Beyond the Build


Lessons Learned on the Trail

Several years ago, I spent 10 days in Ireland traveling the Connemara Trail on horseback with breader Willie Leahy. We rode his surefooted Irish draught/thoroughbred cross descended from Spanish castaways. Our trail from Galway to Clifton was a combination of rough terrain, some deep and at times treacherous bogs, beautiful lakes and long rides at gallop speed along abandon rail beds, now covered with those thick Irish grasses.

More recently, I’ve traveled to the Dakotas every fall to help a rancher friend gather up his cattle off the summer range. There we ride equally surefooted quarter horses, aptly suited for the terrain of the West.

I’ve learned a lot from both experiences, with applications in the business part of my life.

Give the horse it’s head. 

If you know you are riding a good horse but get uncomfortable in the saddle, let off the reins a bit and “give the horse its head.” This allows the horse to use its sense of balance to lead through the terrain, watching out for itself and you alike.

I see parallels here with hiring good people. If the reins are too tight, good people cannot execute as well, slowing you down along the trail success. In our company we have a fairly flat management style. I’m all about taking the time to hire good people, then loosening upon the reins.

Stay in contact.

I’ve learned a couple of lessons about walking behind horses the hard way. First of all, put your hands on the horse’s hip to let it know you are back there. This tells the animal everything’s okay and you are you. Then physically, stay very close to the rear legs as you’re walking around the backside. The reasons? Should the horse be having a bad day and try to kick you, staying in communications and right up against the rear legs gives them much less leverage.

To me, this parallels customer relationships. Stay close. Let the customer know where you are, that you care, that you’re communicating. If it’s all done correctly and everything else is in balance, then they have a hard time kicking you away.


Merrill Stewart Jr.

Merrill Stewart is Founder and CEO of The Stewart/Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham.