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Focus. Compassion. Trust. What horses can teach us about good leadership

(Photo credit: Sitikka/iStock)

Focus, compassion and trust are three traits that good business leaders need to have. Cathy Foyston says that she has learned a lot about these things from her horses, and now she helps others learn the same.

"Horses are looking for a leader… they are not safe unless they know they have a leader."

Foyston and her husband own Back of Beyond Equine Centre. There’s no riding at their farm, although there is lots of horseplay. Through games and hands-on activities with horses, Foyston teaches people how to connect with the animals and ultimately become a leader for them. She says much of what people learn on her farm can be applied in their work or relationships with people.

Essentially, she uses horses to draw out leadership skills.


“I’ve learned a lot from my horses,” Foyston says. Focus is something that’s improved for her since she converted her business from the traditional riding stable to what it is today. “I am good at moving forward, creating new things and I struggle on the details. [With horses and in business] you have to stay focused on the small things. I may be looking ahead but I still have to watch that he doesn’t drop the shoulder in on me,” she explains.


In business, leaders need to be able to keep an eye on the big picture while at the same time, know how their teams are progressing on projects and understand the details. In the horse world, the same is true — you need to know where the horse is going, but you have to watch it’s not stepping on your foot or getting distracted.

Foyston explains that there are four basic maneuvers needed to connect with a horse:

  • Push.
  • Draw.
  • Block.
  • Neutral.

You need to have a balance of them all in order for a horse to accept you as its leader.


“Horses are looking for a leader,” she explains. “As a prey animal, they are not safe unless they know they have a leader. In their own hierarchy, they always have a leader... it is the one with the most responsibility and the one that they know can handle it based on built trust and respect.”

Cathy Foyston pets a brown horse.

(A horse at Cathy Foyston's equine centre. Photo credit: Back of Beyond Equine Centre)

Most important characteristic

Easy comparisons can be made here between the horse world and human world, but one of the most important characteristics she points out is that successful leaders don’t dominate. They earn their place and that’s why the herd accepts them and stays protected. 

If you want a horse to follow you and trust you, you have to earn its respect, be focused and show compassion. People and workplaces are the same.