More than a Horse Story

I love a great “feel good” movie. Many of our wonderful feel good movies revolve around sports – Hoosiers, Rudy, The Rookie … we all have our favorites.

Mine is about a horse (still athletic, just four not two legs).

It was 1938 – a year of monumental hardship and challenges, not unlike 2009. People were in need of inspiration, hope, and light. Ironically that year, the number one newsmaker was not the President of the United States (Franklin D. Roosevelt) or the evil dictator rising in Europe (Adolf Hitler), it was a crooked legged, scrawny, racehorse, owned by an enterprising bicycle repairman turned automobile magnet, trained by a misunderstood almost mute horse whisperer, ridden by an emotionally wounded, anorexic, Shakespeare quoting jockey.

Many of us know the story of Seabiscuit through the fabulous book by Laura Hillenbrand- Seabiscuit: An American Legend and the wonderful movie starring Tobey Macguire, Jeff Bridges, and Chris Cooper – Seabiscuit (American Experience).

I recently watched this movie (again), and I was struck by the astounding similarities of those times to our current realities. I was also moved by the inherent messages, and lessons, in this true story – all of which are applicable to our lives today. A few inspiring takeaways which are relevant to us 70 years later:

Unlikely champions can emerge in hard times

Seabiscuit was undersized, barely 15 hands. His legs were crooked. His gate was lop-sided. He had been abused as a young horse and faced hardship at the hand of cruel men. He had been pulled away from his mom at 6 months of age, labeled as lazy, and beat to a pulp – emotionally and physically by greedy trainers.

Red Pollard, the fledgling, half-blind jockey, had basically been sold and abandoned by his family during the great depression. He lived in a horse stall his entire youth, while enduring unspeakable working conditions as an amateur prize-fighter and second-class jockey.

Tom Smith, the big hearted horse whisperer, had become disenchanted with the loss of the wild Mustang herds and man’s cruel treatment of horses. He lived hand to mouth, keeping true to his love of horses without compromising his values.

These three were the underdogs. They were virtually unknown, unappreciated, and unproven.

Then comes along Charles Howard. Howard was the successful entrepreneur nursing a broken heart due to the loss of his only son. He was searching for ‘something.’ To his own admission, he didn’t know what that was. He bought Seabiscuit for a whopping $2000, and the rest, as they say, is history.

We know how the story ends – all four of these characters emerge as heroes – and unlikely champions.  Yet, it was through the hard times each faced that their authentic purpose was revealed. They pulled together for a common goal. They worked hard to achieve it (while experiencing negativity from multiple outside sources). They celebrated, and leveraged, their differences to fulfill their final objective.

The same can be true for each of us. We don’t know how strong we are until our muscles are tested. We don’t know the strength of our convictions until, they too, are stretched. We may not appreciate our idiosyncrosies until they bring new perspectives to light. There is no doubt in my mind that from the hard times we are facing today, unlikely heroes will emerge.

A safe place breeds growth and success

Each character in this story was wounded. Deeply scarred from injuries of their past – another loss, another rejection, another whip.

Many of us have been there at one time or another. Each of us have experienced loss. We have been there when we were afraid we were going to fail. We have been there when we were afraid to take a risk. When we were afraid to stick our necks out and reveal what we don’t know – or in some cases – what we do know.

Charles Howard created a safe environment for his team. He encouraged his emaciated jockey to eat. He encouraged his wise trainer to ‘follow his instincts.’ He welcomed, and embraced, the different perspectives and backgrounds of Red and Tom. By creating a safe place, it was amazing to watch how their fears diminished and their potential and their loyal teamwork thrived. Here was a man who, with kindness, respect, and trust, encouraged his people to succeed.

In our businesses and in our lives, we can replicate the same safe place that Charles Howard created for his team. We can offer unconditional support. We can provide an environment where risks are encouraged and successes or failures from these risks are rewarded. We can value differences of opinion, of approach, of experience, and of personality.

“Safety” creates a freedom within us and between us and through this freedom our most powerful ideas and talents are liberated.

Luck versus Preparation meeting Opportunity

A friend of mine, who recently found herself in a career transition, shared with me one of her favorite quotations: “Luck follows a prepared mind.” I love this. I am a believer that luck is, in fact, preparation meeting opportunity. It was not ‘luck’ that Seabiscuit was a winning thoroughbred. He had worked and trained hard for his various races. He had a devoted team equally committed to doing great things. They took adversity and often hard luck and turned these into winning opportunities.

As Charles Howard said about Seabiscuit: ‘When the little guy doesn’t know or believe he is the little guy, he can do great things.” How true is that! Our limiting beliefs can hold us back – and our big dreams can propel us forward.

So, when we need a boost of encouragement, a reminder that underdogs can finish first, and a renewed belief that an ounce of preparation can in fact create a pound of luck, click here to see the actual amazing race of Seabiscuit winning against War Admiral. I think you will be as energized as the record breaking crowds were in 1939  – and we can all use a bit of rags to riches inspiration these days!

10 responses to “More than a Horse Story

  1. Kristin,

    I think there is another very practical and relevant lesson from the Seabiscuit story. Seabiscuit was fundamentally a great racehorse from the beginning, but he had been misunderstood, mismanaged and mistreated until he was purchased by Charles Howard who brought along a trainer and jockey who could identify with this troubled horse. If you recall from the movie, following Seabiscuit’s first workout at the track, Tom Smith (trainer) declared “We just have to teach him how to be a racehorse again”.

    Maybe some of our nation’s banks need to learn how to be banks again following their own mismanagement and abuse.

    Seabiscuit’s jockey was played by Toby Maguire, and I recall his earlier movie “The Cider House Rules”, not for the story but just the title. This refers to a set of rules which were posted in the hut where seasonal apple pickers lived and worked together. The rules were supposed to ensure the success and safety of the cider making team e.g. “Don’t operate the grinder if you have been drinking”.

    Most corporations have their own versions of rules which are there to reflect corporate objectives within the day to day activities of their employees. When you and I were at HP, Carly Fiorina introduced the “Rules of the Garage” using the original garage where HP started, as a metaphor. For example, one of the rules was “Always keep the tools unlocked”.

    When Lucent was a customer of mine, they had their rules posted in the lobby, and I always remember the one which read “An obsession with customer satisfaction”.

    These kinds of rules (or whatever they might be called) are a great way to keep a company on track by having its employees stick to the fundamentals of what the business is really about. I wonder if some of those troubled financial institutions would be in better shape today if they had stuck to the fundamentals of their business.

    But the point about rules, if they are implemented, is that they influence employee behavior. And this can help a company be more resilient to management mis-steps. If Lucent employees had really been obsessed with customers, the occasional strategic management blunder might not have mattered so much.

    Seabiscuit had rules too. 1. Don’t hit him! Just a gentle tap to tell him when to go. 2. Always let the other horses get in front at first. He loves the competition.

    But rules are rarely taken seriously and implemented. They are usually just slogans and wall decorations. Lucent’s placement of their rules in the lobby was to show visitors what they aspire to be rather than what they were really doing. Employees have to be trained. They have to know the Why and the How. When I started my own small business, I wanted to have my staff follow a set of principles (including customer obsession) in everything that they do. But I realized very quickly that just making a poster is not enough. On the other hand, if people really understand how they can be successful by consistently following certain habits and practices, the results can be Seabiscuit-like.

  2. Dear Kristin,

    Seabiscuit is absolutely Ed’s favorite. I can’t wait to share your thoughts with him. We love you. Come see us. Please!

  3. Thanks Kristin. Very interesting and inspiring. Will be forwarding to many who might need to read this as much as I did.

  4. Ah, Kristin…how beautiful and how true that we can all use the challenges in life to inspire us as we triumph over pain to achieve our goals. I cling to my mantra and it reflects your beautiful blog…”We are children of the universe and the universe is unfolding just as it should”.

    Thanks for reminding me that every life circumstance is a learning opportunity.

  5. Kristin,
    Excellent article! It reminds me of what it was like to work for you! You were always encouraging, motivating us to do our best, work closely as a team, and reminding us to be prepared. I miss you!

  6. Kristin, what a great memory starter. As a professional speaker, I brought exactly the same parts of the story out to my audience in a speech about leadership. One of my favorite quotes from the movie was when the young jockey had been injured. Charles the owner was terrified of using him to ride and was putting another jockey on Seabiscuit. When he went to the substitue about riding, he said no. He said, “it’s better to break a man’s leg than to break his heart”. We have to keep on, keeping on. Great reminder.

    Best, Carl Youngberg

  7. Dear Kristin
    Great story and inspiring a lot.
    I think that when we born we start an important quest and we find ourselves always in situations like the ones shown in the story, and the important thing is that when we fall we learn and when we learn we grow, and when we grow, we reach a higher level in our quest and again and again the cycle repeats. So, believing in ourselves and in our quest is the most important strenght we have and that’s the power we carry inside ourselves everyday.
    Thanks a lot for sharing it with us.
    Best Regards

  8. Kristin,
    Again, you are always so thought-provoking! How true! All of us can relate! That is one of my favorite movies – I’m going to see it again in a new light this weekend!

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