Engage Your Employees by “Turning Them Loose”

It has been a few years since I have worked with other people’s horses as managing my own herd of twenty two takes up most of my time. When a friend of mine recently asked me to help her with her horse I was somewhat reluctant. Working with someone’s horse is a little like disciplining their child. It can be a delicate situation that carries a lot of responsibility if things go wrong. Although I agreed to help I was more than a little nervous about the upcoming training session. What I didn’t realize at the time was that stepping outside my comfort zone would be a powerful learning experience.

Tracy’s horse, Oliver, is a big athletic ex-race horse who is very friendly and, according to Tracy, compliant in most situations. She was having trouble however with an exercise that we call ‘push and draw.’ Push and draw is a foundation exercise in our equine training system of natural horsemanship. We ask the horse to move his hind end away from us and turn to face us. The horse will then follow as we draw him along with us. We call it the relationship exercise. It enables us to establish a leadership role with our horse quickly and effectively. Because they have a strong need for leadership our horses love this exercise and we often use it as a reward during training. The fact that Oliver was not responding was puzzling.

When Tracy brought Oliver into the arena I could immediately see anxiety and tension in his high head and stiff carriage. When I asked him to move his hind end away, instead of smoothly crossing one hind foot over the other, he crow hopped around in an awkward and jerky fashion. His front feet rotated but remained firmly planted in the dirt despite my efforts to draw him forward with me. His entire body was braced and resistant.

It turned out that a previous trainer had taught Oliver to plant his feet and not move forward. To stay rooted in one spot goes against the natural instincts of a horse. In the wild horses must be able to move their feet at all times in order to flee predators and threatening situations. While it is important to be able to influence the direction and speed of a horse’s movement, stopping all forward motion results in the anxiety and tension that I could see so clearly in Oliver.

It took twenty minutes of persistent coaching and gentle insistence to convince Oliver that he could in fact move forwards. At that moment of realization the change in Oliver was instant, obvious and quite remarkable. Every muscle in his body relaxed and his head dropped from the rafters down toward his knees. Within moments he was smoothly crossing one hind foot in front of the other and following us around the arena like a large puppy.

In natural horsemanship training this dramatic change in Oliver is called ‘turning loose’. Turning loose describes the relaxation of the horse’s mind and body as he is allowed to follow his natural instincts and move freely forward of his own volition. As I drove home from the arena that night I wondered how often I had inadvertently, through words or actions, blocked the forward motion and natural instincts of my employees. Looking back I could recall situations in which they had looked as tense and resistant as Oliver.

Stepping out of my comfort zone with Oliver has caused me to look at my leadership from a new perspective. I realize now that if I want an engaged, committed and productive team of employees I have to ‘turn them loose’ so they each may contribute in their own way to the vision and direction of our organization.

Laura Hunter

"Horses want to see the same qualities of character in their leaders that we want to see in ourselves. It's simple: Being the better horse can develop the balance to becoming a better person."
Chris Irwin

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