We are not so different

I love the holiday season.  In recent years I have not had the time to do all of the things I normally love to do, but I always try to find a way to celebrate with my work team.  This year we decided upon a long lunch at a local pizza place, combining our celebration with our last team meeting of the year.  This year saw the addition of several new members to the team, as well as changes that flew at us so fast we hardly had time to react.  As part of our event, I really wanted to take some time to celebrate the things team members thought were successful, as well as those things they thought we should work on in the coming year.  The groups in my team have very disparate responsibilities, so I was a little surprised at how both sets of feedback fell into some common themes.  This morning, as I thought back over those themes, I was tickled by the idea that my little herd might share some of the sentiments.

Appreciation for team members – This was the most common theme of the celebration side.  People were generally pleased with the team we have built, and specifically pleased with certain new hires who brought knowledge and energy to the team.  We are social animals, so having a cohesive group in which you fit and enjoy the company of the other members is important.  Horses are also social animals, by nature, and the “fit” within the herd is vital to their physical and mental health.  It is all well and good to say that horses should live in groups – but I have seen the effects of having a horse in the wrong group.  And I have felt the effect of being in the wrong team at work.

Noble and Roxie getting cuddly

Save for Nash, whom I would equate with Oscar the Grouch in Sesame Street (grumpy to all, but secretly wants to be liked), my little herd has become a cohesive little social group.  Roxie was the unknown, coming into this year, but she has settled in and seems to be liked by all.  Noble and Coffee will even greet her as we reenter the barn.  This is perhaps the most compatible herd we’ve had since the early nineties; and, though it has taken a few years, my work team has become the most compatible team in the department.

Opportunities for input – This showed up in both the “celebration” and the “work on it” lists.  Team members really appreciated our team meetings and events, where they were asked for opinions and input.  They asked for more events, like the one we were at, where that could be a focus.  Who wouldn’t appreciate the opportunity to be heard?

I have written, on several occasions, that I think the main reason horses take to me as much as they do is that I listen to them.  I scratch where they want, when grooming.  If they ask for a carrot, I oblige (as long as they are polite).  They are often allowed to pick the path on the trail.  If they look up the road, as we head to the arena, I often change my plan for the day.  There are times when I cannot be so obliging – with my team I try to explain why, with my horses I try to be kind as I say “Sorry, no.”  But giving them a chance to “steer the ship” is beneficial to all involved.  It provides the leader some relief from having to always “steer”, it allows the “follower” (person or horse) to develop their own decision making, and it leads to greater trust in the relationship.

Mom and Coffee having a chat

Better communication – Thankfully, the point here was not aimed at me, but at higher up the chain of command.  Our department has gone through tremendous change in the last year, but we have often not been informed when decisions have been made.  One recent sore point was a move of my team to the other side of the suite – a decision that was reversed on the very first day in our new location, necessitating a move back.

No one likes feeling like a pawn that is moved around the board, with no voice in the decision and often no warning of what is coming.  This is no different for our horses.  Although we can never truly explain to them why we do the things we do, we can find ways to make changes in stages, such that they can adapt more easily.  We can also make clear what is expected, and communicate clearly and quickly when a correct effort has been made.

Opportunities for learning and growth – Another theme that crossed both the “celebration” and “things to work on” boards was the opportunity for development.  As a long time educator, and lifetime learner, I’m always looking for ways to provide opportunities for learning and growth for my team.  This year we implemented a new program in which team members each make a presentation at a team meeting.  It was received with some doubt, as I have a team heavy in introverts – but it has turned out to be popular with both presenters and audience.  There was appreciation for this year’s opportunities, and a look forward to learning new things in the coming year.

Noble when he was a good student – an attitude that seems to be returning as he comes out of the other side of adolescence

Learning is only valuable if it is sought by the recipient.  It is incumbent upon a leader to make learning desirable and enjoyable.  When this is done, you can take someone who has no interest in learning new things and turn that into a joy of learning.  I have seen it work with people, and it is my contention that it equally applies to horses.  People often question whether horses can actually enjoy anything we do with them, given they have little choice.  In my experience, if you find activities that appeal to your horse, and you set out to educate rather than just dictate, horses show as much interest in learning as humans do.

One key indicator that a being is enjoying learning is when they begin to experiment and try new things on their own.  As Dani learned new skills under saddle, she began to play with them when loose.  Once Coffee learned to work with obstacles, we now have to watch him when they are set up – he will invent his own patterns when we are walking on a loose rein.  Beings who enjoy learning also show a focus on the lesson – Noble seems to have reached an age where he now shows a keen focus on figuring out what is being asked in each lesson.

Perhaps it is my nature, or the fact that I was a lonely child who spent all her spare moments with horses, but I have always been inclined to see the similarities between our two species, rather than the differences. As science begins to measure horses’ preferences, those findings tend to bear out my view – they have friends, and they like soft beds, warm clothing in cold weather, shade in hot weather, and the peace of spending periods of time in their own room.  There are, of course, definite differences between our species – but the more time I spend in a leadership role to both, the more I find the same qualities are called for.  Empathy, respect, trust, willingness to listen and take feedback, and a commitment to continued learning – for both leader and follower – are all requisite qualities of an effective leader.

As I looked back at 2017 with my team, I was pleased to see that those things they most valued were also those that I was most proud of.  As it lead me to contemplate the year with the horses, I was pleased to reflect on the increasing sense of mutual enjoyment we’ve shared with our little herd.  As 2018 approaches, there is much promise in both areas – and I look forward to learning as much from my team and my herd as I might be able to impart upon them.

Be good to your horses!  Have a Happy New Year!


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