What My Horse Taught Me About Authentic Leadership

Photo Credit: Unknown

Today I said a final Farewell to my beloved horse Chanova after 22 years of partnership.

She has been my true inspiration to become an ALIVE leader.

I bought her as a young horse at the age of 3, and my intention was to train and educate her to become a competitive show horse. Little did I know back then that she would become my trainer on our journey together and teach me some valuable lessons about leadership.

Since 2007, I have trained 60 horse-assisted coaches and facilitators as partners and had approximately 900 participants in leadership and team training workshops with horses. I have developed the ALIVE Leadership method during the past 10 years thanks to my beloved Chanova. 

Here are the top 5 lessons I have learned from her:

Lesson 1 – Authenticity

The first lesson my horse Chanova taught me was about authentically trusting myself and others. In the beginning of our training, I asked for help from experts and had numerous trainers in riding and horsemanship. Some trainers told me to push and others to pull; all of them favored the use of force. I never even considered if this was the right method training horses, because this was the commonly used training concepts at the time.

Chanova did not like the training and as a kind and accepting horse, she sometimes refused to be with me on my terms or any other humans. One autumn I had constant problems catching her in the pasture. There were nights when I left her all alone outside, because she refused being lead by me. Other days I temporary fenced the path between the pasture and the stable so she could walk in by herself, to rest calmly in the stable with her fellow horses in the herd.

When one of the experts told me to beat her up to show her who was in charge, I decided to let go of all expert advices and to approach Chanova with a different and softer leadership style.

This first lesson was not about the horse, it was all about me not trusting myself. How could Chanova trust me, or even like or know me, when I did not show how much I cared about her and what we were accomplishing together? At this point the horse guided me to start my own process to become more authentic, creating trust by being vulnerable and using my intuition like a horse, a prey animal not a predator.

Lesson 2 – Listening Skills

The second lesson was about listening. I remember one day, when I came to catch Chanova in the pasture for a jumping training, with my usual tight time schedule. I had no problems getting in contact with her, but she told me nervously pacing around that there was something really frightening going on, and she did not want to leave her herd of horses. I was in a hurry so I told her to forget about it immediately and come along. She followed me restlessly pulling on the rope in all directions.

Horses were my hobby at that time. As a management consultant, busy leading complex projects somewhere in the world, I had no boundaries between work and private life. Suddenly everything happened. My cell phone caught my attention and I quickly picked it up, work was calling. A roaring truck pulled up in front of us and I brusquely stopped the horse from taking of, by pulling the rope with force. Chanova felt trapped, reared, kicked me down with her front hoofs and took off in panic.

Fortunately I was not physically injured. It hurt my heart though, realizing what a pushy and stubborn leader I was. This was a hard and necessary lesson to let go of my resistance and start listening. Chanova, as a flight animal, created an awareness of the importance to listen and connect with others, the situation, and myself not only for survival but also to create new long lasting healthy relations. I did not have to make her run away; I only had to listen and react in the moment with empathy.

Lesson 3 – Intentional Presence

The third lesson Chanova taught me was about intentional presence. The horse was most successful in competition with my daughter. Although Chanova was not the best show jumper in the world, she gave all of herself if she trusted the rider.

At that point my daughter was accepted for a tryout to an International Equestrian Education Center with Chanova as her partner. My daughter did great, but Chanova refused to cooperate with the other students who wanted to be perceived as good riders on her back, and the horse was disqualified. Intentional presence is to be aligned with your inner purpose. In this case neither the horse, nor my daughter truly wanted to be in that equestrian program anyway.

In my case, when I wanted to be perceived as a good rider, horseman and leader, I did not reach my goal. But as soon as I put my heart in it and shifted my attitude to really show the horse and the world that I care, things manifested with ease and grace.

My mission is to create more authentic leadership in the world together with horses, and other inspirational leaders, and I believe that we need to learn how to express and manage our feelings by being intentionally present.

Lesson 4 – Value Awareness

Chanova was one of my best coaches in our Horse Assisted Leadership and Team training programs. She was brutally honest, always giving direct feedback without judgment. The forth lesson Chanova gave me was about values.

One time a team of German consultants came to participate in leadership training with the horses to define and match corporate values with personal ones.

Initially, defining values was a mind game; no one in the arena connected with any of the horses or with each other. Suddenly one of the participants exclaimed, “I need space to express myself,” and started to walk away slowly. Chanova looked up and chose to follow him. At first she was walking behind him and then she followed easily in trot by his side. Together they moved together with joy and flow showing a total alignment.

This film sequence was widely spread on the internet, and a couple of years later when this gentleman came to Stockholm he called me, just to ask if he could meet with Chanova one more time and experience the total alignment verifying his new values.

Lesson 5 – Energy management

The fifth and final lesson Chanova taught me is about energy and the signals we send out to either attract or repel individuals and/or situations.

Research has shown that horses are energetically sensitive to fields produced by the human heart and humans are sensitive to fields produced by horse’s heart. This is a measurement of coherence, which is the state when the heart, mind and emotions are in energetic alignment and in cooperation.

Chanova had a big and forgiving heart and embodied the great gentleness most horses have. Like all horses, she could feel fear. Most meetings between horse and human in a Horse Assisted Leadership Training is about encountering your fears such as not being good enough, failure, being alone, losing control, being together, being present, being vulnerable and following your heart and intuition.

I can remember all the different meetings Chanova had with participants in our training programs, most of them ending with Chanova coming forward putting her warm nose in your lap or standing just calmly beside you, giving and receiving love.

Chanova’s heart is not beating any longer in this world but her legacy is ALIVE for us humans with the five lessons about Authenticity, Listening Skills, Intentional Presence, Value Awareness and Energy Management.

At 25 years old, Chanova was put to sleep today in a research project on anesthetics, her body donated to keep more horses ALIVE in life-critical surgical operations.

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