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Horse power: Ten equestrian lessons that can help develop better managers

Rosie Bailey

Managers who want to help and encourage their teams to achieve high performance can learn a surprising amount from trainers who prepare horses for elite competitions. Article by Rosie Bailey – co-founder and principal consultant at global learning consultancy OnTrack International.

At OnTrack International, we sponsor the Italian eventing rider and trainer Daniele Bizzarro, who competes on the British eventing circuit. Eventing was originally designed to test the battle skills of cavalry officers and horses. It involves the three disciplines of dressage, show-jumping and cross country and is the only sport in which women and men compete together as equals. Here are ten lessons, taken from Daniele’s expertise in horsemanship, that are relevant for every manager:

1. Identify potential. Some horses are suited to different disciplines. An eventing horse has to be an all-rounder, with grace and precision for dressage, courage and athleticism for show-jumping and speed and stamina for cross country. As Daniele says, the most important attribute of a horse is its attitude. It has to be trainable and willing to work with you. When managers are recruiting for their teams, they need to be aware of the exact skills they’re looking for. The challenge is to spot those who have the right attitude and the potential to cope with the different demands they’ll face.

2. Establish and maintain trust. Daniele has to develop a rapport with his horses, to gain their cooperation. He has to trust each of them – particularly when he’s jumping over walls and hedges on a four-mile cross country course – and each horse has to trust him. To achieve high performance, managers and their team members must establish and maintain mutual trust and respect.

3. Motivate them. A horse will not do something that it doesn’t want to do. Each horse has its own personality and the routine that works for one may not work for another: some like to be out in the field, others don’t. You have to get to know them, understand them and find what works best for each of them. The same is true of teams. 

4. Provide the right environment. To perform at their best, horses have to be treated well and they need to be happy in their environment. Some like a bed of shavings, others prefer straw. To get the best out of your people, you have to look after their welfare, cater for their particular needs and provide a conducive environment.

5. Manage the relationships between them. Not every horse is happy in every stable. Some are friendly or unfriendly with others. They each have their own preferences. You have to manage these relationships and put them next-door to others that they’ll get on with. The same dynamic applies when people work in teams.

6. Pay attention to their needs. A horse won’t tell you if it has a sore foot. Instead, it will try to compensate and this often makes matters worse. Likewise, managers must be able to notice when someone in their team has a ‘problem’. Ideally, if you can spot these problems early on, you can prevent them from escalating further down the line.

7. Develop them appropriately. Eventing horses have to perform consistently well in three very different disciplines and, when competing, they have to ignore any distractions, such as the noise of the crowd. Their training will reflect this. Managers should ensure that team members are developed to meet the various challenges they’ll encounter and to sustain their focus when pursuing their goals.

8. Be clear and consistent in how you treat them. Horses learn from consistency. They’re attuned to your body language and the nuances of how you communicate. So are your team members. Communicate clearly and be consistent in how you treat each member of your team. However, you’ll have to flex your management style to suit the specific needs and requirements of whatever situation you’re facing. It’s horses for courses!

9. Understand that you need a strong support team. You could be the best rider in the world, with the best horse, but if you haven’t got the support of good grooms, a physio, a nutritionist, a good vet and others, you won’t succeed. Many people have to do their job properly, if you’re to achieve the desired result. To attain optimal performance, every organisational team will need back-office support. Don’t underestimate or neglect the importance of those who support your team.

10. Remember, they need downtime. Elite horses cannot stay in peak condition. You build up their form to prepare for big events and they’ll then need downtime to recuperate. In the workplace, teams often don’t have this luxury. However, managers should be aware of each person’s workload and the pressures they’re under. Individuals need some ‘downtime’ as it’s not possible to sustain high performance indefinitely. These ten principles have proved to be highly effective in developing and preparing elite horses. Why not try them when developing your own management teams?

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