Horses have developed their own compelling models of fairness, forgiveness, and leadership — a model that can benefit humans, too.

Floral horse illustration

Illustration © Róbert Farkas, excerpted from Lead with Your Heart … Lessons from a Life with Horses

Our predatory nature makes us go at things directly. We want to take the shortest route possible and move in a straight line. When we introduce ourselves to others, for example, we walk straight ahead, face each other frontally, show our teeth in a ritualistic smile, and then extend an open hand to shake — an atavistic gesture to reassure our counterpart that we do not have a weapon in our dominant hand. That’s a predator’s greeting; we go straight to our goal.

Prey animals, on the other hand, instinctively avoid direct lines of sight. They want to reduce the odds of being caught out in the open, so they walk along curved, meandering paths, moving from one position of protection to the next.

To make our horse feel comfortable, we walk up to him obliquely, staying in the middle of his visual field. We do not approach him in a straight line but, instead, adopt a gentle curving arc. We greet him at his shoulder, an area a predator would never choose as a point of attack. We avoid staring directly at him but gaze down at the ground, thus reassuring him we have no intention of stalking him.

We stroke him on the shoulder, and then show him our back. This symbolic gesture again sends the message: “We’re not hunting you.” If we were, we would not have exposed our back.

We then walk away, our back turned, again reinforcing that we want nothing from him. We merely seek to greet him respectfully. Our gentle demeanor follows the curve of compromise.

Teachers often discover that the straight, blunt line of attack and confrontation does not work. The horse shows us that the curve may be the shortest distance to what we seek.

In our daily lives, we must notice when we are creating lines of resistance and when we are creating curves of compromise. Are we creating a situation where resistance engenders more resistance, or are we seeking a way that this relationship can flow of its own accord?

Text excerpted from Lead with Your Heart … Lessons from a Life with Horses © 2016 by Allan Hamilton. All rights reserved.

Allan J. Hamilton

Allan J. Hamilton, MD, is a Harvard-trained brain surgeon, a renowned horse trainer, a developer of equine-assisted learning programs, and the author of Lead with Your… See Bio

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