Leader or attachment figure?

I recently read a thoughtful post that addressed what I would agree is a forgotten area of horse training – that the horse is naturally programmed to make attachments. I say forgotten because, unlike the author, I have read many older training tomes that specifically refer to forming the kind of attachment she refers to – but, somewhere along the way that wisdom was lost. As much as I liked the post, and the points she makes, I have to quarrel with the divide she makes between leadership and attachment figures. Although current training “wisdom” is in line with her definition of leadership, ethology studies do not support it. But, fundamentally more important than that, I think she misses how the key points of truly effective leadership align with her point about attachment figures.

 … the horse should be able to experience the rider as someone who can provide it with a secure base and safe haven…. experiencing the rider as someone who helps him know the strange thing is safe, not just experiencing the person as the boss or leader of the pack.

Dr. Kerry Mack

I absolutely agree that we are most successful when our horses feel that comfort and security is found in us.  The situation can be reversed, as Ben frequently served as security for new riders – but he was a seasoned fellow by then, and took most occurrences in stride.  I would never have survived the incident with Dani, when two horses bolted across our Dressage test, if she had not trusted me to keep her safe.  Unquestioning obedience cannot be achieved without deadening the horse – and that is not acceptable to me – so trust and communication are the only options in such times of crisis.  It is at those times that you can truly measure the horse/rider relationship.  As I have worked with Tally, through her trainer-induced issues, I have become the person who makes scary things okay … and that will be the key to our future together.

Where I differ from Dr. Mack is in believing that the person who provides this security is not performing an act of leadership.  In fact, I believe that she even contradicts herself, in a way.

It is reasonable to think that a stressed horse will … benefit from a relationship with a benevolent (bigger, stronger, wiser, kind) attachment figure who can help. This should be the rider/handler. Now, this is a slightly different slant on what we are already familiar with, that horses are a herd animal and that the human should be like a herd leader. … The leader of the herd shows the way …. In addition, I propose that a stressed horse may seek proximity to and be calmed by a trusted attachment figure. He seeks a connection to someone who can help him.

In this passage, she is making a distinction between the “herd leader” role and the attachment figure.  However, look at her description for an attachment figure: “bigger, stronger, wiser, kind” and someone who can help.  I would ask – how is this different from someone who “shows the way”?  Parents and teachers certainly fit the description of the attachment figure – but aren’t they also, truly, among the best leaders we have in our lives?  Helping most often equates to showing the way.

This may seem a bit like a semantic game, but I believe that we have seriously distorted the concept of a leader in terms of horse training.  Most often you hear about “dominance” and the leader “allowing” others to do things.  This construct comes purely from an antiquated human idea of what leadership is.  Even the military is finding its way away from the straight dominance theory of leadership.  Certainly every Human Resource and Workplace Learning publication has mountains of material as to why this is not a valid form of leadership.  Yet, that is exactly what we apply in the realm of horses.  Dr. Mack is not immune from that view.

It is possible to think that being the leader of the herd embodies a generally masculine attitude and being a secure attachment figure embodies a more generally feminine attitude.

Most of the best minds in corporate leadership study will tell you that the more “feminine” model of leadership – mentoring, collaboration, praise, etc. – is the more successful model.  (Disclaimer – I actually hate the use of masculine and feminine to describe such things; I think of them as more personality drive, like domination versus collaboration, but it is still a popular characterization).  The leadership style classically characterized as masculine is dominance driven, typically hard-driving and lacking in empathy.  If you think of horses as a prey animal, those are all characteristics that will drive discomfort and will not develop trust.  It works the same with humans that have that type of leader – trust is only given to those leaders through learned helplessness of the follower.

Interestingly, she uses parents as a model – but for the attachment figure, not the leader.

We know that “good enough” parents … will be reliable, responsive, reciprocal, and sensitive. Good-enough parents will follow whenever possible, take control whenever necessary.   They will help organise the experience of the infant into manageable chunks. They will not perpetrate trauma on a frightened infant. They will not usually project their own feelings on to a child, but will have a sense of the actual experience of the child based on the capacities and characteristics of the child.  These attributes of a good-enough mother are attributes I think we should try to embody as horse trainers.

I particularly like that description as comparable to how we should approach training our horses – and too often do not.  However, on a less basic level, it is also how I lead my human teams.  The knowledge is greater, and the emotions more controlled, in adults – but fear and insecurity still exist.  My job, as their leader, is not to give orders – rather it is to provide them with all the support they need to do their jobs.  I must identify areas of weakness, and provide them with development opportunities.  I must provide them a clear path – whether in providing a project, or giving an overall vision.  As a leader, I see more parallel than not between my role and those of parent and teacher.  And I see parallels between all of those and my role as horse trainer.

We want the horse to experience us as bigger and stronger, metaphorically, wiser and kind.  We want the horse to feel safe around us. We can introduce new things to him gradually, like we do with breaking in. We can develop empathy for the horse by understanding his actual capacity and sensory experience …. We should take into account when he is genuinely frightened and adjust what we do accordingly.

I could not agree more … but this, to me, is true leadership!

Be good to your horses!


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