The Art of Driving: 7 Things Harder’s Herd Taught Us About Leadership

I’ve always loved draft horses.  The Mane Intent herd includes two beautiful Clydesdales – Samson and Raven — who make a great team. My husband, Chris, and I recently had an opportunity to work with another wonderful team of ‘heavies’ at a Central Ontario Draft Horse Workshop hosted by Jackie and Owen Harder of Harder’s Heritage Farm in Stirling, Ontario. The ‘experience’ was a birthday gift from Chris – and what a memorable gift it was.

“We teach the art of driving draft horses to sustain the draft industry in a healthy and enjoyable way from beginner to advanced drivers. We believe in safe equipment, safe horses and proper training to keep the draft industry strong. The art of driving drafts will be lost if we don’t keep teaching,” Jackie explained on the first day of this three-day workshop. Other workshop participants included a couple contemplating the purchase of a farm and a heavy horse of their own and a young woman who had purchased her horse and wanted to explore the art of driving.

Jackie and Owen are a poster-couple for sustainable living. They live off the grid with power they produce through solar and wind and manage their farm with draft horses. They promote sustainable living by leading a lifestyle as their grandparents did. “We eat what we grow, buy from our neighbour and live locally,” Jackie says, and describes their horses as “trustworthy, reliable and part of our family.”

Their herd includes a Belgium/Friesian-cross named Ben and four Belgium horses: Ed, Pete, Al and Margaret. The Belgium draft horse typically stands between 16.2 and 17 hands (66-68 inches or 168 – 173 cm). On average they grow to weigh over 2,000 pounds. In other words, they are really big, powerful horses and they’re built for heavy work. Its steady temperament has helped make this horse one of most popular heavy horses in North America.

Like us, however, each horse in the Harder herd brought their unique personality to their work and presented harders-heritage-2learning opportunities as the weekend unfolded. The team dynamics alone reminded me of a few office experiences that included competition between managers and strategic alliances. The Harder team included a ‘driver’, a ‘slacker’, a ‘creative’, an ‘analytic’, a token female, family members and even a love interest.

Al and Margaret, for example, were brother and sister and didn’t always appreciate each other’s company. Pete, a younger gelding, is currently challenging Ed’s leadership. Ed is the oldest member of the herd and the ‘alpha’ male. Some worked better with a partner and others, like Ed, seemed quite content to work independently on their own.  Pete was fond of Margaret and would get anxious, calling out to her when she was out of sight.  Ben needed a confident handler who provided the reassurance he needed to remain calm and fully present. “Big-hearted Benny”, my favourite, was clearly a sensitive boy who needs an encouraging word.

Here are 7 leadership lessons this special herd shared with us as the weekend unfolded:

  1. Leadership Starts with You: The best leaders are self-aware. They understand their own triggers and have learned to anticipate and manage their own responses to a variety of situations. Horses, like many people, are highly sensitive animals very much aware of those who are in their environment and working with them. They read your body language, listen to the tone of your voice, take in your emotional state and monitor your energy level to determine if you can be depended upon for their safety and lead the way. Like us, they respond best to others when they are treated with mutual respect. That’s why the best team drivers are those who are able to control their anxiety, while keeping their voices low and remaining grounded and calm in crisis. They treat those around them, including the herd, with respect and in return, they earn the respect of the horses they’re working with.
  2. Lions Don’t Have to Roar: I once read a book with this title. It was all about expecting respect and fostering confidence through body language. The modern version of it is a book by Amy Cuddy called Presence. Jackie Harder is a woman of presence. There were a few interesting moments during the logging demonstration on Day 2 that could have escalated were it not for her calming presence. Jackie and Owen are not tall people – and they are working with horses that literally tower over them. Both have learned to use their body language, the tone of their voice and their intent to let the horses they are working with know that they can trust their leadership. They have earned the respect of the herd through consistent repetition. Jackie was able to diffuse the situation by remaining calm under pressure and speaking with confidence, providing clear direction to the team and repeating her message if necessary. The approach worked, the horses were able to refocus and completed the task without incident.
  3. Anticipate the Unexpected, While Remaining Fully Present in the Moment: On Day 3 of the workshop, we took an extended trip through the ‘neighbourhood’ with teams of three and two including Al, Ben and Ed and Pete and Margaret. While the trip was a smooth one with everyone taking a turn at the lead, there were a few moments when ATV’s, cars, motorcycles and waving youngsters would meet us along the way, creating a distraction for the horses. Naturally, the horses wanted to stop, determine if the distraction was a threat or not, and given the opportunity to do so, could have chosen to run away from a perceived threat. With lead in hands, our role was to keep the horses moving and focused on the end goal despite the distraction, while reassuring the team that everything was ok.
  4. Remain Focused on the End-Goal, Use Constant Correction to Stay the Course: When you watch an experienced driver work with a team of horses, they make it look easy. The reality is much different. You need to stay focused on the distant goal while using constant correction to keep the team aligned and moving in the same direction. Like people, some horses are easily distracted, some become anxious in new environments, while others like ‘steady Eddy’ can be depended on to mentor the younger members and lead the way for others. The driver takes the lead, sets the direction and ensures the team moves forward together to reach the desired destination.
  5. Pace Yourself: When you know the trip is going to be a long one – it’s important to pace yourself and know your limits to avoid burning out too soon. Over the course of our 3-hour journey, Pete walked along at a fast clip and carried the bulk of the load. His teammate Margaret was happy to let him do so, positioning herself slightly behind him and keeping the pace of her step constant throughout the trip. She knew how to conserve her energy and as a result, did not tire as quickly as Pete did along the way.
  6. Use Consistency and Repetition for Greater Retention: Jackie and Owen have invested hours working with and training their horses and teams to work together. Horses learn best through repetition and a consistent approach. People do too. How much time do you invest coaching and developing your team members? When the group arrived at the farm, most of us had little if any experience harnessing a horse. We began with an introduction to the horses and to the different parts of the harness. We learned to start from the front and move to the back when putting the harness on and to start from the back and move to the front when taking the harness off. We did this several times throughout the weekend and by the end of it, we were all successfully completing the task. The best way to learn a new skill is through supportive coaching and hands on experience.
  7. Nature is the Best Medicine: The impact of stress on leader-managers today is unprecedented. We could all use a little more self-care and a break from our ties to technology. As we meandered through century-woods with a team of horses surrounded by new friends, stories and shared laughter, I was reminded that nature is and always will be the best medicine. When was the last time you gifted yourself with some good nature?

So here’s a shout out to Owen and Jackie Harder for hosting a wonderful weekend and sharing their passion and experience working with a beautiful herd of horses. They are leading by example and showing others how they can develop their own natural leadership when they choose to step up, step into their power and take the lead.

At The Mane Intent, we offer people with a way to reduce stress, improve their wellness and effectiveness at work, while ultimately gaining coping skills for a healthy work/life balance. These are memorable, one-of-a-kind events with our gentle herd presented in a beautiful natural setting. Book your experience today.

img_2911About the Author: Jennifer Garland is the Owner/Program Director of The Mane Intent, offering Health and Wellness Workshops and Individual and Team Effectiveness Coaching. Jennifer’s intent is to bring horses and humans together to explore new possibilities, getting you out of your comfort zone and giving clarity of voice to your leader within.  As a strategist, facilitator and effectiveness coach, Jennifer has provided counsel and support to senior leaders from all walks of life to build productive relationships, facilitate learning and to embrace change.

The Mane Intent

September 28, 2016

Other Recent Posts…

Horse Powered Reading® Coming to The Mane Intent

Horse Powered Reading® Coming to The Mane Intent

Do you know a child who struggles with reading? Socio-emotional issues, ADHD, anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns often get in the way of student learning. Stay tuned for a new program coming to The Mane Intent: Horse Powered Reading® . The Mane...

The Mane Intent Finalist in Business Excellence Awards

The Mane Intent Finalist in Business Excellence Awards

We are pleased to share The Mane Intent is a 2022 Finalist in the Peterborough and the Kawarthas Chamber of Commerce Business Excellence Awards in the categories of Health and Wellness and Micro Business. We are grateful for all of the 'two-leggeds' and 'four-leggeds'...