Emma Kirkwood

What Leaders are Learning from Horses

Being a leader in today's world is more than holding a certain position or title and expecting people to follow. Leaders who get things done are those who inspire us.

They are able to adapt to different needs, wants and priorities whilst holding the vision and mission, from a place of certainty. They are accountable, humble and continuously strive for excellence.

Most importantly, they are able to connect with and understand others personally, in teams and across organisational functions.

Developing these skills requires becoming open to the continuous stream of feedback which comes our way. Rather than shying away from feedback, we can actively seek it out, encourage people to speak and also be aware of the equally powerful nonverbal feedback signals which help indicate if we are on track or not.

Often, it can be difficult to receive feedback. The fear of criticism or judgement from others is powerful and instinctive. It can raise our defenses and limit our ability to view feedback as objective rather than a personal attack and potentially a threat to our own survival, our own position within an organisation.

The challenge is to move past these fears, to see feedback as an opportunity to connect, share and grow.

So..how can we do this?

Well, by working with horses of course! Let me explain a little more..

In many ways, horse are very similar to humans. We are both social animals, desiring connection and belonging whilst fearing force, control and intimidation.

Like us, horses also seek strong leadership and will choose their leader based on their primal instinct for survival and comfort. It is this instinct which uniquely places horses to provide instant and honest feedback on their human interactions and leadership style. They have neither egos nor care for titles or hierarchies, they do not judge and they never lie.

In a fun, safe and collaborative environment, our workshops allow for the horse becomes the teacher. We can then go beyond our comfort zones, experience the power of communicating via actions and sensory information and learn how to create willing followers from a place of personal power rather than positional power.

What do Leaders Learn from Horses?

Working with horses is ‘in the field’ learning at its best. In this unfamiliar environment, we quickly reach a level of vulnerability needed for deep personal development. In their gentle yet powerful way, horses do not judge us, they simply respond by giving immediate, instinctive and honest feedback.

This allows a safe learning space with the opportunity to explore and experiment on a range of leadership principles including the impact of body language and non verbal cues, influencing, being present and creating willing and engaged followers.

Feedback from workshop participants includes an increased level of self-awareness, ‘in the moment’ insights on developing trust and listening to others before acting.

Insights which they then implement into the workplace, reporting improvements in team cohesion, innovation and an increased ability to engage and influence.

Case study examples

Example one: Project manager, consultancy organisation

  • Client challenge: ability to inspire team to achieve results, tendency to ‘people please’ when challenged or questioned.

  • Learning process: engaging in an exercise to lead a horse in different directions using body language and energy alone.

  • Insight & Learning: client learned the difference of leading through connection and rapport rather than using ‘false’ incentives. She developed the ability to create a stronger leadership presence through purposeful, non-aggressive body language and to recognise and respond to emotions, which arose during challenging times.

Example two: Head of Department, professional services organisation 

  • Client challenge: ability to connect have people follow through on requests/work direction. Tendency to direct and control work and team through position and title, particularly when under stress/pressure.

  • Learning process: engaging in a series of exercises to move the horse over different obstacles. Working with small team to come up with solutions collaboratively and think outside the box.

  • Insight & Learning: by removing the ability to ‘control’ the situation, the client was able to explore alternative influencing styles to come up with creative solutions with others to achieve the goal. Development of lateral rather than linear thinking. 

Example three: Banking & finance team experiencing high change and low engagement scores

  • Client challenge: ability to provide clear leadership in uncertain environmental conditions resulting in disengagement and dysfunction within the team.

  • Learning process: undertaking different activities outside of individual and team comfort zones where team achievement, emotional resilience in change and the importance of knowledge sharing where emphasized.

  • Insight & Learning: Development of stronger team bonds as individuals shared learnings and supported each other, which allowed greater collaboration and new perspectives on solving old problems to arise.

Ready to find out more? [Click here to book in a complimentary call]

Five ways horses are helping today's business leaders prepare for tomorrow's change

Frontier Leadership is now in its third year of operation and every time we run our training programs, I continue to be amazed by the changes in our participants from when they first walk up the driveway to when they leave at the end of the day. 

The power our equine friends have in creating instant and lasting change is truly remarkable. People realise that stepping out of their comfort zone is something they CAN do and by doing so, the path to leadership through growth and engagement opens up, along with improved business results. 

But don't just take my word for it, here are five ways in which horses are helping today's business leaders prepare for tomorrow's change: 

1. How to lead with influence

Horses are the ultimate influencers. Left to their own devices, they have an uncanny ability to move themselves to just where they want to be (usually a juicy patch of grass) and at the same time have moved you to just where they want you to be. This skill balances out in that they are also able to be influenced quite subtly and with ease - once you understand their language. This behaviour is commonly seen in the workplace too. Engaging clients and employees are often top of the list for most senior executives and horses teach us the steps involved in creating (and maintaining) willing and engaged followers. 

2. How to become a leader others want to follow

To lead a horse, you soon realise that you are the one who needs to make the change. Similar to prospective clients and top level talent, the horse has little to no motivation to move just because you tell it to. In fact, unless there is a powerful enough motivator, it’s often the case the horse (or human!) will do the complete opposite of what you want. Learning to lead a horse, with no physical attachments between you and the horse, gives you a true understanding of this concept. Through this alone you can experience, with immediate effect, how when you change what you're doing, the impact you have on others – good, bad or indifferent! Which leads us on to #3.

3. How to become a feedback seeking leader

There is no failure, only feedback. Horses have no ego, they do not judge and they have no care for titles or hierarchical positions. What they do care about, deeply and instinctually, is their own safety and physical comfort. This allows them to give real time, genuine feedback to the human working with them. You’re either influencing the horse to follow you, or you’re not. It’s that simple. And therefore, effective in taking away the distraction of the voices in (and out of) our heads. Voices that often give excuses, justifications, reasons and sometimes well-intentioned yet misleading advice…but no useful tools to help you move forward and achieve your outcome. This honest and immediate feedback allows you to practise changes to your physiology, your demeanour and your intentions in order to ascertain what makes others want to be with us and what makes them want to move away from us. 

4. How to lead through change and uncertainty

Horses are prey animals. Humans have a more predatory nature. It is counter intuitive for a prey animal to want to spend time with a predator and to do so they need to overcome their natural instincts. It is critical that you become the safest place to be for them to even contemplate coming near you. In many ways, this is similar to how a prospective client feels when they receive a sales call, how a new employee feels in the first few days or a team feels during constant change and uncertainty. Learning how to BE the safe place for your client or employee, creating space for them to open up and for you to build rapport, gain trust and ensure they’re with you before choosing to follow you.  

5. How to get out of your comfort zone

Leading requires action and it rarely (if ever) occurs from behind a desk! For many people, working on the ground with a horse will provide a completely new perspective on the world, and the business challenges you’re experiencing. All your senses are heightened, and you gain a greater awareness of the nuances of communication, leadership and collaboration. This is the place of stretching and growth, it requires curiosity, the willingness to be open to learning something different, and allows for solutions to arise through creativity, innovation and team work.

Interested in finding out more? Contact us and we’ll arrange a time to talk.


What horses can teach us about leadership

Horses don't judge. They have no egos and no care for titles, hierarchies, pay packets or power plays. Their feedback is honest, instant and there is no fooling them. 

Throughout history, horses have played a critical role in the evolution of human civilisation by allowing us to utilise their speed, strength and power. From transportation to competition, warfare, farming and policing, horses have played a significant role in connection, communication, commerce and the transfer of human language, culture and technology. 

Their spirit, grace and beauty have captured our imaginations and whilst in today's modern world their primary use is for pleasure, entertainment and sport, it is through their ability to connect and respond instinctively that they continue to provide new insights to humankind. 

In an increasingly digitally and technologically connected world, horses offer us the opportunity to re-experience natural and personal connections and to develop leadership and communication skills which enhance our lives and the lives of those around us.

 Horses, like humans, are social animals. They have defined roles within their herd and desire connection and belonging whilst fearing force and intimidation. Achieving the best result with a horse requires the creation of trust, collaboration and understanding and it is our philosophy that current and future leaders who best master these interpersonal and emotionally intelligent skills are the ones who will be able to achieve sustainable business results and organisational strategic objectives.


“In the past a leader was a boss. Today’s leaders must be partners with their people...they no longer can lead solely based on positional power

— Ken Blanchard

Through horses,

  • We become aware of the non-verbal, unconscious signals we send to the world and those around us.
  • We experience the unique partnership ability between predator and prey animals, providing metaphors of workplace power im/balances and allowing a deeper understanding of other perspectives. 
  • We see internal and external incongruence mirrored to us immediately and without judgement. 
  • Being near large, powerful animals with an immense amount of energy can sometimes be intimidating and take us outside our comfort zones. This creates an experiential learning opportunity to overcome fear, develop self-confidence and manage emotions in a natural way.
  • We learn how to create a safe and open environment allowing choice and willingness to follow, minimising fear and maximising learning and creativity.
  • We develop skills to understand and value other perspectives, experiences and opinions, making us much more insightful leaders. Horses treat humans as if they are horses. Often, humans only see and communicate from their own perspective - a common cause of conflict, stress,  misunderstanding and miscommunication.
  • We experience first-hand the impact of powerful leadership skills including clear communication, purpose, trust, respect and understanding.

Contact us to find out how our unique workshops can benefit you and your team by learning from the horse. 


How you lead a horse is how you lead your team

Horses never lie. They provide instant and continuous feedback as to what's working for them and what's not. 

It is through their unique mirroring ability that we are able to understand our own leadership and communication style and importantly, our impact on others. From this point of awareness, we can then develop skills, tools and resources to lead teams of willing followers in environments of trust, respect and engagement.

Humans provide this feedback to each other too. However, for many of us, we have forgotten how to read our own and others non verbal and behavioural feedback, to take into consideration anothers' point of view or perspective on a matter before we jump to influence and persuade. We have, in effect, forgotten parts of our own language.  

Working with horses moves us out of being stuck, it brings us back to our natural world where we can see our true leadership capacity. They teach us:

  • how to quickly and continually connect, inspire and motivate;
  • the impact of learning to 'speak' another's language;
  • what motivates others and what drives fear;
  • being present v being distracted;
  • how to achieve our goals by finding common ground and
  • how to lead with no position or title to rely on.  

Leading horses, just like leading people requires self awareness, ownership, accountability and an open mind. You need to be clear about your goals, able to accept feedback, curious about the results you are (or are not) getting and genuinely interested in others. 

Stepping outside of your own comfort zone is where you find growth and innovation. Learning to lead a horse, with no sticks or carrots is an experience in true leadership power. This is a leadership style of giving and receiving, where both parties, coming from very different power bases want to work together, allowing for the creation of possibility, collaboration and influence. 

Interested in finding out more? Contact us today