As a success coach, parent and horse enthusiast, I see parallels between business, parenting and working with my horses. I like to use these “life lessons on horseback” to teach and coach about business leadership and parenting.
- Establishing and maintaining clear boundaries
- Understanding the needs of those you are leading
- Responding in a positive and consistent manner
Imagine if you managed an office and your employee set his own hours, dictated his own salary and regularly told you where to go and what to do. What if there were no expectations for productivity or work accomplished, and you walked on eggshells when asking him to do anything. Is that a recipe for a successful work environment? Of course not.
And yet, often, that is exactly the environment parents establish with their children.
Horses operate in a linear social hierarchy. This means that they are either going to be the leader of the herd, or a follower. As herd animals, horses need a confident, responsive leader that
- understands the needs of the herd members,
- is aware of potential dangers, and
- is able to hold boundaries when they are being challenged
In a situation where they feel that they are not being provided with such a leader, horses will attempt to take on that role themselves.
How does a horseback rider establish clear boundaries, confidence and leadership?
A rider uses the reins. But the reins are used not to pull the horse in any given direction; rather, they are used to prevent the horse from going astray. Reins actually establish boundaries of movement by “blocking” the undesired direction. Specifically, they “block” forward movement when you want your horse to stop, and “block” right when you want your horse to go left, or left when you want him to go right.
To be effective as a parent, you have to demonstrate that you can be a confident, responsive leader. We don't want to prevent our children from doing things that will allow them to learn and explore. But much like the reins on a horse, we want to use boundaries to provide structure in which they can safely and appropriately move forward.
When I shared this concept with a client during her riding lesson, she was able to apply it to a family she was working with as a therapist, where an 8-year old child was ruling the family household. With this new perspective, the mother learned to become an effective leader in the family dynamic by:
- setting and maintaining clear boundaries,
- understanding her daughter's psychological needs, and
- responding to challenges calmly and consistently
This mother was able to create a safe place for her daughter to excel.
Children need boundaries. They need to understand the structure and roles in which they operate. When they know what to expect, they will feel safer and calmer, and become more cooperative.
Of course, despite our best efforts, children will continually test the boundaries. It's a natural part of their development. As responsive leaders, parents need to learn unemotional assertiveness to respond to these challenges. Unemotional assertiveness avoids damage. If you react to the request for cookies before dinner with a yell or negative emotion, that can do damage to your relationship and your child's feelings of safety. If, however, you calmly say no to each request, it establishes and maintains a clear boundary. That clear boundary makes your child feel safe. Erratic and inconsistent emotional responses erode feelings of safety.
Like the mother of the 8 year old, you may need to reach out for support to learn how to effectively set boundaries with unemotional assertiveness. You can find the help you need through parent coaching, therapy or a parent-training program. Any way you choose, the leadership in your family starts with you.
Whether you are leading your family, your community, your company, or the world, the ability to set and maintain boundaries is part of what defines you as a good leader. When you use your leadership skills effectively, you may find the parenting ride more enjoyable, too!