# 30: What Startups Can Learn from Horses

Roberts, Monty (2002). Horse Sense for People: The Man Who Listens to Horses Talks to People, Foreword.

Story behind the Passage

Many startups want to become unicorns. But the name already indicates how rare they are. Companies valued at over one billion USD can be counted on the fingers of one hand in most nations. Still, the name, despite the rarity, also evokes beauty. Unicorns in fairytales are beautiful creatures, elegant, and in many ways magestic. This not only holds true for unicorns as fantasy creatures, it holds true for real horses as well.

I started writing a book today for riding beginners in their first year. I did not plan on writing a book about this but yesterday something happened at the stable that made me think about possible solutions to a human-horse relationship problem. This morning during my run I figured out how I could help. As usual, my solution involves writing. It is the best way to get my messages across — to make people laugh and learn.

The book is not going to be about riding or horses in a performance-oriented way. It will be about coaching tools for beginners that allow them to relax and enjoy their evolving relationship with the horse. Hence, it will mostly be about communication. That is little wonder because everything in life is a matter of communication — be it between humans or between humans and horses. My recommendations will not be derived from best practices that you find in smart books. My overarching recommendation is simply that people have to find their own way of forming a relationship with the animal. And this is only possible if they trust their gut feeling.

Monty Roberts is one of the people who stands for the topic of communication between horse and man. I read several books by him and I also watched many videos of him doing join-up, where the horse quickly trusts the rider and follows him. Of course, there are also many critical voices about natural horsemanship but my article today is not going to be about horses as such. The following passages are simply going to relate my learnings about horses with startups as continuously and quickly learning entities.

My Learnings

“… all relationships can be based on a spirit of cooperation and empathy.” This is something that we all know but I have the feeling that especially digital companies need to be reminded of this. And this is no bad intention, I know this. Especially brilliant IT people are so deeply into tech that their human communication skills and relationships start suffering because of the stress and the pressure. Hence, they find themselves lost in non-human issues and they do their best to fix them. That does not mean that software engineers and developers are ‘anti-human’ in some way. Still, I think, it is in the nature of people who are highly talented that they really get lost in what they do.

The issue of “cooperation” is certainly true for tech development teams. Of course, these huge projects could never be completed without team work. But I want to move beyond this to the bigger picture of IT and ask: Where is empathy? How can you program empathy into technology? How can empathy be a navigator towards developing relevant products that create value for the future of humanity if the people programming them simply have no time and liberal arts education to become experts of empathy?

If you look at horses and the relationship between rider and horse, nothing works without empathy — at least this is my take. Maybe there are riders without much empathy who still manage to become great riders. Maybe. For me, horses are so fascinating because their empathy, their ability to sense you as their human partner, is so much greater than ours. And the trick is to then read their processing of our human emotions and situational facts.

I think, if every founder spent only an hour with a horse each week, this would change something. This does not only apply to founders, of course. You can apply it to any leader. What matters is that these people directly encounter the genius of these majestic creatures. This would automatically make them feel humble. And it might — no matter how deeply they are into tech — arouse a sense of curiosity about communication at large. This is not just a side issue. Communication is key to all startups. But I think, many underestimate this. Otherwise, they would make sure that their messages come across clearly to their target groups.

“All that is required is that we take the time and have the patience to learn the other’s language instead of brashly imposing our own.” Several years ago, patience would have been an absolute no go for me. I was proud of being impatient. Today, I would still consider myself impatient but I have more control over it. Probably, the horse taught me a lot about this. No matter how many books you read about horses, there will be situations, especially at the beginning, where the horse tells you something that you do not understand. It might be something totally irrelevant in the sense that it does not cause a huge change of behavior. Still, since you do not know because you cannot interpret the signs correctly, you have no idea whether it is important or not.

The most important thing about communication with a horse is, and that is what the line above emphasizes, that the human language only gets you that far. The real conversation takes place underneath the visible surface. And imposing anything on the horse, including language, does not work. It will not take you anywhere. If you want a horse to go left or right, you can do this with your legs and your hands holding the reins. But the real communication comes from your mind. And the horse can read it, no matter what.

As humans, most of us do not have this super sensitivity but we can work on our communication skills. And when I say communication skills, I am not even that much concerned about talking. There are all kinds of storytelling experts and marketing gurus who can teach you. What I am more concerned about is the aspect of listening. I frequently observe that super young entrepreneurs and even more advanced business leaders do not listen — especially to their clients but also to other stakeholders. And they do not do so because they do not want this. They simply have not learned how to get valuable information — even crucial insights — from the stories their customers tell. Instead, they keep on talking and talking about what the product can and will be able to do in the future.

Listen. Listening is the first step towards learning the “other’s language.”

“We are the capable ones.” The author of the foreword above calls humans the “capable ones” in his comparison of humans to chimpanzees. Of course, that is valid and who would wish it were otherwise? This is the field of science fiction writers, not mine. What I do ask myself kind of often, however, is how aware we are of our capabilities. Above all, awareness is the prerequisite for using things. And whether you are super aware of something or not at all — in both cases, you are not using your potential to the max, I think.

When I am together with a horse, I do ask myself who is more capable. A horse is a truly powerful creature. It can kill you or at least seriously injure you with one kick of the hoof. And it does not matter how intellectually smart you are if a horse does that to you. The thing is, it usually does not, unless something went terribly wrong — with the horse or with you. But, as I am indicating above, the true greatness of horses for me is not caused by their physical appearance. It rests on their literally super-human emotional skills. They can feel you without touching your body, they can see through you, even without looking at you.

I do think, as a young business, it makes sense to put together all possible resources to become as “capable” as possible — particularly human resources. But capability in the present says nothing about future strength. The environment changes so quickly that even the best tech skills might not be enough to survive among fierce competition. What we can learn from the horses, however, is to be one step ahead in sensing what is coming. This takes not only a maximum of attention. It takes the willingness to mute all distractions to really focus on the relevant signals.

All of this requires one thing: Patience. This word seems so outdated in a world in which excessive growth rates are expected to happen within months. I am not sure if this will make our economies stronger in the long run. As Steve Jobs already knew, despite all of his own impatience: A truly amazing entrepreneur can only create a legacy if the company grows steadily and survives for a long period of time. This is only possible if the company speaks the language of its clients and is willing to learn from them — just like the horseman who learns more from the horse than from other human beings.

Reflection Questions

1) How important is communication in your present business role?

2) Which animals do you admire? If they could teach you anything for your business, what would it be?

3) What are the three strongest capabilities of your company?