How Horses Teach You Emotional Intelligence. Man laughing with a horse.

Emotional intelligence, also known as emotional quotient or EQ, plays an increasingly influential role in leadership. Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand, notice, and evaluate your emotions, and demonstrate self-awareness by managing emotions and behaviors in a way that helps to build strong, positive relationships. 

Most of my clients who participate in Leadership with Horses have been there and done that when it comes to leadership development and team building. They’re looking for something different. 

They’re curious and open to the idea that learning with horses accelerates skill-building in emotional intelligence (EQ). And they have a lot of questions. The question I’m often asked is:

Why are horses so good at teaching emotional intelligence?

The answer is both simple and complex. Horses have roamed the earth in herds for millions of years. To survive and thrive, horses have developed a set of skills and characteristics that are at the core of what we call emotional intelligence.

Horses honed these skills and characteristics long before humans even walked the earth. As a result, they’re naturally far better at emotional intelligence than we are—and quite possibly than we’ll ever be. They can truly be your greatest teachers, helping you improve your leadership abilities by:

  • Increasing your understanding of how others perceive you and the impact of your behavior on others.
  • Showing you how a shift in your behaviors can positively change relationship results.
  • Deepening your capacity for authentic engagement with others.

The four pillars of emotional intelligence with horses

There are four pillars of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. To understand why emotional intelligence training with horses can be so successful, we have to understand why horses are EQ Masters.

The four pillars of emotional intelligence with horses

First, horses are acutely self-aware. Like many other animals, horses communicate much more through postures, gestures, and expressions than they do vocally. They are mindful of their body language and proximity to other horses because clarity and timing of herd communication lead to a sense of belonging, stronger relationships, and heightened safety for individual horses.

Horses also recognize that they are prey and that predators are all around them. They understand their limitations when on their own, so they live in herds. All the speed and agility of an individual horse ultimately will not save them without the safety of the herd. They know that what they can do alone is no match for what they can do together. They have no self-delusions.

Second, herds have complex social structures, requiring collaboration and cooperation. Acceptable and non-acceptable behaviors govern social interactions between members of the herd. For the entire herd to thrive, they must self-manage within these acceptable behaviors. If a horse does not self-correct, the herd steps in. They provide clear feedback about what is and is not OK. Occasionally, horses who become overly aggressive are driven from the herd by other horses. 

Third, relationship awareness (often called social awareness) is critical to the equanimity of the herd. Not surprisingly, social dynamics play a key role in maintaining the vitality of a herd. Horses artfully pick up on and understand the emotions and feeling states of herd members. When you are in their presence, as part of the herd, they can read you too.

Fourth, herds survive and thrive through relationship management. Horses can form long-standing and close bonds. They prefer some horses over other horses. When they disagree with each other, they engage in structured conflict to minimize injury. Their ability to manage the complexity of these relationships stems from their EQ.

There are many herds within a herd – just like teams are part of a larger division within an organization. Some horses have friendships across these smaller herds and work together to find the best grass, seek out the safest water hole, and raise their babies.

What’s our EQ lesson?

The health and longevity of any given herd (horse or human) is dependent upon leaders with the leadership skills to manage resources, maintain herd cohesiveness and monitor the ever-changing landscape. Strong connections, clear communication, and trust are essential for leaders and herd (team) members.

The horse-human learning connection

Perhaps the greatest gift horses offer us as coaches and teachers is their mastery of relationship awareness. A big part of EQ is the ability to notice and interpret nonverbal cues from others. As prey animals, horses are extremely sensitive to these types of emotional and physical nuance. They rapidly and effortlessly respond to their surroundings and herd.

Think about it: Horses don’t speak yet communicate clearly and effectively. How? Because the language of horses is through the body. 

Within the herd, horses have a finely tuned and subtle communication system that combines physical movement and emotional expression. Every horse understands it, and it extends well beyond the herd to include their environment. When a pack of wolves trots up over a hill, a herd of horses knows instantly – from more than a mile away – whether that pack is looking for food or traveling to their den with full bellies.

It’s no wonder they can read humans so well. When interacting with humans, horses keenly notice and interpret our bodies and energy – or how we “show up.” They provide immediate, honest, and non-judgmental feedback. Their responses can be subtle and complex or bold and demonstrative. Horses respond positively to trustworthy leadership, emotional honesty, and congruency. And that’s what makes them EQ masters who can teach us how we are coming across to others in our “herd” and what those team members are trying to communicate to us. 

Horses spent millennia honing their EQ skills. Imagine what they can teach you in a day.

If you want help gaining self- and social awareness for yourself and your team, call me at (425) 488-7747 or email me. We’re scheduling now for 2023.

Listen as Amanda discusses emotional intelligence for leaders during an interview with Blog Talk Radio calledClose Up Radio Spotlights

Amanda Madorno of Roam Consulting LLC.

 

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