the horse rotates around the pen Roberts keeps his body square with the horse pitching the sash keeping up the momentum causing a substantial flight reaction. This process stimulates two natural instincts. The natural flight mechanism of a wild horse and the body language of Roberts stimulates a feeling of familiarity of brood dynamics. These two factors encourages the horses’ natural instinct to join a herd. Wild horses do not live alone. A horse will always wish to join a herd, to be lead, Roberts simulates the leader of a brood, the mare.
From this point Roberts recognize the non-verbal message sent to him by the horse. Each subtle move of the horse: a rotated ear, a dropping neck and a licking of the mouth all have significance and send a message of desired capitulation. Accordingly, Roberts changes his body language as he receives these messages. By displaying a stance that the horse can interpret, Roberts’ non-verbal dance with the horse begins with a conversation and then ends in a negotiation of a contract based upon trust.
Eventually upon a change of body position by Roberts the horse will voluntary choose to walk toward Roberts and touch his shoulder with his mouth. From here Roberts is able to lead the horse without a rope or bridle. This is considered join-up. From pure abhorrence and fear, within 15 minutes, the horse voluntary join Roberts’ simulated herd. The horse has chosen to trust Roberts based upon the horses’ resignation that the language of equus represents an environment that is similar to their natural environment. The normal time for starting a horse, including join-up, bridal and saddle, followed by a rider is 30 minutes. This, in contrast to the tradition horse breaking methods, which can take up to a week of constant brutal coercion.
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Can the methods of a horse trainer be applied to leadership and human interaction?
What I experienced in that demonstration codified in my mind a weighty metaphor for leadership and learning which has captivated my imagination for the last 20 years. Based upon a recent flash of inspiration I have decided to connect that experience with a horse trainer with my experiences in the corporate world over the last two decades.
Let’s examine the fundamentals of the join-up method and ask some critical leadership questions:
1. The horse is the focus. Roberts views the instructional experience from the perceptive of the learner, the horse. Every move and gestures from join-up to the final stage of accepting a rider are measured by Robert. The horses’ reactions, emotions and agency are considered paramount to the experience. This is predicated upon a deep understanding of how the horse reacts and why.
- Are people the focus of your leadership or is it profit margins, products, services, programs, plans, and roadmaps?
2. Trust is a product of consistent behavior. Join-up is a contract based upon trust, which is based upon the way Roberts acts consistently toward the horse. Roberts models the correct behaviors or language of the equus so precisely that the horse reckons him as a fellow. Thus the familiar gives way to trust.
- As a leader are you consistent in applying measurements for success in a way that is predicable or is the bar for performance and approval always moving?
3. Environments are more conducive to leading than tactics. Both traditional and unconventional methods of horse training have the same objective, to have a tame horse that can be ridden. Roberts’s methods works so rapidly because he creates an environment during join-up that gives the horse reassurance, comfort and safety. All of the separate element of staring a horse would be ineffective if they were not proposed within the confines of the artificial environments that Roberts creates. The model of that environment gives the horse comfort and a context to accept new information, to transfer it if you will, from the old environment to the new one.
- Does your culture have a greater impact that any other leadership tactic? If not then you need to change the environment.
4. Choosing to follow is more effective and accelerates performance. This is a radical notion in the world of horse training that a horse can choose to learn and trust their keeper. Experience has proven that horses are loyal and trustworthy, if they feel compelled to work for of their rider, of their own free will and volition, then the results are more permanent and rewarding for both rider and horse.
- Have you earned the trust from those who are in your stewardship? Are they following you because you have the mental patience to really build a relationship?
5. Congruency is the motivator for horses. A horse’s natural state of contentment, of congruency, is found by being in a herd. The herd means safety, security and preservation of life. This need for congruency is why old traditional method of breaking a horse produces results. A horse will try to find or act in such a way that they can find peace and relief from torturous pain. They will capitulate even if they don’t know why they have to. Roberts presents the opportunity for the horse to gain the sense of security and congruency without the traditional pain and torture. The transition from a state of trauma to congruency is made easier because Roberts presents a familiar model of their natural environment during join-up.
- Are you creating a safe work environment? If you create an environment that doesn’t feel safe people like horse will withdraw.
6. Listen before you speak. The language of equus is the gneiss of building trust and cooperation. Roberts doesn’t speak (non-verbal equus) before the horse communicates to him first. Every move is counter moved, every action meets with an appropriate reaction, establishing a consist simulation of the natural world of a wild horse. Each stage in join-up is predicate upon the behavior of the horse. The horse guides the pace of instruction, not the instructor. This is accomplished by observation and correct interpretation of the horse behavior.
- One of the most self-evident principles and yet the most underused behaviors is the attribute of active listing. Are you seeking to be understood before you seek to understand?
How to develop your horse sense.
The image of a 1,500 pound horse choosing to follow a man, to join-up with him, is still a mysterious, exhilarating and powerful event even though we can explain it. Roberts’ work with horse is a living visual model of how a man can analyze people, create an environment and readjust their role as manger to leader. We can do the same. We don’t lack theories of leadership that try to explain how to create conducive learning and working environment. We simply don’t trust what we see in Monty Roberts.
We lack the faith to let go, to try to be the leader we really want to be and that we know is effective. Roberts’ theory of horse learning could have been all academic, until he became a practitioner and went face to face in a round 50 foot pen, posed aside a raw powerful beast that is acting out of fear. By following Roberts’s model, which transfers across species, we can restructure and re-purpose our leadership style by purposeful design. We no longer need to shout to lead, but rather whisper, and gently aid in helping those around us choose to follow.