Leadership Outside the Box: Huggy Bear

I met Huggy Bear seven years ago while purchasing another pony for our programs. 

Huggy is a small, round, completely adorable Halflinger pony. He could be the poster pony for the Gund stuffed animal company.  One look at Huggy and I bought him on the spot.

In the six years I’ve owned Huggy I’ve discovered that inside that cute, cuddly body is a tough, unyielding mind, seemingly suspicious of all humans. I have spent hours out in the field watching him gallop around and away from anyone trying to catch him. I have watched him drag countless people out the arena door. Huggy can run through a door backwards faster than most of my horses can go forwards. And yet I have also seen Huggy at times follow someone around the arena obviously seeking to make a connection.

This horse, with his unique issues and behaviours, has forced me to look at my leadership role in a much more creative way: For the first time I had an employee who couldn’t or didn’t want to be a team player. When we bring a horse home to our farm we consider it a life-long commitment. On the other hand we run a business and we prefer that our horses earn their keep. I believe strongly that animals, as well as people, need to be involved in productive work. I had to find a way to work with Huggy so that he could be part of our team in some capacity.

The training methods that worked so well with my other horses had little or no effect on Huggy but I continued with my accepted system for quite a while. It took me a long time to realize that I was caught in the trap of ‘that is the way we always do things here’. I was comfortable in the routine of those methods while skirting around the fact that Huggy was not becoming any more compliant.

I had to throw all my preconceived notions of horse training out the window and focus on really listening to Huggy’s point of view. Only then did I notice that every time he was stressed or uncomfortable, instinct took over and he would fall into a pattern of escape by running backwards. This was not a planned, thought-out response but an unconscious and instinctive pattern of behavior. Huggy didn’t care that his behavior wasn’t a positive long-term solution. It was an avoidance strategy that served its purpose in the moment.

Something was causing and or/reinforcing his actions. I know from my experience as a teacher of thirty years that in order to alter or extinguish negative behaviour we need to identify the real underlying cause of the behaviour. This is a simple and obvious concept but one most of us tend to overlook. As Stephen Covey says, “We want to be judged by our intent but we judge others by their behaviours.” I needed to understand Huggy’s actions from his point of view.

I also know from my teaching experience that people with autism and sensory issues often seek out deep pressure which calms down their over-responsive nervous systems. The more I studied Huggy’s behavior the more inclined I was to think that some of his issues could be sensory related. In Huggy’s case I theorized that pulling backwards against his halter and lead rope could be providing that very rewarding deep pressure.

We had been trying unsuccessfully for several weeks to convince Huggy to stand beside our large mounting block. He would back away from the block every time and as I stood firm with the rope taut we would end up in a tug of war. This time, as Huggy pulled away from the block I moved with him. I kept the lead rope slack so that he could not create pressure for himself through the rope. When he finally stopped I calmly signaled for him to move forward and waited for him to make his decision. Huggy walked forward and stood quietly at the block. It had taken less than five minutes to solve an issue we’d been struggling with for months.

Although Huggy will always be the same pony I purchased, my relationship with him has improved significantly. I am learning to really listen to him and he is learning to trust me. I have a useful horse at last. In return he has taught me to look at difficult situations and difficult employees as opportunities to think outside the box.

I’m now more aware of unconscious behavioural patterns in others and in myself. In order to truly understand the actions of other people I’ve got to take the time to listen and learn more about their underlying motivations. In teaching me and the rest of us these lessons, Huggy has earned his place on our team.

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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