Riding a horse as a crash course on leadership

There are many kinds of learning. Not always reading books is the best kind. Here I want to share some of my personal and lifechanging experiences with unexpected teachers. The focus as always is on doing the right thing effectively, but the perspective is new.

Western pleasures

For the last couple of years, I have been learning horse riding. This started with the treatment my kids got for some emotional issues and soon became a shared passion of all the males in the family. With COVID19 we stopped riding to focus on other things but hopefully will renew as the situation gets better. During the training, I had three very different and very special mentors, and acquired many insights. I planned to write this particular article a year ago, but only now find the time to deal with it, somewhat nostalgically. Riding the huge beast in nature is a lot of fun, and I think that in riding fun comes just after the safety and before the leadership part.

Know your beast

The first thing I learned in horseriding is the way the horse thinks. Unlike us, or cats and dogs, horses always feel as prey animals. They will try to save energy for possible pursuit, they can be scared by very benign things, and it is crucial to establish trust. The rider and the horse can fight each other or can act as one, and it is crucial to build mutual trust and respect.

The horse has a split brain. The left side accepts changes and learns, while the right side tries to escape dangers. A rider should always approach the horse from its good (left) side.  Each side has to be trained separately, so most exercises first start from the left side, and then repeat from the right side.

This sounds a bit strange, but each of us has his own quirks. Some people are anxious and some others are bipolar. The more information we have about the person, the easier it is to design a safe strategy.

Never go into a direct power struggle

This is simple. The beast weights four times more than me, and ten times more than my child.  There is no way to win the direct power struggle. It is also unreasonable to graze grass instead of pursuing a common goal. We need to guide or outsmart the beast.

This is a very easy concept, but I failed time after time, especially with my first trainer. The first trainer I head was a kind of ninja: he completed the Israeli ninja obstacle course. Somehow he valued courage and determination above other things and copying him I tried to be more determined.

I got a lot more of his help from the ground than was good for me. He also allowed me to use spurs before I was truly ready, simply to allow me more power over the beast. This made me very accurate in controlling a subdued animal but this is hardly a good leadership. Once, a horse stopped obeying my spurs I could not control him and made it to the ground with an emergency dismount.

Authoritative leadership works if applied accurately, but it is somewhat dangerous and ineffective.

Control from the ground

My second trainer was from a very different school, which focuses on the natural connection with the animal. So he asked me to spend a couple of lessons on the ground and not on the animal. Then I had to control every movement of the animal applying certain smart tactics, like closing the eye of the animal or approaching it from a very specific angle.

This helped me to see the world in the way horses see it. The horses are trained this way. They first learn to obey certain commands on the ground, and only then the same commands are translated to gentle pressure.

One of the advantages we have as superlearners is the ability to learn subjects good enough to see them from the perspective of other people. This is a good trick when we try to predict how the person will react. Then we can achieve the desired result with minimum pressure.

Fighting my own fear

We are trained to increase the horse’s pace into a fast trot and then counter. The horse resists as it wants to preserve energy. So unless we are motivated to go into counter the horse will never speed up. As the trot gets faster it becomes increasingly more difficult to be stable in the saddle. I used to fear this.

While my first two trainers were built like classical jockeys, my third trainer was built like me: a sort of human tank. He explained how I can use my body effectively with a focus on where I put my feet in the stirrups and how I control my own posture. He also explained the fine details between more control and more comfort and guided my choice between these elements. As my feet sat better in the stirrups, the fear disappeared.

It often happens that we ask others to do the things we fear hoping to control the event. This is not a great strategy.  A less risky strategy is improving the control to such level that when things start to go fast we will remain firmly in control.

Back to nature

The initial training happens in a very controlled environment. Once we can control ourselves and the animal, we go outdoors. Now, this is inherently dangerous. There are places when we need to go up and down, streams that need to be crossed, almost invisible obstacles that may hurt the horse…

I went out with a guide and with one of the horses, I felt comfortable with. Our pace was normal and I had spurs on me. Suddenly the horse saw an irrigation pipe and thought it was a snake. We lounged probably 5 meters into the air and back to the ground, my spurs touched the horse in a way that he started to gallop. I was able to stop him probably 300 meters later. I was filled with adrenaline and happy for all the training I got. The horse stood as if nothing happened. At this point, the trainer congratulated me on graduation from the initial training.

In real life, things may behave wildly. Unless we are truly prepared we might be in great danger. Even if we are truly prepared, we still fear, but we control the events and ace the situation.

Horses understand freedom

I was less interested in simply riding my horse: it was a bit boring for me. So I started to ask about more advanced subjects: bareback riding, training, and team exercises. The trainer told me that I was not ready yet.

For the next three months, I used to make various turns with the horse at various speeds. competing complex obstacle courses. After each good exercise, I learned to give the horse some time to enjoy himself. Why? Because the horse understands freedom and learns to appreciate the effective completion of tasks. In freedom, the horse needs to understand that he did not won his autonomy, but was granted some freedom due to our goodwill and guidance.

No treats, petting, or negative pressure can generate the learning rate which is achieved by strategic switching between gentle control and guided freedom.


As I was learning my own lessons, my kids were learning theirs. My focus was on control and accuracy. Leeron learned responsibility and speed. Daniel learned freedom and communication. When we started to ride as a team, each had different limitations. The horse did exactly what I wanted to do, but we were kind of slow. Leeron flue where he wanted but could not turn or stop his horse in time. Daniel and the horse were enjoying themselves without any visible goal.  Our horses interfered with each other and fought for the leadership of the horde. It was a mess.

So we started to take turns, and each would lead in the area which was most difficult for the others. Leeron slowed his counter for us, Daniel started to go where the horse did not want and I took leadership only when my kids struggled. It took us around 3 months to start working as a team.

When groups that come from different disciplines need to cooperate and the top management does not step in, the players need to learn how to take turns.  Moreover, it is very important to be aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses and help overcome the hard parts. Otherwise, there is a mess.

The end

After 3 years of training, my kids looked and felt like real cowboys. I could not be prouder. However, with COVID19 I did not want to expose our family to the people on the farm. Also, I felt that we had too many commitments and needed to focus. I promised to return one day.

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