Think Like a Horse: Lessons in Life, Leadership, and Empathy from an Unconventional Cowboy
If you’d told me back then that I’d end up focusing my work not just on horses but on people, I would never have believed you. The last thing I could have imagined is that I’d end up writing books and teaching leadership principles to executives, coaches, parents, politicians, judges, and more. My boyhood dream was to become a mountain man like the legendary figures in the books I loved. I would live alone out in the wilderness with my mules—hunting, fishing, and trapping. I was always more content with animals than with other human beings.
This makes sense when I think about my childhood experiences. My mother battled suicidal depression and sought comfort in God. My dad, in those early days, was a harsh man who had no idea how to give or receive affection. He was never physically abusive to me or any of my three siblings, but he was very critical, and he had little time or patience for his kids. I grew up largely unsupervised, to a degree that I now understand bordered on neglect. There was no one stopping me from swimming in the fast-flowing irrigation canal, riding up treacherous cliff paths on the high mesas, and camping out in the wilderness with only my mules for company. At the age of nineteen, I saddled up one mule, Kate, loaded my packs on another mule, Jack, and set off on a journey north along the Continental Divide toward Canada.
I only made it as far as Wyoming, where I got work on a ranch and started living the cowboy life. It was there that I met my first wife, Locke, a talented horsewoman and musician. Together, we lived and worked at international polo clubs and on ranches from Texas to California to Kansas to Idaho and eventually back to Wyoming. My love of horses never wavered, and I was considered a good trainer, but I mostly did things the old way, which relied on force, fear, intimidation, and repetition. I wasn’t intentionally cruel—people who work with horses in this way generally are not—but I was no longer a boy making friends with his mules. I’d lost touch with that natural sensitivity I once had. Horses were my livelihood, and I did whatever seemed necessary to produce well-trained, obedient mounts for the ranch, the polo field, or the show ring. I’d not yet learned how to think like a horse.
Everything changed for me when I was introduced to a horse trainer by the name of Ray Hunt. Ray reminded me what Skeeter the mule had taught me: that introducing a horse to a saddle and a rider doesn’t have to involve breaking his will. In fact, it can be done with the very opposite approach: allowing the horse to exercise his free will, and creating a situation in which he chooses to cooperate with his rider.
Some call this horse-led approach “natural horsemanship.” Others call it “horse whispering.” It’s not really as mysterious as it sounds. It just means understanding how the horse’s mind works and then using that knowledge to cultivate a willing partnership based on mutual trust and respect, fairness, and clear boundaries. In other words, thinking like a horse. It’s a form of subtle communication that takes place through body language and the skillful application of pressure and release. It’s so effective it can seem like magic, but it actually comes down to applying a few simple principles consistently.
Using the philosophy I learned from Ray, and later from his mentor Tom Dorrance and another great horseman, Tink Elordi, I became a student of the horse once again. After Locke and I separated, I eventually met Jane, who would become my second wife. My daughter, Tara, and I moved to Wyoming to live on the Diamond Cross Ranch, just north of Jackson Hole, at the foot of the Tetons. As I always say, I’m the lucky cowboy that showed up and married the rancher’s daughter. This beautiful piece of land, and the safe harbor I found in my marriage, would become the setting for me to find my true calling in life.
It started almost by accident. Jane and I were asked if we were interested in putting on a private rodeo to entertain three hundred executives from Microsoft. We hired local cowboys to ride bulls and bucking horses and to compete in barrel racing. The audience loved it, and we made more money in one night than we made in a whole summer riding colts. Other groups followed. I began including demonstrations of “horse whispering” in the events—using the principles I’ll share with you in this book—and the response was unexpected. It turned out that what people got out of these little exhibitions was far more than mere entertainment. We received a flurry of messages telling us how powerful the impact had been, both personally and professionally.
“I didn’t just learn how to be a better leader, I learned how to be a better parent,” wrote one CEO.
“It’s really changed the way I interact with my team,” a manager reported. “I’ve learned to be less critical and more patient, to reward small signs of progress, and to set people up to succeed.”
Today, visitors of all sorts, from all over the world, come to our ranch to learn about leadership, trust, teamwork, and communication. Some of their stories are contained in these pages, as are the stories of many horses I’ve had the privilege of knowing (in some instances, names have been changed to protect privacy). At the end of the day, I’m a horse trainer, not a management consultant, and I’m certainly not a therapist. I’ve often wondered what qualifies me—a cowboy with barely a high school education—to be teaching these accomplished leaders anything. The truth is, it’s the horses who do the teaching—I just try to translate.
At one point, when I was thinking about this unexpected path my life has taken, I opened my Bible to read the phrase “Son of man, set forth an allegory.”[*] That spoke to me immediately. I believe the horses do provide something akin to an allegory. When people watch me working with a horse, or read the stories about the horses I’ve trained, they are able to interpret what they witness and uncover truths there that are meaningful in their lives. They find themselves reflecting on their own faults or mistakes, recognizing their potential to be better, and maybe even admitting to fears and wounds they’d previously kept hidden. The lessons they take away help them to be more effective leaders in their workplaces and better parents to their kids. For some, they help with overcoming trauma or addiction, forgiving estranged loved ones, confronting fears, building confidence, or finding their passion in life.
In the decades I’ve been doing this work, I’ve seen over and over how it changes people—and always for the good. I’ve seen tough and insensitive people become softer and more empathetic. I’ve seen timid and fearful people become firmer and more confident. I’ve seen proud and arrogant people become humble and vulnerable. None of these changes happened because I told people what was wrong with them. They simply saw themselves reflected in the mirror of the horse and started working on it.
For every lesson I’ve shared with the people who come to the ranch, there’s a lesson I’ve learned as well. It’s been my privilege to work with some of the great leaders in business and politics, and I take away many nuggets of wisdom from our conversations, our correspondence, and from simply observing them as they interact with their teams at the ranch. I’ve been struck, again and again, by the similarities in the ways they lead their companies and the principles I learned for training horses. The principles I share in the pages of this book are informed by the examples of all the great leaders I know, both two- and four-legged.
A Sermon You Can See
If you’re wondering about the wisdom of applying horse-training methods to human beings, let me be clear: people are not the same as horses, and what works with horses doesn’t always work with people. Moreover, what I’m sharing is not a method but a philosophy. It’s a set of guiding principles for forming healthier relationships—with horses, with people, and with ourselves. Every horse is different, like every human being, so what works for one individual in one moment might not work for another in a different moment. If you reduce “thinking like a horse” to a method, which many people do, it will quickly become fixed and limiting. But if you can grasp the philosophy at its core, and keep coming back to it, it will guide you to the right solutions for whatever situation you happen to be in.
Before we get started, I’d like to share a poem. I love the tradition of cowboy poetry. At the end of a demonstration, I often climb on an upturned bucket beside the horse, leaning over his back to get him used to having me up above him—preparation for when I’ll actually sit up there in the saddle. As he starts to relax, I’ll sometimes stay up on that bucket, a hand resting on the horse’s neck, and recite verses to our guests. Later, around the campfire, they often ask for more. One of my favorite poems—that becomes a favorite of many of the leaders I work with—was written more than a hundred years ago by Edgar A. Guest. It’s called “Sermons We See” and it goes like this:
I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day;
I’d rather one should walk with me than merely tell the way.
The eye’s a better pupil and more willing than the ear,
Fine counsel is confusing, but example’s always clear;
And the best of all the preachers are the men who live their creeds,
For to see good put in action is what everybody needs.
I soon can learn to do it if you’ll let me see it done;
I can watch your hands in action, but your tongue too fast may run.
And the lecture you deliver may be very wise and true,
But I’d rather get my lessons by observing what you do;
For I might misunderstand you and the high advice you give,
But there’s no misunderstanding how you act and how you live.
When I see a deed of kindness, I am eager to be kind.
When a weaker brother stumbles and a strong man stays behind
Just to see if he can help him, then the wish grows strong in me
To become as big and thoughtful as I know that friend to be.
And all travelers can witness that the best of guides today
Is not the one who tells them, but the one who shows the way.
One good man teaches many, men believe what they behold;
One deed of kindness noticed is worth forty that are told.
Who stands with men of honor learns to hold his honor dear,
For right living speaks a language which to every one is clear.
Though an able speaker charms me with his eloquence, I say,
I’d rather see a sermon than to hear one, any day.[*]
As I invite you into these pages to meet the people and the horses I have known, my wish is that through my words, you will “see” the events I’m describing. I have no wish to preach to you. But I witness small miracles every day in my round pen and in the lives of the people who gather around the fence. The horses have taught me so much about how to be a better father, a better husband, a better leader, and a better human being.
I hope that in their stories, you, too, can see the sermon they are sharing.
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|Epub||June 27, 2022|
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