Using Horse Sense When Leading Change

As I look back on events in my life that had an impact on how I view the world I can honestly say that my father played a major role in many of these lessons. The event described below has created a lasting impression on me and affects how I view the change process in my work. I hope that it affects yours.

It was a cold January morning in Southwest Montana. Snow had fallen the night before, the air was brisk, and as is common in Montana winters, it was an overcast day. Dad and I had just finished breakfast and were trudging through the new fallen snow on our way to the barn. We could see our breath as we talked and waded through the knee-deep snow. Our project for the morning was to harness up and drive a young draft horse mare that had never been hitched to a wagon. It was also a first for me. I had never witnessed this process firsthand but dad had done it so many times before. He always looked forward to these interactions with the horses and I could see the anticipation in his face.

Many years before my dad started raising Percheron draft horses and it was more of a hobby than a business for him. Over the years he had accumulated some cattle and horses and ran his ranch as a supplement to his regular business. He typically had about twenty horses somewhere on his ranch ground and would keep a few in the acreage behind the house to work with in the winter. Whenever the hay bills got too high he would sell a few but he never was excited about the prospect. The horses were a part of the family and I believe he grieved the loss. For him interaction with the horses was not a chore but a labor of love and that’s how he always approached working with them.

The Percheron draft horse is an imposing and majestic breed that can stand six feet tall at the withers or shoulder, have a hoof the size of a dinner plate, and can grow to weigh over a ton. Dad favored the Percheron breed because they were typically taller and had fewer problems with their legs and feet. In coloring, Percherons are either coal black or a dappled gray that faded to white as the horse ages. The grays were Dad’s favorite and he had just recently purchased this young gray mare to add to his collection. She was a fine two-year-old with a well-proportioned head and body – a great candidate for a pulling team.

As we entered the barn I saw that dad had put a halter on her earlier in the morning, brought her into the barn, and she had been eating hay placed in the manger of the stall. It was obviously a new experience for her. She was tense, her ears were back and she was anxious about being confined in the small area. I was a little anxious myself. I knew the power that a horse this size could generate in a kick and my mind raced as I had visions of being kicked and launched through the wall of the barn. The last thing I wanted to see was a rodeo in this confined space. Because I was unfamiliar with the breaking process I really had no expectation of what would happen next. What I was privileged to see greatly surprised me.

As he approached the horse Dad started talking to her in a calm and reassuring voice and made sure that she could see him. He came up to her head and stroked her and began working back down her length, patting and rubbing her sides. All the while she never stopped watching him. Her sides nervously twitched as he worked his way down her length. After several minutes he reached down and picked up one of her front feet by the hair just above the hoof. He patted her leg and worked her foot and foreleg back and forth and then he moved to the other side of the horse and repeated it on the other front leg. Next he worked his way toward her rear legs, stroking and slapping her side lightly as he went. She nervously moved away from him but he stayed right with her, stroking and rubbing her. All the while he calmly talked to her, calming her with his voice.

Facing towards the rear of the horse he positioned himself near her side and bent over to pick up her rear foot. She resisted at first but gave in quickly. He again repeated the same patting and moving process he had done on the front legs. She offered less resistance as he repeated the same process on the other rear leg. It was now obvious that she was calmer because her nervous twitching had greatly diminished.

The next thing my father did astonished me. Grabbing a length of rope he gently tossed one end over her back and let it slap her opposite flank. It startled her a little and she moved away from him. He then slowly pulled it over her back until it fell off. He then repeated the process over and over from both sides all over her back and shoulder for several minutes. When he could see that she was not reacting to it any more he then touched and lightly tapped the rope to her sides and rear legs. She was still apprehensive but could see that the rope would not harm her. Then my father gently slipped the pulling collar over her shoulders and coupled it together around the base of her neck. She calmly accepted it.

The final steps were just ahead. Dad took the harness from the wall and readied it for placement on the mare. A pulling harness is a noisy combination of leather straps, chains and connecting clasps that can weigh over 75 pounds. In order to get her used to the noise, he shook it several times allowing the chains and clasps to rattle noisily. Then taking the harness in both hands, he slid it over her rump and onto her back and shoulders. She jumped aside a little but accepted the weight. Still talking to her he started connecting the clasps and completed installing the harness. Finally he inserted the bit into her mouth and connected the bridle around her head. She chewed on the bit – trying to get used to the new sensation in her mouth – but offered no other resistance.

It was now done. The young mare just stood there, fully accepting the closeness and weight of the harness and bridle. Little did she know that this was opening a new chapter in her life that fulfilled her life’s purpose – to channel her massive strength to perform work for her master. Next she would be hitched up to a wagon for further training. I will save that part of the story and its relevant lessons for a future article.

Reflecting back on the events of that morning I now can picture many parallels with the work that I do today. That morning my father was initiating and managing a great change process in the life of that majestic animal. Given an alternative, I am confident the mare would have rather been anywhere but in the barn stall that morning. This spirit is often the same in humans during the change process. Also, if not handled properly, the outcome of the event could also have been traumatic for both the horse and my father. This is also the case when organizations fail to manage the change process well.

Personally I had come fully expecting to see a ferocious battle of wills and strength between man and beast. However, my father took total control of the change process. Rather than try to match his physical strength against hers in a winner-take-all battle and crush her will to resist he chose a higher level path. He chose to lead her through the change rather than have conflict with her.

I believe that the methods he used that morning are very applicable to leading organizational change. Listed below are the parallels I believe are appropriate in today’s organizations.

  1. He had an action plan. My father knew each step of the process and the expected end result and he implemented the plan flawlessly. Successful change management requires good planning. It must support short-range implementation of improved processes while supporting a long-range strategic vision for the business.
  2. He talked to her to calm her. All organizational change requires that we communicate what we are doing and why. People want to know what is going on and this communication helps relieve the tension in employees. In addition, just like that horse, some people in the organization will never understand all of the details nor will they always accept the reasons for the change. However, the communication process itself will relieve some of the anxiety for these participants.
  3. He engaged the horse in the change process. The horse knew that my father was the one leading the change and they had a personal interaction as he soothed and encouraged the horse. The change agent must be visibly engaged in the process while simultaneously providing leadership and assurance during the course of the changes. To be effective it must be a personal, hands-on process.
  4. He allowed her to set her own pace in buying into the change. By seeing how she was reacting he was able to know when to go to the next step. No two people or organizations absorb change at the same rate. Only by being intimately involved in the process can the change agent judge whether it is time to take the next appropriate action. Change is an iterative process with differing rhythms and intensities based on the technology and players involved – not a one-time event. Good judgment is crucial to successfully advance the planned changes.
  5. He was committed to make the change. There was no doubt in my mind that we would be there in the barn until we completed the task, whether it would take two hours or two days. If my father had lost patience with the horse and put it off for another day the process would have been much more difficult the next time for both parties. Indeed, it would have been a rodeo event. Change is not for the faint-hearted. You must have the courage and tenacity to see it through. The organization must know that the leadership of the organization is committed and will not waver on accomplishing the objective. If naysayers in organizations are able to push off change implementation then it will be that much more difficult the next time the company attempts to create meaningful improvements.

Whether man or beast we are all creatures of habit and we all resist changes in our environment. In order to become successful change agents for their organizations, leaders must influence their organizations to overcome this natural resistance and then lead them to implement new concepts. I trust this story provides fresh insights on ways to be more successful in the change process. In the next two weeks, I will publish another article on the same horse story that is an example of effective teamwork.

Posted in Blog Post, Growing Businesses, Restructuring Businesses and Struggling Businesses


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