The Lessons of Cedar Ridge Horse Ranch: It’s All About Communication

Tom Avery and his wife, Mary, are the owners of Cedar Ridge, a horse ranch in Ripon, Wisconsin, and they have been training people and horses for the better part of 30 years. One can also call them entrepreneurs, marketing consultants, and business educators. But one thing Tom will tell you not to call him is a horse whisperer. As a matter of fact, for the entire day I was with Tom and one of my leadership development groups at Cedar Ridge, he really didn’t speak with words, much less whisper, to a horse. “What I do,” Tom states, “is develop relationships.”  Sound like Dr. Phil? How about we call him Dr. Tom.

What emerged over the course of the day was a series of lessons in effective communication between two parties: Tom Avery, the relationship developer, and Daisy, a rather skilled barrel competition horse.  It seems that Daisy lost her horse trailer-traveling buddy when said partner moved to a different stable. Daisy’s new behavior was clear: no travel buddy, no trailer. For Daisy’s owner, it was no trailer, no travel; no travel, no competition. Now what?

For the better part of two hours we observed Dr. Tom at work. The plan was to begin by working with Daisy in a refresher of Communications 101, which takes place in the round pen or training area. This might last minutes or hours, depending on how well these two talked and listen to each other. From there they would walk together to the horse trailer with the goal of getting Daisy to board. Victory could only be declared if she willingly went inside the trailer.

We were the observers, carefully watching every move made by Tom with his lanyard, and every twitch, snort, and head fake Daisy exhibited. Tom was quick to point out when Daisy “flipped him off” in horse language. For us, Dr. Tom’s role this day was to school us in the fundamentals of effective communication and engagement. Our job was to digest a series of object lessons that were demonstrated so that we could take back and apply them to the workplace. Here they are:

Lesson #1: To know horse one must first understand the language of horse.

  • Horses are motivated by food and water. “Anything you ask them to do other than eat or drink is not what they really want to do… like go into a trailer, “ stated Dr. Tom.
  • You must “listen” to the horse before the horse will listen to you.
  • You must adapt your approach to the needs of the horse.
  • Do not confuse horse fear for horse anger.

Lessons Learned

  • Understanding your audience, what is important, and what motivates them is the basis for effective communication.
  • Speak to the audience in their language, not yours. I believer that Plato said something similar almost 2,500 years ago when talking about “speaking the language of carpenters.”
  • Active listening is listening for understanding. It is the skill that never goes away.
  • Adapt your approach and style to the needs of the people with whom you are working.
  • Understand what might look like human anger is actually human fear.

Lesson #2: Horses are pros at reading body language.

  • Horses move away from pressure. According to Dr. Tom, knowing this is an important communication principle.
  • Where you stand, how you position yourself, and how you move will determine the direction, gait, and speed with which a horse will move.

Lessons Learned

  • Albert Mehrabian in 1981 wrote that 55% of communication is through body language, 38% through tone of voice, and 7% through words. Horses know this. So do humans.
  • We need to remind ourselves to use effective body language when we “speak” and communicate.
  • When the words and body language don’t align, people note the discrepancy. They will believe the body language over the spoken words, not the other way around.
  • Posture and presence create a particular impression on the audience. The question is, is it the impression you want to convey?

Lesson #3. The round pen is sacred ground. It is a controlled environment, where person and horse go to establish two-way communication, to set and to reset expectations.

  • Most describe a round pen as a place to train horses. Dr. Tom calls it a place to build relationships.
  • When performance does not align with expectations, the round pen is the place to go to re It’s back to basics.
  • Routine and consistent behavior on the part of the human creates routine and consistent behavior on the part of the horse.

Lessons Learned

  • When confusion reigns, priorities are muddled, and expectations are all over the place, take the team back to the round pen; that place which is a structured environment where you as leader set clear expectations in a controlled and safe manner.
  • Practice the fundamentals all the time. Listen, clarify, engage, and act—over and over again.
  • Consistency of communication is critical to reinforce the desired behavior needed for successful execution.
  • When changes are required and the potential for confusion is high, take the individual or team back into the round pen.

Lesson #4. Small steps in the right direction trump resistance, standing still, or moving in reverse.

  • Moving from the round pen to the horse trailer is a series of incremental steps.
  • One step toward the trailer followed by a sudden stop results in a return back to the round pen for reinforcement.
  • This is followed by walking back to the trailer to get past the point of resistance. If there is future resistance, it’s back to the round pen for more reinforcement.

Lessons Learned

  • Overcoming obstacles and resistance in the workplace can mean baby steps. Be prepared to stay the course. Patience.
  • Consistent communication is uniquely important, particularly in times of change.
  • The combination of expectations, communication, and performance in real-time is the formula for meeting the challenges created by uncertainty and change.

Lesson #5. Do not confuse compliance with engagement.

  • You can force a horse to comply with getting into a trailer, although I would not recommend standing directly behind it. Compliance is a short-term solution with no long-term benefit.
  • According to Dr. Tom, engagement in horse culture means doing what you ask the horse to do so that she can get back to eating, drinking, and other bodily functions. The goal is to engage Daisy to get into the trailer, just one requirement in a day of competition, not a reason to go on strike because you lost your traveling buddy.

Lessons Learned

  • Compliance can yield desired results, but it is unlikely that as a leader you will sustain those results over time.
  • Effective leaders maximize team performance through individual engagement.
  • This means a leader needs to learn what is important to team members, and then help them get it. This is how motivation works.

“I help horses who are having problems with people.”

—Tom Avery

The lessons of Cedar Ridge is that effective communications are all about listening, patience, and understanding. Without these, one can only hope for compliance at best, and compliance does not build relationships or trust. When we finished for the day, Tom and Daisy were back in the round pen, preparing to get one step closer to jumping inside the trailer. Ask Tom Avery what he does, and he will tell you, “I help horses who are having problems with people.” It seems that effective communication, whether with horses or people or both, is a full-time commitment.

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