For the past few months, I’ve been working with Chaska, a talented and hardworking horse who has been with us for two years. Through those months, Chaska offered a rich opportunity for me to learn more about leading people.
Chaska’s biggest challenge was a tendency to react rather than respond when there was any kind of change, be it a change in pace, environment, or a new job to do. Chaska’s defence repertoire ranged from bucking to biting to leaving, often dragging the unsuspecting handler along, hanging on with a death grip, resembling a scene from an Indiana Jones movie. I knew that Chaska valued two things; relationships and time to think about stuff so this was my starting point.
Each day I’d take my 20-minute coffee or lunch break in the paddock. Just hanging out and not asking for anything more than some company, maybe finding out where she liked to be scratched, but mostly just being there. My aim was to strengthen a safe relationship that offered reassurance and a sense of peace. I wanted to become a resource for Chaska, to help her when she felt the pressure of unexpected events.
Over a few weeks, I began to ask more of Chaska in incremental steps, sometime daily for just 15 minutes while keeping up with the coffee and catch-up time as a separate deal. While to some people this slow approach may have looked unnecessary and unproductive, the absolute opposite began to unfold. Chaska’s demeanor began to change as she started to seek a connection. She appreciated kindness but learned that just because I was nice to her, when we were working, it didn’t mean she could do whatever she wanted to. I needed Chaska to be a safe, responsive, willing partner, because sometimes my life depended on it out on the trail or in unusual settings.
I was able to progress from 90% groundwork time to 90% riding time within a few days and when it felt like things were getting tense, we went slower for a bit. We are now at a place where we can go almost anywhere and at least feel equipped to approach most obstacles safely. Chaska knows that I am consistently predictable, clear and I am kind. I know that Chaska will give her all to do a good job, even when the pressure is on and the unexpected pops up. We are by no means perfect, but now we are working as a team.
This is what Chaska could teach us about effective leadership.
Get to know your people and what they care about by being around, paying attention and being accessible.
Be aware of and regulate your own responses to unexpected changes as best you can. (We’ve all had plenty of practice at that thanks to Covid)
Offer consistency and kindness while staying clear about expectations.
Be the reliable resource that supports people to navigate change through responding rather than reacting.