“I have never ridden a horse” was a go-to for me in two truths and a lie, because at my age and in my part of Virginia, it always worked in tricking the grown-ups with whom I found myself playing the annoying icebreaker game at a conference or business meeting. You’ve never ridden a horse?! Never. I’ve wanted to, my brother did when he was little, I have friends who have horses right outside their back porches, and family on mine and my husband’s side have farms. I’m not sure how I got to be forty years old without this experience, but here we are.
So when we went to visit my cousin earlier this year, it was time. She has a beautiful home on several acres of land just outside Richmond where she cares for two full-size horses, Stevie, Morpheus, and a miniature pony named Lancelot. She grew up with horses - riding, showing, competing, and teaching. She can barely remember life without them.
As we approached the fence that encircled the horses, out of the comfort of her air-conditioned home and into the hot sun, she taught us the basics, taking her time to explain what we could expect. Then she included us in the preparation process, cleaning the horse, placing the bit, and securing the blankets and the saddle. We learned where and how to stand in relation to him, how to use our legs and the rein in steering, and the difference between the walk, trot, canter, and gallop, noting that we’d stick to the first two for today.
After my mom and oldest son went, it was my turn. I mounted Morpheus, the horse my cousin had chosen for us to ride that day, and he began a very slow walk around the riding area. She walked ahead of us, holding the lead – something she did to put us at ease. I asked her why she chose Morpheus and not Stevie, the other full-sized horse who was younger and smaller. Morpheus was majestic, old and large and black, his hooves a size that indicated he was bred for working, not showing. She said he was the better teacher of the two, having spent most of his life at a riding school where year after year, people of all shapes and sizes would be lifted up onto his back to learn how to ride. His energy was steady and I felt calmer just being around him. I also felt scared.
I asked my cousin if horses could sense our emotions – like, could Morpheus tell that I was a little bit afraid even though I was having fun? She said he could, and that while all horses could sense emotional energy, they had different ways of responding to it and that was the real reason she chose Morpheus and not Stevie. She said Stevie was a very sensitive horse and sensed fear easily. If he senses fear in a child during a lesson, he would stop completely. Morpheus would keep going. I was confused: wouldn’t it make the child (and the onlooking parents) feel safer if the horse stopped when the child got scared? Yes, she said, everyone would feel safer, but the child would never learn to ride.
Morpheus was a good teacher because he sensed fear and moved with it. He did not allow fear to derail the lesson.
I got a lump in my throat as she told me this, knowing it as truth: we cannot learn to ride unless we ride.
While that lesson resonated with me as the student, it also sparked new insights about my role as mom, CEO, coach.
Managers cannot teach their teams to do hard things unless they allow them to do hard things. Parents cannot teach their kids to make their own decisions unless they allow them to make their own decisions. Coaches cannot teach an athlete to swim unless they allow the athlete to swim.
Learning means risk of failure and harm – whether it’s painful emotions or physical injury. Leading means holding steady as you allow others to experience that risk. The stakes are pretty high, whether we teach in swimming pools, backyards, or board rooms. I am not suggesting that we ignore fear any more than I would advocate bowing to it. If Morpheus could speak, I think he’d say: Acknowledge the fear politely without giving it the power to stop you.
Morpheus keeps going because he knows who's in charge. My cousin can tell him to stop, but my fear cannot. For students: What do you have a desire to learn, to do, to overcome? What is it about that that appeals to you? What is holding you back from taking the next step?
For parents, teachers, coaches, and managers: What is your response to sensing fear in others? What has the power to stop the lessons you teach? How do you demonstrate calm in the midst of your students’ discomfort?
Long story short: Now I have to find a new lie to tell at the company ice-breaker.
Morpheus, up close.