Seabiscuit: Team and Leadership Lesson from the Famous Racehorse.

Coaching and Training holds an important place in today’s workplace culture.

More and more organizations are acknowledging the fact and invest in the Learning and development of their workforce and empower them with new skills. But as good as their intentions might be, there are constraints attached to its results. Training intended to meet general requirements does not guarantee a transformational experience. In the 21st century a common module does not serve the purpose. If you are looking at high ROI through higher knowledge retention and a transformational experience then you will have to engage the learner’s heart, head, and hands which requires customization.

As a Leader your employee training program has to undergo a paradigm shift- a move away from a one-size-fits-all approach towards more customized and personalized alternatives.

In recent times, the approach toward employee training programs has seen a paradigm shift – a drift away from a one-size-fits-all model toward more personalized alternatives. If you want to see results on the improvement of employee engagement, satisfaction, and productivity, then all you need to walk down the path of a custom blend learning.

Well, finding it difficult to accept the above premise, let me prove it with a very interesting story of a horse named “Seabiscuit”.

Though this story is almost a century old, every aspect of the unique customized training methods that his trainer Tom Smith adopted is still very relevant in the 21st century, especially in the Leadership annals of the corporate world. Just read this and you will know how a horse can show the mirror to your Leadership and highlight the importance of customized learning and training. Let’s begin:

It was the year 1933 when the world was first introduced to a horse “Seabiscuit”. But Seabiscuit looked nothing like a winner. He did not have the look and stature of the champion horses of his time. In fact, he was noticeably quite small in comparison to the other horses he competed against. He was knobby-kneed, had stubby legs, and a bit finicky too. When he galloped, he would move from side to side with a slight limp. If this was not enough, Seabiscuit was very laid-back with an attitude and demeanor that suggested that he would rather sleep than be on the track and wouldn’t plunge running out of the starting gate.

In fact, his favourite pastime was eating and taking long naps. So, it was not surprising that he was basically written off and was considered not competitive enough to excel as a racehorse.

In 1936, Seabiscuit was purchased by Charles Howard for $8000 and entrusted him to a much lesser-known conditioner and horse trainer, Tom Smith.

Seabiscuit was a train wreck. He would break into a lather at the sight of a saddle. He was two hundred pounds underweight but still would refuse to eat. As a great horse reader, Tim knew the first thing he need to do was to defuse the horse and calm him down. How to do it and where to begin?

Well, he remembered one of the oldest remedies for unhappy horses: animal companionship. Smith began with a goat and parked her in Seabiscuit’s stall. Seabiscuit, the attitude that he had clutched the poor goat in his teeth and started shaking her back and forth. It ended with the goat being thrown in the barn aisle.

Smith started looking for an alternative, for a companion whom he felt could take a little more punishment. They had in their stable a veteran horse called Pumpkin.  Pumpkin had experienced everything in life, including a bull goring that had left a gouge in his rump. All the trials and tribulations have made him calm and steady. Pumpkin was amiable to every horse that he met and had formed a reputation of a calmer downer.

Smith, was damn sure that Pumpkin can have a sedative effect on Seabiscuit. So, Pumpkin was introduced to Seabiscuit and what followed was a brief mutual nose-sniffing gesture producing no ill-will, so Smith housed Pumpkin in the adjacent stall of Seabiscuit and tore down the wall between. The horses conversed and in no time developed a fast friendship. Pumpkin became almost like a surrogate parent and they both would live and work together for the rest of their lives.

Enthused by the experiment, Smith began selecting other stable companions for Seabiscuit. A stray dog was bought in to be the next companion. Named Pocatell, the dog and Seabiscuit hit off instantly and soon began sleeping in his stall at night. Then there was Jo Jo, a small spider monkey who was found on the track. Seabiscuit took to liking JoJo too.

With Pumpkin sleeping a few feet away, JoJo close to his neck, and Pocatell on his belly, Seabiscuit began to relax and calm down.

Once Seabiscuit got settled, Smith thought it’s time to hit the track. A rider was lodged on to ride him but was a disaster. Seabiscuit didn’t run, he rampaged. When the rider tried to speed him, he would slow down. When he tried to rein him in, the horse bolted and thrashed. If asked to go left, he’d go right; and if right, he’d dart left. The rider left with no option clanged to Seabiscuit’s neck to save his life and prevent being hurled off.

Smith could do nothing but look helpless, but he knew what was happening. His past abusive experience has led Seabiscuit to resist every command. With his instincts turning backward he would rather direct his efforts against his rider wanting him to run, than riding against his opponents. He found solace and gained satisfaction from the distress and rage that he inflicted upon the rider on his back.

That had to be stopped and Smith knew how to do it. He had to do away with the force and take the coercion out of the equation. He told the rider: Let him go. The rider did as told, and Seabiscuit took off with him, completed the full circuit at top speed. This continued for some time and after galloping for two miles, weaving all over the track, Seabiscuit was finally exhausted. Feeling no reins, he stopped himself and stood on the track, panting.

The rider simply sat there motionless, letting him do what he wanted to do. Sensing that there was nowhere to go but home, Seabiscuit turned around and walked back to the barn. Smith was ready to receive him and greeted him with a carrot. This turned out to be a masterstroke as neither Smith nor his rider had forced him to do what they wanted him to do.

This lesson that he would never again be coerced to do what he didn’t want to do, sank deep and he never again resisted his rider. This episode began his journey of Transformation.

Smith knew that liberal whipping by his early trainer has made Seabiscuit so stubborn that he would exactly do the opposite of what was expected of him. A no whipping policy was adopted with the exception in times of urgency. He knew force and coercion will always be resisted by Seabiscuit, so they made it a point to allow him to do as he please till the time trust is developed.

Thanks to this customized and personalized care and training Seabiscuit got transformed from a dull, lazy, underweight, and almost written-off pony to one of the greatest racehorses in American history, so much so that in 1938, Seabiscuit was No 1 newsmaker beating Franklin Roosevelt and Hitler. He retired as the highest money earner horse of his time.

If you are a Team Leader, just look around and you will encounter many Seabiscuit’s in your team, each calling for your individual attention and focus. The best way is to understand them and tailor a training program to suit the individual needs of your people. Customized training of a diverse cross-section of people may sound daunting and seem like a luxury, but it’s a bargain and far worth than a program that doesn’t fit the organization’s need. That’s where skill of leadership comes to play as with a little innovation and vision a manager can hand-pick programs and modules designed to tackle common issues.

A team is made up of individuals having their own strengths and weaknesses. As a Leader, you have to adjust and alter existing techniques to tackle individual weaknesses. Sometimes, this means completely re-inventing a whole new process to alleviate a weakness.

Seabiscuit was born knobby-kneed, which meant that his knees protruded from his legs, exposing him to the threat of multiple bruises, fractures, and injuries. Smith’s solution was to mix up a homemade liniment and paint it on Seabiscuit’s legs and keep them bandaged at all times so that it stays in place. Also, to keep the mixture from wear off when the horse lay in his straw, he followed a routine of keeping the horse in knee-high thick cotton bandages. This extra padding protected his knees from additional bumps and bruises, thus shielding him from his own weakness.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. A team is akin to a chain where each team member is a link. So, in the context of a team, this proverb can be paraphrased as “A-Team is only as strong as its weakest member”. Thus, for a team to be strong each Individual’s weaknesses require individual attention to alleviate because they can hinder the team’s performance which in turn can hinder the performance of the organization as a whole.

Please let me know your opinion on the subject in the comments section below!

Happy Learning, Training and Leading.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

error: Content is protected !!