If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to hear a lecture from legendary horseman Charles de Kunffy, you’ve undoubtedly heard him speak about leadership in the aristocracy and how horsemanship was an integral part of the education of every great ruler. A 2007 interview with The San Francisco Examiner, his philosophy was outlined as follows: “When describing his passion for horsemanship, de Kunffy describes the virtues of horsemanship as the virtues of a life correctly lived: “courage, empathy, compassion and understanding,” he says, “that’s why the aristocracy educated their sons on horses: so that they could internalize patience and repetition, and see the world from another’s point of view.”
In short, in order to learn to become an effective and benevolent leader, one had to first learn how to work with a creature that truly didn’t care if he was royally-born or not. The respect and trust of a horse had to be earned through patience and kindness, not force.
Whether you’ve ridden for as long as you can remember or have recently taken up the sport, there’s no question that you understand exactly what he means. No doubt the very first lesson you learned was that the horse doesn’t always necessarily understand your agenda or want to follow it – and they’re big enough that you usually can’t force them to agree. What’s more, coercion might get the job done right now – but it will has a way of coming back to bite you down the road (usually at the least opportune moment!) Thus, as opposed to using force and scare tactics, equestrians learn very quickly how to persuade, how to be fair, and how to praise highly for a job well done.
In short, they learn Leadership 101.
A January article in The Atlantic reflected specifically on the leadership question for college students. Entitled “Why are American colleges obsessed with ‘leadership?'” the article spurred a fairly lively discussion amongst college counselors as to what exactly defined a leader in terms of college admissions and what defined a leader on campus. For my part, as I read through the discussion, I kept circling back to the idea of leadership as it relates to equestrians. In my previous career working at a small liberal arts college and advising the campus equestrian club, I can honestly say that I never had a shortage of leaders at my disposal. In fact, sometimes our biggest challenge was to find enough followers to balance out the group!
Ultimately, I think most experts will agree that colleges want to add leaders to their student bodies because the ideals of leadership blend so well with the ideals of a college education. The term leadership is synonymous with creativity, innovation, and motivation to succeed. Student leaders are the ones who inspire their peers to work harder and be better, lifting up the entire student body by their example and encouraging others to follow in their footsteps.
Equestrians tend to arrive on campus already knowing how to do this without even thinking about it. (After all, a horse rarely jumps a 1.5 meter fence just for fun.)
Conclusion? If you will apply to college this fall, chances are you will come across a section of the application that asks about your leadership history and your achievements. If you haven’t been student body president, an officer with your National Honor Society, or captain of the basketball team, you’re still a leader as long as you’re an equestrian. After all, it isn’t the title itself that designates someone as the group leader, it’s his or her actions. You work every day with a nonverbal creature and convince it to do things that aren’t necessarily in its nature to do – jump fences, perform canter pirouettes, roll back and run into a sliding stop, etc.
And if you can convince a horse to do all of that, I’m certain you can demonstrate your leadership skills to the admissions committee.
(Need help putting together your college application? Contact me.)