Leadership from the Paddock: Learning to Hold Space

This is Alex, he’s my harness turned riding horse. Personality wise, he’s the strong silent type. He has a quiet self-confidence and he doesn’t need validation from those around him (human or horse). He knows what he wants, he’ll put up with others around him, but he will also tell them politely and clearly when they are being stupid.

He and I started riding life together, me with small kids and trying to figure out my identity as I edged closer to the middle years and him pretty much straight off the track with very little experience having someone sitting on his back. Despite the lack of experience though, I chose him for his sense of independence and ability to keep going when I was nervous. And boy was I nervous!

It took me a year to fully realise that, at the time, I was living with a fairly intense form of Postpartum Anxiety. I had heard about Postpartum Depression, but I didn’t really know about it’s fun cousin. There are some awesome resources out there, by the way https://www.beyondblue.org.au/

This was also at a time when a former employee stole significant assets from the company I had spent 5 years building and then ran off to start a copycat business (it’s ok, I know my offering is robust and unique).  We were designing and building a house and had 2 kids under 3 – perfect time to start an all consuming new hobby (classic #ADHD logic).

I was actually at a point where I didn’t have enough ‘bandwidth’ ‘spoons’ or whatever you want to call it to really understand just how overwhelmed and overloaded I was mentally.

I only had enough capacity to get up, get the kids sorted, do some client work and then go to my horse to recharge enough battery to do it again the next day. I didn’t even have enough spare mental energy to reach out and ask for help, even though I had support around me.

I tried quite a few horses at the beginning of my riding journey. It’s a bit like dating and car shopping all wrapped into one experience. You need to find one in your budget and matched to what you want to do (fancy sand dancing, jumping off cliffs, plodding down trails, etc) and you also need to look for personal compatibility and connection.

One of the big differences between horse and motorbike riding (which is an endless source of camp-fire chat, if you’re ever in need of a fun topic) is that horses tune into your emotions. When this goes well, it’s awesome. You can genuinely feel what it would be like to be a centaur with the horse’s body and legs feeling like your own and them responding to your thoughts more quickly and easily than conscious thoughts.

But the opposite can also happen. When you have #fear, #anxiety and #doubt, the horse can feel that too. And many horses will respond by also getting anxious, which can present as avoidance, spooking, running away.

My anxiety was so strong I didn’t have any options of bottling it up, shoving it down or ignoring it (which I would recommend anyway). My anxiety was so thickly around me it was hard to think and respond with normal reaction times. My dear patient riding instructor @lisa hyville had to work with me on one thing at a time, focusing on changing one thing about myself and working through the Four Stages of Competence because I could only hold one thought in my head at a time. Down to the level of: today we are going to work on your thumb pressure… maybe next week we’ll work on your wrists.

During this time, the precious gift Alex gave me was to hold his own identity and not let my anxiety leak into him. He knew the world was ok, I just had to focus on my own mind and relearning how to regulate and manage my emotions. It took a long time, probably about 3 years before I no longer had a persistent and invasive sense of fear and anxiety all the time.

It was surreal that people would see us out at club events and competitions and comment about how #brave I was. They would see me shaking to the point where I couldn’t remember how to put on the saddle or be physically able to do up the girth and they would say “wow, I couldn’t do this if I was that nervous”. From my perspective though, I was so anxious all the time, my logic was that I might as well push the boundaries. It wasn’t MORE terrifying trusting him to take me safely over a jump than it was to get out of the car. So we might as well go for it!

I love this picture from our first competition. As you can see, we’re not aiming for the Olympics. This is the lowest height available in our local competitions. But it felt like I was riding a dragon through the sky.

We had 4 years of training to get me to a point where I didn’t have to consciously remember to keep my feet down and muscles relaxed (down-ish and relaxed-ish, the riders will see lots of room for improvement).

You can’t see me nearly melting down and giving up 30 seconds before the round started.

You can’t see me clutching his mane because I was nearly frozen in terror.

But you can see the focus I had to remember to count the numbers to aim for the next jump.

Because I had taken the time to work on one little piece at a time, I had enough #resilience for that next little step.

So, he helped me practice holding my identity and sense of self when every fibre of my body was telling me to run away and give up. He helped me practice breathing deeply and taking a break when the anxiety got to high. He helped me understand the importance of quietly holding space and being patient when someone needs to work through something. There was nothing he or anyone else could really do to “make it better “. I just needed to work it through and take time to let my mind and body heal. He gave me #psychologicalsafety to help me build my skills.

We still come last in dressage and I still manage to get eliminated for the most random of reasons (all completely my fault and worth a #SEU blog series of their own), but that’s ok. We keep going, we keep showing up. And, now that my brain has settled and I can actually think and ride, I make sure to look out for and hold space for the other nervous riders I meet along the way.

So Alex is my inspiration for the #introvert #leader, mentor, colleague and friend. It has helped me recognise when someone is struggling and they’re not ready for solutions or actions and they just need someone to quietly “be there”. It’s a skill and habit I have taken into my support toolkit for my friends and kids.

I believe that the best #transformations come from a holistic view of People, Processes and Systems. I love help setting teams up for success in #digitaltransformation #projectmanagement #PMOs and practical #strategy.

Think my approach could help your team? Book a free discovery meeting and let’s find out! https://calendly.com/gischconsulting/30min

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