Lessons for life from the horse’s mouth

I am learning to ride a horse for almost a year now and like all beginners I recently fell off! The damage to my arm and back is insignificant compared to the damage to my pride. I thought I was doing rather well.

However, the fall did me far more good than harm. Learning how to fall off – without damaging anything – is an essential skill for any horseman or horsewoman. I also learnt some useful lessons for life – especially for my professional life.

I parted company with my trusty steed after he thought I had given him leave to break into a gallop. I had never been so fast on a horse and, not unsurprisingly, was startled into a mild panic. This was enough for me to lose my coordination and soon after, my secure seat in the saddle.

During the days after, as I nursed my battered limbs (and dented pride), I spent hours thinking about what went wrong. I am determined to get back in the saddle and equally determined not to have a repeat performance! Having rolled through my mind all the technical reasons for may fall, I came to the conclusion its was caused by one simple fact. I got scared. And when you’re scared you don’t think straight or act in the right way.

There’s a clear lesson here for young professionals – especially marketers.  There can be any number of really scary moments that are suddenly upon us. We could be asked to stand in for the boss at the last minute to pitch the budget to the board. We could see our perfectly crafted marketing plans start to unexpectedly and unsuccessfully unravel.  We could launch a product that has all the attributes of a winner, but for market to uncover its fatal flaw.

At times like this, we must control our fears. We are all capable of handling these situations. We wouldn’t have got job on if we couldn’t. But when we let fear take a grip, failure is the only option.

My tip to aspiring business leaders is to put yourself in situations where a heightened sense of self-preservation will hit you when you least expect it. Perhaps you may take up horse riding! Whatever it is, if you can learn to keep calm, think clearly and do the right thing at that critical moment, this will be an invaluable life skill.

I learned another key lesson when I realised that the fall was entirely my fault.  When working with a sentient being – human or animal – it’s always easy to blame the other one when disaster falls.  But my horse did not decide himself to set off at a gallop. I must have told him to!   The horse was (and is) gentle, well-mannered and immaculately schooled. He would only do as he was told.  So while I thought I was asking him to keep up the nice steady pace we had achieved, he thought I was asking him to speed up!

I have learned that you guide your horse with your hands, feet and seat. Your hands are connected to the horse’s mouth via the reins to steer and stop. The feet are used to kick or nudge the horse’s flank to indicate the speed you want. You seat is where your backside and legs touch the horse though the saddle and through this contact you communicate as much information as through your hands or feet. All three – hands, feet and seat – must to work in harmony if the horse is to know precisely what you intend. If conflicting messages are sent, the horse is likely to do the most unlikely thing.

This is what happened to me.

When we become leaders in business, we have to be so careful of the instructions we give – especially then the instructions are to be passed through a chain of command.  Each link in the chain needs to fully understand the overall intention and the fine nuances of the instruction. If the links are at odds with each other in the slightest, the entire organisation will quickly take note. Nothing but doubt, loss of confidence and chaos will ensue. The business may well gallop away in a disastrous direction.

My tip to future business leaders is to work as hard on crafting and delivering the instructions as you do on creating the brilliant business ideas you need to get done. As you might imagine, the military puts great emphasis on training officers to prepare and deliver formal orders. This, above all other military skills, ensures every person in the unit – from colonel in chief to private soldier – is clear at to their their specific role and how it will contribute to overall victory. It would not harm to learn some of these techniques.

One of those techniques is, of course, “body language” given that 93% of face-to-face communication is achieved by it. On the subject of technical horsemanship, I reckon it was my body language – i.e. my “seat” – that sent the signal to the horse to speed up. You can be eloquent and precise with the words you choose, but if the body language is wrong then things can go horribly wrong. And today electronic communications – email, social media and the oft-misinterpreted text message – provide plenty of opportunity to foul up our “virtual” body language. I’m going to take more care with that, and I advise we all do.

So why did my “seat” change? That is simply because I was not concentrating on being flexible. That sounds like a contradiction in terms. But it isn’t. Both on horseback and in business, you have to work hard on being flexible. As leaders (or riders) we feel compelled to be in charge, to ensure whatever is happening is happening our way. There’s always the temptation to tweak things one way or another. But my fall made me realise that if things are going OK and the ultimate objective is being achieved – even if it doesn’t quite feel right – then you have to get in tune with the rhythm and go with it – be that the rhythm of the horses gait or the performance of your business team.

My arm still aches and I need to treat my back with care. But my mind is clear and better equipped for my future at work and in the saddle.  I look forward to both with confidence.