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  • Alison Lincoln

Authentic Leadership - what is it? How does it apply to horse sports?

“There is a higher level of riding and looking after horses. That sort of thing is about horsemanship and it’s higher than being simply a dressage rider or a show jumper”

Richard Davison, Secrets of the top equestrian trainers

Often described as being comfortable in their own skin, authentic people maintain their core self no matter the situation. You know what to expect from them because they are true to themselves and what they believe in. They are prepared to be their own person and go their own way rather than letting the expectations of others guide them.

Authenticity is about getting to know yourself through your life experiences and learning opportunities. It comes from the accumulated set of things we’ve seen and experienced and enables us to recognise patterns in those experiences, make predictions about what is likely to happen next and come to informed decisions about the way forward. It’s the ability to see the bigger picture and forego short term gains in favour of longer term benefits. For instance, the rider who despite being in the lead after the dressage and show jumping phases chooses to have a training run cross country preferring to prioritise the education of their young horse for the future over the immediate satisfaction of a win today.

Researchers across sport, business and education broadly agree on the 4 main characteristics of authentic leadership:

  • Self Awareness – knowledge and trust in your thoughts, feelings, motives and values. You’re clear about your natural abilities as well as your shortcomings and are aware that how you see the world has an impact and influence on those around you, including your horse(s).

  • Balanced processing of information – you objectively examine all information relevant to the situation in an unbiased way before making any type of decision.

  • An internal moral perspective – you act based on your true preferences, values, needs and beliefs rather than solely to please others or gain recognition / rewards. The more aware you are of your moral compass, the better able you are to make decisions when faced with ethical dilemmas without being influenced by other people or societal pressures / expectations.

  • Transparency – valuing and being truthful and open in your relationships with others. The ability to be true to who you are as an individual which gives clarity to others both horse and human.

These 4 dimensions of authentic leadership demonstrate a genuine desire to work in the best interests of the horse by acting in line with your own personal values, beliefs and convictions, as well as building strong collaborative relationships with others. A useful way to approach this concept is to not only think about where you are now and where you want to be but also the culture you want to have on your equestrian journey. In other words, who you are and the way you do things round here.

Pause for a moment and consider who you are and the way you want to do things:

  1. Are your actions and behaviour congruent with that?

  2. Are the choices you make your own and feel right to you?

  3. Ask yourself ‘who is the type of person I want to be?’ ‘Who is the rider / trainer I want to be?’

Deciding who you want to be as an individual, as a rider, as a trainer, as a coach, as a competitor or as an equestrian is not easy. It involves asking yourself some big questions – What do I want to stand for? What are my principles and values? Who do I want to become? If you’re not sure where to begin when answering these types of questions, start with the end in mind. What results do you want to get? Now shift your focus from the outcome you want to who is the type of person who could achieve that outcome.

For example, if the outcome you want is a horse who is a happy and successful athlete, the type of person who could achieve this might be patient, knowledgeable, calm, thorough, consistent and reliable. Now you’ve moved from being outcome based to being identity based. This identity underpins your beliefs and values. ‘I’m the kind of rider / trainer who gives each horse the individual time and care they need to develop’, ‘I’m the kind of rider / trainer who acts in the best interests of my horse(s)’, ‘I’m the kind of rider / trainer who takes responsibility for my own learning and development’, ‘I’m the kind of rider / trainer who is committed to good habits – getting up each morning at the same time, planning and reviewing progress, keeping health and training records up to date, doing the basics well, staying calm and patient with my horse.’

The 2016 research paper ‘What Makes an Elite Equestrian Rider’ concluded that, at the top of equestrian sport, success and motivation becomes more focused on the relationship you have with your horse and the constant challenge of developing your own and your horse’s skills. It won’t surprise you to learn that the core philosophies underpinning that include:

  • The ability to learn from experience – recognising that success is a journey.

  • Analysing what does and doesn’t work – being true to yourself.

  • Developing the relationship with your horse – understanding how they think and applying it.

  • Keep learning – learn from your mistakes, confirm and explore why they were made, work to try and rectify them.

Aiming for the top? Ask yourself, what kind of person do I need to be in order to do that? What sort of culture (how we do things round here) supports that aspiration?


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