My little horse, Siete, is constantly testing me. She knows that I have a very deep bond with her mother, Silk, and since we are a herd of three, she is the lowest ranking member. A few years ago, I learned a way to encourage Siete to accept me more willingly as the leader. It was taught to me by a very wise horsewoman named Carolyn Resnick as part of her “Waterhole Rituals”. She called it “leading from behind”, and I have discovered that Native Americans also practiced this ritual of “walking a horse down”. It is based on what the lead horse in a herd does and is supposedly understood by all horses instinctively as part of their language.
What I do with Siete is so simple. I stand behind her in the pasture and wait until she starts to move. Then, very slowly and with no pressure, I follow her. If she starts to run away, I stop and walk in the other direction until she is relaxed, and then, we begin again. When we reach the point where Siete is happy to have me standing with her while she grazes, I ask her to move away from me, and she does so that I can walk behind and follow her even as I am suggesting the direction that we go.
It is good for the horse to express resistance, and it clears the air between you, avoiding confrontation and allowing the horse to feel like she has the choice to stay with you or to go. There is no expectation on my part about how long it will take or any attempt to change the situation. Siete trusts me now and usually waits to see what I want to do. I am able to understand how she is feeling as I follow her, and it helps me connect with her honestly in that moment.
I have always been a take-charge kind of person. I am usually quick to assess a situation and want to get going and “get ‘er done”. Over time, I began trying this leading from behind idea with my family. I listen more, ask questions and help my daughter or my husband reach a decision without pressing the control button and causing them to feel pressured into doing it my way. In business meetings, I don’t speak up as much as I used to, sitting back so that I can sense the relationships and personalities of the other people in the room better. It makes me feel more in harmony with everyone, and I am less invested in the outcome being how I want it to be.
I was very sad this week when Nelson Mandela died, and I have avidly read and listened to all the stories about him. It took me by surprise when I found several quotes from his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, that mention: “It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.” He talked about how being a leader is like being a shepherd: "He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind." It is important to understand that this is not about tricking anyone into doing it your way. It is about setting aside the ego, not judging anyone or manipulating them, forgiving their resistance if they don’t see things from your point of view and moving the situation forward in a direction that everyone is ready accept.
At first, when I began walking behind Siete, I would get frustrated and impatient, doubting if I could do it, feeling that it would never work and that she was too spirited for me to handle. I decided to trust that her resistance was a good thing and that even if it took much longer than I expected, we would come to a point where we enjoyed being together so much that our hearts would unite. It takes a daily commitment on my part to keep the bond alive, but without it, we both are isolated, missing something that creates a void inside.
The horses get this. Nelson Mandela got it. It’s time for me to learn the wisdom of leading from behind.