11 Life Lessons from Horse Trainer Grant Golliher

Photo by Carly Butler Photography

Grant Golliher is a horse trainer, author, and speaker. He owns and operates Diamond Cross Ranch outside Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he hosts corporate events drawing leadership lessons from horse training.

At the close of his sessions, Grant sometimes reads a poem called Sermons We See by Edgar Guest.

I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day; 
I’d rather one should walk with me than merely tell the way. 

“Show me, don’t tell me,” Grant says. “A lot of us are visual learners. If we see something, we really get it.”

Grant was kind enough to share with us some of the lessons about leadership he teaches through training horses. His book Chasing a Dream is available on his website, with a new book published by Putnam scheduled for release on Father’s Day 2022.

Grant Golliher horse trainer
Photo by Carly Butler Photography

1.    Honor the slightest try and the smallest change.

When you’re training your horse, you honor the slightest try and the smallest change. Release pressure and congratulate them. Instead of getting mad at a horse who is acting up, I rope his feet, put him in the pen, work with him. It really takes all the negative, angry fight out of life. Your mentality switches to: “How can we use this for good?”

2.    Respect the freedom to choose.

People, like horses, appreciate the freedom to choose. Rather than constantly pressuring and driving people, encourage and incentivize them. It’s all about freedom of choice. Instead of making the horse do it, it’s all about negotiation, giving him the option. There are still rewards and consequences for choices, but you give them freedom.

3.    Correction is not rejection.

Sometimes kids need a spanking, and sometimes a horse needs a good spanking too. Spoiled horses are dangerous horses. They are dangerous to society and to themselves. When I love a horse, I’m willing to discipline him. Correction is not rejection. The Bible says God disciplines those He loves. You can’t let a tantrum work for a horse or a child.

Photo by Carly Butler Photography

4.    Exercise grace.

I discovered what grace was through horses.

Growing up, I learned horse training in the old style: Make the horse do it, restrain him, use bits and hobbles, take all his freedom away; the more fearful they are, the more restraint you use.

Then I saw what trainers like Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance did. Instead of just working with the body through force, I learned to worked with the horse’s mind and free will. I learned to ask my horse to center up between my hands and legs.

In the old days, the horse was always kind of afraid and he wasn’t happy with his life. He was more of a slave. I don’t want a slave. I want a partnership where we work together, and both of us enjoy our jobs. Just like in the Bible: The law is restrictive, grace brings freedom.

5.    Be slow to take and quick to give.

Whether you’ve got a halter rope or a rein in your hand, be slow to take and quick to give.

Sometimes you watch people take the reins and move their hands quick so the bit hits the horse in the mouth. You’ve got to pay attention to the feel of the horse’s mouth; what you’re asking with your hands has to travel through his brain down to his feet. Give him time. Wait for a response. Prepare him for what you’re going to ask. As soon as he starts to do it, be quick to give.

Photo by Carly Butler Photography

6.    Do no harm.

Before any action, the first thing you think is: Am I going to do harm with this? Instead of just jumping down somebody’s throat or responding to a horse with emotion or anger, take a breath. Pick your battles.

Under pressure, the horse will always go back to his foundations. People are the same. When a marriage is under pressure or a person is under pressure, we all go back to the foundations we’ve laid. It’s important to lay those foundations well.

Photo by Carly Butler Photography

7.    Practice leadership through feel.

There are three things the great horse trainer Ray Hunt talked about often: Feel, timing, and, balance. I believe in the practice of leadership through feel.

Most people are oblivious to this because they no longer grow up around farming and stock. Everybody used to have pretty good feel moving a cow or a horse. But now people run machinery, and it’s completely different.

Just like you have feel with a horse, have good feel with people. Observe their body language. Begin to get sensitive to the people you’re working with and their responses. If you get good at reading a horse, you find yourself better with people.

One of the things we’ve noticed in our corporate sessions is we can really see who the leaders are through horse training—particularly ones who have good feel. These corporate folks come in fresh, they don’t know anything about horse training, and yet some of them just get it. You can see the leaders who won’t take pressure off, the ones who are too afraid to move. It’s pretty neat to see leadership qualities come out around animals.

8.    Be as firm as necessary, but as soft as you can be.

Over 40 years of horse training, I’ve worked with cowboys who were hard—hard on their kids, hard on their horses, didn’t have any softness. When they learn this method of horsemanship and begin to work with their horses this way, they begin to soften up. I’ve heard reports from their wives about it. It’s changed them as people.

What I’ve seen over the years is that the hard guys really soften up, and those that are too soft or wimpy with their animals begin to firm up. They see the importance of being as firm as necessary, but as soft as you can be.

Grant Golliher, horse trainer in Jackson Hole, WY
Photo by Lucas Passmore for Vogt Silversmiths

9.    Make the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy.

Everything about training a horse is teaching them to honor boundaries. Legs are boundaries. Reins are boundaries. The bit is a boundary. What you really want them to do is center up between the reins and your legs. Boundaries matter. There is a black and a white, a right and a wrong.

In my demonstration, I take a young colt that hasn’t been in the pen. I lay down a rope in the arena, close to the audience. I explain to my audience that this colt feels fear right now; horses are prey animals, and people are like predators. I could force the colt to move into the roped-off area, but instead I put pressure on him. I involve the audience by having them make noise—holler, clap. Noise is a pressure. The colt starts searching, trying to get away. As soon as he crosses the rope, I have the audience be quiet and still. That rewards the horse. He learns a boundary, and he learns that it’s safer to stay near the people. He starts to get drawn to them. It’s a really cool lesson.

The idea is that when it comes to boundaries, you have to be very consistent. There is a right and a wrong. The horse still has the freedom to choose—it’s just a rope on the ground, not a barbwire fence. But he learns that being far away from me is where the most pressure exists. As I bring him to me, I take the pressure off. There’s a lot of room in the safe place.

It’s really a cool lesson. There is still a right and a wrong. That’s why God gave us the law. You can choose, but the wages of sin is death.

It’s a great picture of drawing the line. The leader gets to draw the lines. If you choose wrong, you’ll run into trouble. But if you choose to come back, you’ll come into peace and protection and people that love you.

10. Don’t be afraid to move your feet.

Two things happen with a horse: They’re either scared to death and moving their feet too fast or they’re sulled up and won’t move their feet. Both are bad. If they’re willing to move their feet, you can train them not to bolt.

Some people get so devastated if they fail, they get stuck, they’ll never move their feet again. We raised our kids to know they have the freedom to move their feet. If they fail, it’s OK. They grew up without any limits, knowing if something doesn’t work, they can move on.

Diamond Cross Ranch outside Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Photo by Lucas Passmore

11. Horses, like people, are drawn to humility in a leader.

When I’m working with a wild horse, I get him to touch me first. I work with him until he’ll hang with me. I get on my knees and curl up underneath him. Horses, like people, are drawn to humility in a leader.

Proverbs 22:4 says, “The reward for humility and fear of the LORD is riches and honor and life.”

Steve Jobs has a famous quote: “Management is about persuading people to do things they do not want to do. Leadership is about inspiring people to do things they never thought they could.”

I’ve seen a lot of folks here on the ranch, and let me tell you, successful people are successful for a reason. They have respect, they have honor, they are grateful. These are some of the things I’ve seen in people who are really successful. I see the opposite in people who aren’t.

What happens when you drop your horse? Is he loyal? Does he stand there waiting? Or does he just leave you?

The great CEOs we’ve seen just love people. And their people know it. It creates loyalty. Loyalty is a big deal.

Photo by Carly Butler Photo

Learn more about Grant Golliher’s work and Diamond Cross Ranch at www.diamondcrossranch.com.

Featured Photo: Carly Butler Photography

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