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The Horse-Human Connection:
Gender Behavioral Differences In Action

By Jane Sanders, President, Authentic Leadership Resources

Horses, like humans, are a blend of masculine and feminine behavioral and communication styles. One significant difference separates us, however. Humans struggle daily with misperceptions, misunderstandings, and rampant confusion as to how to communicate effectively with the style opposite from their own. Horses also struggle when trying to understand us, but, in their world, naturally and easily adopt a masculine or feminine style as the need arises.

So, horses demonstrate ideal style flexibility. Both men and women would be well served to use each other’s communication style – in moderation - when the situation calls for it. By no means should women use a masculine style exclusively, or vice versa. One of the most damaging behaviors many women adopt is trying to become “one of the guys” to fit into the traditionally man’s world of business. Doing so suppresses their authenticity and in the long run, this does much more harm than good and will backfire personally or professionally, or both. A horse never tries to be something it is not. Learn how to communicate with it in a way it understands or you won’t get what you want from it.

For those who may bristle at the suggestion to ever use a style other than their own, I suggest you just simply re-frame the perception: Isn’t this a twist to the Golden Rule – treating others as you would like to be treated? I.e. – if you would like to be communicated with ala your style, assume that others would also prefer you communicate with them in their style. As famed horse clinician Pat Parelli said, “If your horse says no, you either asked the wrong question, or you asked the question wrong.”

The following are communication and behavioral tips for both men and women that will help improve productivity, working relationships, and chances for advancement. It’s interesting and often helpful to see how these tips translate to the horse world, as no better teachers exist than our equine friends. Charles de Kunffy, Hungarian dressage expert, noted, “For horses can educate through first hand, subjective, personal experiences, unlike human tutors, teachers, and professors can ever do. Horses can build character, not merely urge one to improve on it. Horses forge the mind, the character, the emotions and inner lives of humans. People can talk to one another about all these things and remain distanced and lonesome. In partnership with a horse, one is seldom lacking for thought, emotion and inspiration. One is always attended by a great companion.”

Tips For Women Communicating With Men:

  • Be succinct, to the point, but not abrupt. Horses will lose trust and respond negatively to anger and rudeness. Unlike dogs and more like people, they do not love unconditionally. Hold details for back-up. Horses get bored and mentally tired easily. Give them only exactly what they need at any particular moment.
  • Avoid tag questions, apologies, disclaimers (“This is a good report, don’t you think?” Better would be, “Good report.”), (“Well, this is just my opinion, but…” Better would be “I think we should…”). Horses need clear, direct, yet gentle communication to be effective. They do not respond to indirect or weak communication. (Unless they have worked with you enough and love you enough to read between the lines…sound familiar?)
  • Take credit for your accomplishments. (Or someone else might!) A horse flashes its pride with panache, tossing its head and mane, arching its neck, prancing about with ears pricked forward and eyes bright. There is no mistaking a happy, proud horse! Being an ex-Western champion reining horse with arthritis, my horse doesn’t prance but certainly holds his head high and struts when he knows he’s done well.
  • Give brief updates whether asked for or not. (You are not bragging! If you don’t communicate your successes to the powers-at-be, no one else will do it for you and your skills may be underestimated.) Beau always lets me know when the farrier has been out, every six weeks or so, to trim, re-shoe, and polish his feet. When I arrive at the barn he trots a circle in his stall as if to say, “Look mom, my feet are all purty again!”
  • Reduce personal disclosure and problems. (Men don’t bond and process the same way women do. This behavior makes them uncomfortable and they may view it as weak and unstable.) In this case, horses have the feminine style. Share as much personal information as you possibly can with a horse. They are there to heal, support, absorb, and love.
  • Handle conflict directly, politely, with empathy. (Be clear, to the point, but not rude or abrupt. If you are nervous about an upcoming confrontation, write out your thoughts to clarify and focus them.) As mentioned, horses do not respond well to anger, rudeness, or indirect communication. Just tell them like it is, with clarity, gentle firmness, and love in your heart.
  • Make most decisions independently. (Rather than consistently asking others for their opinion for consensus’ sake. Men see this as indecision and lack of confidence.) Horses are always looking for the leader. If they don’t find it, they will take over. Someone has to be the leader and for best results, it should be the human. Just step up to the plate and get things done.
  • Avoid strong displays of emotions. (Men see this as weakness - “too” emotional and not managerial.) Loud outbursts will scare a horse. Keep in mind they are prey animals, more like deer than the dogs and cats we are used to. Humans are at the top of the predator chain. Therefore, sudden noises and movements, especially coming from such a powerful predator as a human, can easily frighten a horse.
  • Avoid saying “I’m sorry” unless you are literally at fault. (It communicates that you were wrong when it may simply be a transition or conversation smoother.) Again, wimpy communication doesn’t work well with a horse.
  • When interrupted, be direct and courteous, not sharp, but take back the floor. (“Hang on a second please, thanks.” Put your hand up to signal “stop” if you have to.) Horses, like children and some people, will constantly test your leadership skills. Use this skill to bring them back into focus for success.
  • Remember you don’t have to like someone to get the job done. To be successful with horses, its more important for them to respect and trust you first. They want to know you are the leader. Like can come later and will if the respect and trust remain consistent. Like can come first, but without the respect and trust they will still run over you and challenge you at every turn.
  • Communicate your vision for the company/department to men/people-in-charge, and your ideas for achieving this vision. If you don’t have a vision, get one! When riding a horse, always be looking out ahead where you’re going, not at the ground in front of his feet. Look into the turn. Horses are extraordinarily sensitive and can feel where your eyes are looking through subtle movements in your body that not even you can feel.
  • Be flexible and keep a positive attitude about differences. (Different is not right, wrong, bad, or good – just different!) Horses, contrary to some opinions of stubbornness (okay, like some people, some horses are more stubborn than others!), are the epitome of flexibility. They glide quickly back and forth from a masculine to feminine style depending on the situation. One minute grooming their best friend, the next biting an annoying pasture-mate to keep him in line, then back to grooming as if nothing else happened. And the bite was not executed with anger, only direct firmness. Five minutes later he’ll be grooming the horse he bit.          TOP
  • Tips For Men Communicating With Women:
  • Don’t assume women’s softer style means less competent. (It’s just different than your style!) Just because a horse communicates differently than you do doesn’t mean he’s not trying to understand or communicate back. It doesn’t mean he is not extraordinarily intelligent in his own way.
  • Be personable and insert a little personal disclosure. (Research regarding employees’ preferences for a masculine vs. feminine style of management consistently shows the latter is more effective.) As mentioned, the more the better as far as horses are concerned. They are with us to serve. They may not understand the words you are saying, but they’ll understand that you need a kind, listening ear and a big heart to absorb your pain. They love a kind human voice and appreciate your attempt to connect with them.
  • Maintain direct but not constant eye contact. (Women perceive lack of eye contact as intentional avoidance and disinterest in listening.) Horses are all about eye contact and body language, this is the basis for all “horse-whispering.” They can tell if your eye is soft or hard from many yards away. In a round pen, a horse whisperer can control the speed and direction of a horse with eye contact, it can be that powerful. Of the two genders, horses are more like women than men. They are connection-based, herd-oriented, nurturing, prey animals. They are vulnerable but strong and wise. As Charles de Kunffy also said, “Courage, wisdom born of insight and humility, empathy born of compassion and love, all can be bequeathed by a horse to his rider.”
  • Say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ more; use demands less. Polite, clear and firm communication gets the best results with horses.
  • Avoid interrupting; use active listening skills. (Demonstrate that you are indeed hearing what she is saying.) if the horse isn’t responding as you wish, pay attention. He is trying to tell you what’s wrong, with his ears, his tail, his back, his feet.
  • Offer more details, more often. Horses are more like men in this case and don’t handle great detail all at once. But women function best with detail!
  • Ask women for their input and opinions. (When you don’t, women think you don’t value their thoughts and contributions.) Here working with horses differs a little. Because they need consistent leadership, giving them room to make decisions (give their opinion, so to speak) can snowball into frequent bad choices. If you know your horse well, you’ll know when it’s safe and appropriate to give him leeway to make decisions.

    For example, one sunny afternoon while riding Beau on the mountain trails, he uncharacteristically stopped dead in his tracks, jerked his head up high and stared ahead for a moment, then whirled around and trotted very fast the other direction. He was clearly spooked. I usually see scary things before or at the same time he does, but in this case I saw nothing. I pulled him up and turned him around, knowing that if I let him make that decision, he would do it again and start making other decisions as well. After two more repeats of the same reaction, it was time to allow him his decision. I know my horse. I know he is rarely that spooked. He has been on that trail hundreds of times and never reacted that way. Just because I couldn’t see or hear anything, doesn’t mean he didn’t hear or smell something. It would be unusual, but quite possible that he caught a whiff of a mountain lion. In this case, I needed to listen to my horse’s opinion. He has never behaved that way again, at least not yet, and that was over a year ago.
  • Watch nonverbal language for confusion or upset. (Women often don’t want to ask questions.) We’ve covered this…horses are all about body language and eye contact. Ears and tails provide a language all their own, an entire article in its own right.
  • Recognize that her intentions may be different than your perception of her words or behavior. I think this tip is obvious as relevant to horses!
  • Say, “I’m sorry” more often. (Including for small blunders or omissions.) Horses amaze me with their ability to comprehend genuine humility and regret. With the right attitude from people, horses (and women) have great capacity to forgive.
  • Be empathetic but not afraid of women’s tears. (It’s just a different way of expressing emotion. She’s been told her entire life that it’s acceptable and even good to cry.) The same tip applies to horses as well, but for different reasons – they sense fear and are afraid of it. Don’t be afraid of them, they sense it and will return the fear or will become bossy in order to provide the missing leadership into the equation. Be cautious, safety-conscious and smart, but not fearful.
  • Don’t underestimate a woman’s capability just because she doesn’t talk about her accomplishments. And don’t underestimate the speed an otherwise seemingly lazy horse can find when extremely frightened. Many riders have found themselves on the ground in a flash when a horse has whirled and bolted (called a spin & bolt) so fast they suddenly found themselves in mid-air with no horse under them. Yes, just like in cartoons!
  • Be flexible and keep a positive attitude about differences! Different is not right, wrong, bad, or good – just different! One of my favorite horse sayings is, “No good horse is a bad color.”
  • What else can I say? In the words of Frederico Tesio, arguably the most successful thoroughbred breeder in the history of racing, “A horse gallops with his lungs, perseveres with his heart, and wins with his character.” As with training horses, effective communication between men and women will take commitment, consistency, and practice by both genders, but with respect and flexibility, we can all enjoy success.

Jane Sanders, president of Authentic Leadership Resources, is an expert in gender issues and communication. She is a consultant, coach, and speaker in the areas of leadership for women, gender communication, recruiting & retention of women, strategic life planning, and communicating with difficult people. She is author of “GenderSmart: Solving The Communication Puzzle Between Men and Women.” Reach Jane toll-free at 877-343-2150;;


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