Loosening the Reins

There’s an old horse riding saying that goes something like this: Loosen the reins to gain control. I‘ve often used this as an

analogy for team leadership.

I spent last week on horse camp with my son’s school. We were lucky enough to be led by incredible horse woman, Anne, and Tom, a classic dessert station horseman, with decades of experience training, wrangling and rodeoing (and enough “war” stories to curl your toes).

Tom taught me that I had the whole “loosen the reins” idea back to front.

I’d always thought the saying related to gentleness and being softer in my approach. People pleasing, in other words, which of course means a values conflict when we need to performance manage or dismiss staff. Kim Scott would call this “ruinous empathy”.

Tom said horses want only two things: consistency and release. Consistency in the directions or instructions we give them. And release of our pressure on the bit (via the reins) when they’ve got it right.

Sounds something like what our staff appreciate from us, doesn’t it? Consistency in direction and instructions, and release of pressure when they’re doing things right.
Tom doesn’t mean we let go of control though. He taught me how to have a firmer hold of the reins and still be able to release pressure. He taught me to direct a horse with a simple wriggle of my fingers on the reins, instead of yanking and kicking. He also taught me how to stop a runaway horse literally one-handed.

I’m likely to roll these concepts around for some time yet, but the idea of consistency and release fits so well with what Kim Scott calls “radical candour”, and it makes so much more sense to me now as an analogy for leadership, than simply “loosen the reins”.
A herd of horses is made up of individual horses each with its own back story, personality, likes and dislikes. Some members of the herd are great mates, others hate each other. Some will be the right fit for our journey, others won’t.

Just like members of your team.

We need to understand these nuances, retain firm control, and know WHEN to release pressure to make it all fly.
And as with most things, consistency is key.

Much love,


Dr Tess Crawley

Tess is an Australian clinical and forensic psychologist with over 20 years' experience in such diverse areas as community mental health, the prison system, perinatal mental health, university lecturing, and private practice.

Tess has a PhD in clinical psychology, has published one business-related book and is in the midst of writing a second. She is also a former actor, which some say explains a lot! In fact, she met her husband of 30+ years while they were involved in a Melbourne stage production of Macbeth (also explains a lot!).