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Three essential lessons on relationships

What can horses teach us about relationships?!

As I type this, my inspiration is coming from a herd of horses that I am watching out in the Dubai desert. These horses live day in day out with each other. There's about 30 of them.

These horses have learnt to cohabit space where everyone has a defined place and defined relationships. Some members of the herd like to cause a bit of trouble. Other members of the herd like to stay out trouble and hang out like moody teenagers, distancing themselves from the herd.

There are best friends, boyfriends, established members of the herd and newer members of the herd. Each horse must know its place. When a herd member leaves, or another joins, the pecking order may be re-established, and the horses will need to redefine their own place in that order.

The relationships in our lives may not be so clearly structured, and we do not depend on a herd structure for our survival (probably a good thing, considering). However, there are a three valuable lessons we can learn from how horses interact that can greatly assist us in our own relationships.

1. Leadership is everywhere but not constant

There are more dominant members and a general overall leader of the herd, but horses take a flexible approach towards leadership. They look for the horse best able to lead in an given situation. That horse will the one that is calm, confident, in control of their emotions/reactions and best placed to lead the herd and keep them safe.

Sometime it makes sense for Folly to be leader of the herd, other times it's Camilla. Sometimes Jack leads Jill, other times Jill leads Jack.

We can learn valuable lessons from this. Leadership does not just occur within the workplace. Every relationship has a leader at any given time and someone following (willingly or unwillingly, consciously or unconsciously). This can vary for different tasks.

When travelling, one person may step up to be navigator and decision maker. In the kitchen, it may be the other member of the relationship. When someone is ill, they may defer their normal leadership role to someone else - as that person is better suited to that role at that point in time.

So, rather than assign, or feel forced into, specific roles, we can explore a more fluid form of leadership. Allowing whoever is best placed at any given moment to step up and lead the situation. Just because you normally lead, or feel like you should lead a situation does not mean you're the best placed person to do so.

Are others willingly following? Would you be comfortable if someone else led'? It's OK to reassess and give up your leadership mantle in areas where it doesn't make sense to be carrying it.

Natural leaders of the horse herd also have one other important attribute - they know how to set their boundaries.

2. Boundaries

Boundaries are essential for managing behaviour within a horse herd. Each horse must know and respect both their own boundaries and the boundaries of the other members of the herd. Those with stronger, consistent boundaries are considered better suited to lead.

As I write this, a horse adorned in a fetching one piece has taken a snap at and chased away another member of the herd. Not sure if that was because the other horse had plaits in his hair, or he was stealing a good nap spot. But it was an excellent demonstration of boundaries - you're in my space, please leave, and once you do, I'll back off again and peace is restored.

Horses know what they like and don't like, and what they are prepared to accept and not accept. They are confident enough to clearly express this to the horses around them. For horses, this ranges from a glare with ears back, right up to physical chasing, biting and kicking. Not an approach I think we need to take (nor have many of us mastered the ear wiggle).

But we can learn to understand and respect our own boundaries. We can become awaren of what feels good for us and what oversteps the line. Then we need to respect ourselves enough to have the confidence to communicate those boundaries to others. If someone encroaches on (physical or metaphorical) space, you need to be able to say "Hold up Neddy, you're too close to me and I'd like you to step back". The minute Neddy has stepped back the desired distance, he may relax and continue to graze on his hay/chocolate brownie.

Whether that's bosses, mother-in-laws or best friends, knowing and acting on your boundaries enables you to respect yourself and in turn others will respect you.

Asking for our boundaries to be respected is an example of crystal clear communication, another thing horses are pretty damn good at.

3. Crystal Clear Communication

If you tell a horse one thing one day, and another the next day, it doesn't know where it stands. One day it's cute and affectionate to beg for treats, another day it is reprimanded sharply. Unsure whether certain behaviour is acceptable or not, they will keep asking the question. Sometimes it takes three, four, five times to communicate a "NO" (remind anyone of the children in their life?). But as long as that message is clearly and consistently conveyed, the horse will eventually learn to respect it.

Many negative relationship patterns for humans can be traced back to a lack of crystal clear, consistent communication. That's a lot of Cs, but it's a Crucial point (hay, why not add one more to the list).

If it's acceptable to tramp dirty shoes through the house one day, but not another day, how does this make sense? How was I meant to read your mind, on that particular day, and somehow sense by your mood that today is NOT A DIRTY SHOE day. Was I meant to understand this before I even opened the door by some telepathic medium that should be engrained in all of us when we are in close relationship with another?

Most of us are not mind-readers. We're not aware of the subtle workings of each others minds. If something annoys us, we need to communicate this to each other in a consistent way. Then everyone knows our needs, boundaries and when they have crossed our line. So if I then choose to overstep the boundary, you're justified in giving me a metaphorical nip on the ass.

As I don't think there were enough Cs above, I want to add just one more. Compassion. Messages can be conveyed, and will be much better received, when delivered with compassion. Unlike horses, we have verbal communication. We don't need to bite and kick and chase each other with our ears back. We can use a few, well chosen words to communicate our point. And the more compassionately this is delivered, the better it will be received, and the more likely it will be remembered and respected.


So, companions, here's my message to you: compassionate, crystal clear, consistent communication avoids a calamity. Respect your boundaries and others will too. One person isn't always the best leader in every situation. Don't be afraid of hanging up your oven gloves and letting Delia take the lead in the kitchen.


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