By Kim Hallin
I’m fascinated with the concept of leadership. Some people believe that great leaders are born with the inherent skills and personality traits that predispose them to becoming effective leaders. Others say that leadership is a skill (or set of skills) that can be learned, and thus taught. Perhaps there’s some merit to both theories. But my horses have shown me there’s something much more important than either, and it’s simply this:
In order to become an effective leader, the individual must have a compelling REASON to lead.
I first observed this phenomenon about 15 years ago when financial difficulties led me to sell the mare who had been the clear “leader” in my herd of three. Lilith was a very effective leader (maybe one of those natural born leaders?) who always made her job look easy and effortless. So it was only after she was gone that I realized just how important her leadership role had been in my herd. Neither of my other two horses (Shoki and Puck) seemed to have Lilith’s natural inclinations toward leadership. In fact, when introduced to other horses at trail rides, clinics or visits to friends’ barns, both Shoki and Puck tended to fall low in the proverbial “pecking order”… and always seemed content to let other horses take the lead.
However, when Lilith left, suddenly my remaining herd of two found themselves feeling lost and vulnerable. But not for long. I remember marveling at how effectively Shoki soon stepped into the role of herd leader, not only offering Puck significant comfort at a time of distress and confusion but also exhibiting sometimes over-the-top protective tendencies whenever visiting horses and their owners came for play dates. This was a big change from his former attitude, and resulted in a few unexpected squirmishes with horses he had always gotten along with in the past.
Several years later when I bred Puck and she gave birth to her filly (Tempo), Shoki bonded closely with the gregarious youngster and quickly became her mentor and disciplinarian (often teaching lessons much more effectively even than her own mother!). For the next 10 years Shoki (who I had originally pegged as a horse with few natural leadership skills) remained steadfast in his commitment to be a good leader. And, both Puck and Tempo clearly saw him as such.
With Lilith’s departure, Shoki had found his reason to lead!
Recently I had the privilege of seeing this phenomenon play out again. This time with Tempo who was born into my herd and who – despite exhibiting obvious signs that she possessed some strong natural leadership inclinations – had never been able to overcome her “birth” spot at the bottom of the pecking order.
A couple of months ago I decided to add a new horse to my herd. This was not a decision I took lightly, knowing how close-knit Shoki, Puck and Tempo have been, living together as a family unit now for 10 years. But, the new horse (Markus) had a long history of being very submissive in herds (and, in fact his previous owner said he got beat up pretty much everywhere he lived). So, I figured that Shoki would not feel threatened in his leadership role by such a submissive horse… and I hoped the integration would go smoothly.
Well, the universe has a way of laughing at me whenever I think I have a handle on things! When I introduced Markus to my herd, a fascinating story unfolded. I started out by introducing Markus individually to each member of the herd. I did the introductions according to the established “pecking order”, which meant Shoki was first, Puck second and Tempo last. But, as the saying goes, Tempo may have been last but she most certainly was not least! It was obvious immediately that Markus and Tempo shared a special (and very mutual) love connection. Not only did Tempo clearly claim Markus as her chosen new pair-bond; he chose her back.
Unfortunately, Shoki did not approve of the love shenanigans and once the herd was let loose together he quickly intervened to reinforce his leadership position. But Tempo, who had never had the opportunity to welcome a new member into her herd before, simply wouldn’t take no for an answer. When Shoki couldn’t get Tempo to behave according to his wishes, he decided it was Markus who deserved the blame. For the next couple of weeks, whenever the horses were turned out together, Shoki would harass Markus and do his best to keep the newcomer isolated from “his girls”.
Initially, Tempo seemed to be at a loss over Shoki’s behavior and was clearly frustrated that he was treating her new friend so badly. For days and days she made ineffective pleas for Shoki (and Puck) to grant her permission to spend time with Markus. And, Markus too, made what attempts he could to seek comfort and companionship from Tempo. But unfortunately, the decision was out of their control because Shoki refused to budge on the issue.
After about two weeks of this daily struggle, something amazing happened. One day when Shoki started to make his typical power-play toward Markus, Tempo very intentionally stepped between them with a sense of authority I had never seen in her. (I had the privilege of watching this encounter from my kitchen window but I didn’t catch it in pictures.) I could tell immediately that something was different about Tempo. Her body posture said very clearly, “That’s enough. It’s time for you to leave him alone and stop causing trouble”.
Shoki clearly sensed the seriousness of Tempo’s intent and recognized that his leadership was being challenged. He wheeled around in order to use his powerful hindquarters to “reinforce” his position of authority. But, this time Tempo did not back down. In fact, she spun around herself, with even more confidence than him and then kicked out at Shoki with such authority it made ME gasp. Never had I seen Tempo even THINK about challenging Shoki in this way!
In the moment I thought to myself, “I need to get out there and break them up before one of them gets seriously hurt!” But before the thought could even communicate action to my feet, I watched as Shoki humbly backed down. In that instant, the universe as we all knew it changed. Tempo had simultaneously shed her identity as the “baby” of the herd AND found her “voice” as its new leader. Tempo’s deep desire to protect her new friend and to establish a different set of rules in the herd had caused her to reach deep inside and access the leadership skills (whether learned or inherent) that, until then, had remained mostly dormant.
Tempo had found HER compelling reason to lead!
It’s been three weeks now since this incredible transition occurred. The change has not been easy for any of them. Shoki actually colicked (became physically ill) about 10 minutes after the big standoff. He soon recovered but then several days later Tempo broke out in an inexplicable episode of hives that lasted about 10 days. Being in charge is stressful! And Puck, too, has struggled – both to figure out what all the change means for her personally and also to learn to relate to her daughter in an entirely new way. Yes, change is hard.
But, it’s also good. Thanks to Tempo, my expanded herd has found a new “normal” and everyone is living peacefully together again. Tempo is proving to be an exceptional leader, and Shoki is once again content (perhaps even thankful?) to have a strong leader to follow.
As for me… I can’t help wondering: had it not been for Markus’ arrival would any of us (even Tempo herself?) ever have recognized her leadership potential?
From now on whenever I have the privilege of meeting or interacting with a great leader, I’ll smile with the understanding that they, too, must have been motivated by a compelling reason to lead.
“If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you are right.”
Kim Hallin is an accomplished horse trainer specializing in humane methods that uphold the integrity of the horse. She loves to nurture the powerful bonds that can develop between people and animals. Kim recently launched Unbridled LLC, a business that brings humans and horses together in a collaborative learning process designed to enhance leadership and communication skills while developing greater overall self-awareness. To learn more about Kim, please go to https://www.unbridled.guru.