You Can Lead a Horse to Water…
By Rachel Annelise Chaney
You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.
Most of us have heard this colloquialism many times – maybe even used it when a sibling just wouldn’t take our very common-sense advice. (Okay, that might be a scenario specific to me…) But, knowing a phrase and truly understanding it are not always the same, as I quickly learned when I adopted a horse of my own.
Nearly a decade ago, in the sweltering heat of a Southern summer, I drove an off-track Thoroughbred on a long, bumpy ride from Lexington, Kentucky through the West Virginia mountains to North Carolina. Those tentative first steps off the trailer with my four-year-old gelding, De Vedras, marked the beginning of an unexpected, unorthodox course in leadership.
Most people buy horses for their beauty, for the thrill of riding or competing. But, regardless of what lured you to the world of horse ownership, horses will teach you a thing or two about leadership. Most of the time, completely against your will! It’s a lesson also learned by BRC’s Managing Partner, Lory Kelley, when she entered the unique world of horse ownership.
“We have a full house of pets,” Lory says with the semi-apologetic smile commonly found in devoted animal lovers. “Five cats, a dog, a Shetland pony and two horses. Without question, dealing with horses is vastly different from the house pets.”
Nothing could be truer. Horses are not big dogs, no matter how expressive they are or how much they want to live in your pocket. The unique challenges of working with a horse will teach you a great deal, but they are waters that most people, wisely, choose not to wade in.
For instance, you, dear reader, would probably rather not have to catch a grumpy horse in a soggy field or balance a mud-caked hoof on your thigh, hoof pick in hand, in below-freezing temperatures. Surely there is an easier way to win those precious nuggets of leadership wisdom. Great news! Lory and I have navigated these horse leadership waters for you and will freely bestow the following wisdom upon you:
1) You Can’t Force a Half-Ton Animal
2) Emotions Travel Down the Reins
3) Alphas Rest Last
You Can’t Force a Half-Ton Animal
Here’s a fun detail about horses: they’re big. Most are at least half a ton, with many clocking in way over that. My thoroughbred, De Vedras, stands several inches taller than the average horse and weighs in at a cool 1,200 pounds.
I will reveal here that I do not, in fact, weigh more than 1,200 pounds and cannot outmuscle my horse.
From the moment you stand next to a horse and are expected to control a half-ton bundle of alert muscle with one lead rope, you realize how physically incapable you truly are. Your dog won’t come when you call? You can probably drag him on a leash. Your cat jumps on the counter? You can probably push her off.
Your horse decides to go the opposite direction from you? Guess which way you’re going…
De Vedras can certainly get what would politely be called ‘headstrong’ and what would accurately be called ‘bratty,’ and when he does, I have to handle the situation as safely as possible. It’s a situation Lory has experienced with her own Arabian/Quarter Horse gelding, Sully.
“He (Sully) doesn’t spook, but sometimes, he just doesn’t like being told what to do. He’ll go: ‘Oh, you want me to do this or that? Fine. I’m going to bring it.’”
So, what’s the lesson here besides “don’t mess with animals big enough to send you flying”?
You may be the leader of your horse, the one with the lead rope and the feed bag and the vet bills. But you cannot bully, argue, or coerce a horse into doing what you say. If you don’t foster a relationship of mutual trust and respect, you’ve wasted a good bit of time and money.
Leadership Lesson #1: Always respect those you are leading.
Emotions Travel Down the Reins
Here’s another fun detail about horses: they are highly aware of emotions. As prey animals, horses are always on alert for any changes in the environment or potential dangers. That alertness also makes them highly sensitive to the emotions of those they trust to lead them.
If you’re frustrated, angry, or just flat annoyed and hop in the saddle, they will pick up on it just from how you sit or how you handle the reins. Chances are, they’ll amplify your mood right back at you, and good luck if that mood was bad. (Yes, this is speaking from experience. PSA: Don’t go out to work with your horse right after a challenging workday unless you want to get an intentional tail swish to the face.)
Bringing a collected, positive energy to the table (or stable, as it were) can prove to be the make or break of a good, productive day with your horse or a frustrating, regressive one. As Lory put it best, “You have to go in there with a calm attitude. Otherwise, don’t do it – you’re setting yourself and your horse up for failure.”
In this connected age, the emotional perceptiveness of horses has another implication. Distraction. Most of us are constantly bombarded with information: emails, calls, texts, social media notifications, Teams messages… But you cannot lunge a horse in an arena and answer a Teams chat. You cannot trot a horse over poles and take a client call.
I mean. I guess you can try, but if you do, please report the results back to me.
Leadership Lesson #2: Lead others with calm awareness and stay in the moment.
Alphas Rest Last
Here’s a final fun detail for you: horses like hierarchy. Each herd is different, and some may have fluctuations in herd pecking order more than others. But in general, there will always be a horse with the strongest will that is the “alpha” of the herd.
But don’t go thinking about lone wolves here.
Being the alpha doesn’t mean being the biggest or the strongest or the meanest. It doesn’t even mean being the first to always get the food or the attention – though the alpha in our herd certainly gets a mad face if someone else gets a peppermint and he doesn’t!
No, being the alpha of the herd means looking out for others. Listening for danger, keeping an eye on anything strange in the pasture, and being the one everyone else looks to for answers. When everyone goes down for a nap in our herd, the alpha horse is always the last to lay down, only when he feels confident everyone is safe.
Leadership Lesson #3: Leadership is not about throwing your weight around or flexing your position. It’s about serving others and looking out for those who rely on you.
It took a long time of slowly building trust with De Vedras for him to fully rely on me to be a trustworthy leader he could follow. When he first off-loaded from the trailer nearly a decade ago, he was young, nervous and unsure who he could follow.
Quite frankly, I didn’t know if he could trust me to lead him.
I had no experience with horses and precious little leadership experience in anything. But when I signed the adoption papers for De Vedras, that was a promise to take care of him, so somehow, I had to figure it out. Little by little I earned his trust with consistency, stability, and most of all, always making sure he felt I had complete control – even when I didn’t!
There’s a saying you may hear in the horse ownership world: “It’s never the horse’s fault.” Because despite their size, their sensitivity, their insistence on sometimes pushing your buttons, your horse is ultimately relying on you to direct and to lead.
The successes are theirs. The failures are yours.
Lory’s journey with Sully has mirrored that of mine with De Vedras in many ways. While every relationship between horse and rider is different, many tenets of equine ownership and leadership cross breeds, disciplines and personalities. Whether Arabian, Thoroughbred, Percheron or Quarter Horse, the fundamental lessons are the same:
“Owning a horse teaches you to lead with strength,” Lory says with the unwavering conviction that makes her a trusted Managing Partner, “To be sure and calm, even if you may not feel confident in that exact moment, because those you are leading need to believe in you and they need to know they can trust you.”
You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.
It’s true. You can’t make a horse do anything. But if you respect him, lead with calm authority, and put his well-being first, he might just trust you to take a drink.
Interested in learning more about horses? Check out Rachel’s articles on horses in Putting the Fact in Fantasy.