Heroes and Gurus: How The Guru Syndrome© stops you getting true confidence

Hereos and Gurus: How The Guru Syndrome© stops you getting true confidence

There is something out there that has an insidious effect on confidence.  Whilst at the start it seems to make you confident, gives you the support you need to move forward, it actually erodes your self-belief and leaves you in a worse place than when you first started.

Unfortunately this thing is also appears to be a fundamental characteristic of human nature:  it’s something I call THE GURU SYNDROME©.

This happens in all walks of life, not just in horsemanship and has just as bad an effect wherever it occurs.  It can happen intentionally or accidentally but However it happens, ultimately it is a bad thing for you, your confidence your knowledge and your horse.

What IS the Guru syndrome?

The Guru Syndrome©  is where you find someone who impresses you, inspires you, possibly educates you as well and either they assume guru status – or you give it to them

Let’s look at the first.  There are many riding instructors, leaders of programmes, teachers out there who seem to be getting by quite nicely – then all of a sudden they change.   Maybe they start believing their own publicity.  They start believing their own myths and stories – they fall victim to their own magical thinking.  One example that shows the start of the Guru syndrome is when a person starts believing it is their special gift or talent that is making the difference, instead of realising that it is just what they are teaching and how they are teaching that is achieving the results.  When a teacher or coach changes from seeing themselves as a vehicle for communication, a bridge between a person and understanding, but instead sees themselves as the SOURCE of that understanding, as the ONLY source of that knowledge and understanding – that is when they can fall victim to the Guru Syndrome.

When, as a coach or teacher, you realise and accept that there is nothing particularly special about you, you just have a bit more knowledge or a few more resources that the people you are teaching – then you are pretty unlikely to develop the Guru Syndrome.

When I learned Equine Touch, a technique that leads to some huge releases and responses from horses, it was very common for new learners to start thinking in a strange way:  rather than thinking it was the TECHNIQUE being effective, they started talking about how THEIR energy and “special connection” was doing the work.   They made the results they achieved the outcome of their special gift, their mystical energy – when it was their effective application of a learned technique that was really doing the work and getting the results!  They were just the medium through which this technique could be applied.

Now I am not saying for a moment that energy and connection isn’t a key part of the process – in fact of ANY process with horses.  But, a fundamental thing is that ANYONE who learned it could do it.

The Guru Syndrome©  can happen intentionally.  Someone can deliberately set out to establish themselves as a “guru”.  They plan and manipulate to get this status.  However, this is rare – it is far more likely that this has happened “accidentally”.  Maybe someone starts off as an instructor and gets a few good results.  Maybe they get results where others have failed.  And maybe they constantly hear how good they are – so they start believing that they have something special.

It’s very tempting, it’s very seductive.  We all want to feel good about ourselves, and find something worthy in ourselves, something special. We all want self esteem.    However, this is self esteem built on a false foundation which then of course leads to its own issues.

If your confidence comes from something that is ultimately false – what will happen?

You become defensive, you become rigid – you become inflexible.

So if you have riding instructors who fit that description, the likelihood is that they have fallen victim to their own version of the Guru syndrome.  And I say “fallen victim” because they ARE victims!

Once you are stuck in the Guru Syndrome, you are pretty trapped against hearing anything else, seeing anything else and it makes it VERY hard to learn new things – it makes it hard to even admit that it would be a good idea to learn new things – and you certainly won’t ever admit to feeling unconfident.

They set themselves up as being good, excellent – possibly the only ones who can do what they do – and that is an impossible expectation to live up to.   Because there are hundreds, maybe thousands of people out there who can teach  as well as them – there are thousands of people who do confidence coaching, and get as good results as I do…oops I should be careful, I will do myself out of some business by saying that!  But the fact is, that although we are unique as human beings,  and we may offer a unique combination of approaches – the likelihood is that there are MANY others out there just as good as us.  However, if you look to this sort of feedback for your self-validation then your self esteem will be false, you start feeling insecure – leading to lack of flexibility, rigidity and the absence of an open mind.

Spare a thought for people trapped in that cycle of certainty and denial.  Trying to live up to that impossible expectation.  I feel compassion for them…

Instructors you meet who are open minded, open to new ideas; new approaches, while still being very sure of themselves, that they have something of value to offer and they can listen to you, hear your story  and come up with ideas to help you specifically on your journey– these are the ones who have true confidence, and if you say anything to  them to try to GIVE them guru status they will most likely laugh and knock that idea right down.

So – why is this a problem?

Well it’s fairly obvious from this side of things:  someone who has fallen victim to the Guru Syndrome will not be good for YOUR confidence!  They will be giving you the answers, tools and techniques THEY would use, they will be TELLING rather than LISTENING and you will NOT get the knowledge and information you need for YOUR journey – rather they will be trying to get you to go on THEIR journey instead – and that is NOT good for your confidence!

Now let’s look at the other side of the coin:  because this is human nature too:  what about when STUDENTS try to GIVE guru status to their teacher or coach, whether they want it or not?  What’s going on here – and why is it a bad thing to admire your coach or teacher so much?

This is actually quite a common thing: if you find someone who seems to explain things it’s only natural to ascribe positive thoughts to them.

There is in fact a well known psychological event called “The Halo Effect” – where when someone is good at one thing, it is human nature to start passing that positive feeling onto other areas of their lives.  So when we meet someone who can explain things in a way we can understand, help us be better horse-people – it’s only natural to start thinking of them in a totally positive, non critical way – and start to assign Guru status to them.   The heroes we choose, and a guru is a form of hero, really are the people who have attributes WE would like to have and who have things we aspire to having or being.

Having a hero to inspire us and aspire to being like is a good thing – it motivates us to keep learning, keep practicing.  However, when we start giving them Guru Status, something changes – it stops being a good thing and starts being very bad for us.


Well, I can use an example.  Someone recently decided to try to give me Guru status.  She said “You are so wonderful, the only person who really understands what is going on with me and my horse”

On the one hand, that was lovely to hear – great for my ego.  And that was the clue to think about it – -whenever I feel my ego basking, I know it’s time to take a closer look!  After all, coaching isn’t supposed to be about ME, is it?  It’s supposed to be about the horse and human I am with – it’s THEIR journey.

So when someone tries to make it about ME – what is happening?

Well, by making about ME and how good *I* am – they are in fact, DOWNGRADING their OWN contribution – and making it HARDER for themselves to believe that THEY can do it too.  In many ways they are abdicating the responsibility to learn:  after all, if I have some mystical gift, which they don’t have, then they can’t be expected to learn what I have learned – so therefore they can keep muddling along as without that gift, well, nothing will change.  So when you assign guru status to a coach or instructor, you are actually abdicating responsibility for your own learning and progress.

That  means that any confidence you feel or get – is only because you are confident in your INSTRUCTOR – NOT yourself!  So you will only be confidence when you are around that instructor or their representatives – and will NOT be developing your OWN confidence at all….

It will not be sustainable confidence – and as soon as that instructor or coach leaves you not only have no confidence – you have no tools with which to build your own confidence.

And THAT is certainly not good for you OR your horse.

When they say “wow – that was amazing – HOW CAN I GET THAT TOO?” – NOW we are talking healthy hero stuff:  seeing that I can do things, that I have LEARNED them therefore so can they – and we can have a constructive plan to move forwards.

When I think of my coach or instructor as a GURU, and they have this wonderful ability and insight – well, how does THAT affect my confidence in MY ability to learn these things?

One thing to think about too is that there are many people out there given guru status by others – but they themselves are not part of this at all.  I have met some people in the horse world who are frequently thought to have the Guru Syndrome – and they don’t.  When you meet them as individuals they are quiet, self effacing and in it to make the world a better place for horses.  So it’s not always obvious.

In closing:

It’s good to have heroes:  I have many I meet everyday.  People I admire and emulate – people I take some ideas from and try to make my own – without heroes I would be very uninspired.

And probably uninspiring.

However, in our horsemanship journey, we can do without Gurus…we need to take responsibility for our own learning, and not abdicate it which leaves us and our horses in a worse place than we were before.

So:  Who are YOUR heroes who inspire and motivate you?

– and how can you make sure you don’t fall victim to the Guru Syndrome©?

Yours, in confidence



16 thoughts on “Heroes and Gurus: How The Guru Syndrome© stops you getting true confidence

  1. Thanks for this, you make some really good points-especially the part about thinking the ‘guru’ has a ‘gift’, so the student ends up actually losing confidence in their own ability. If a trainer leaves you focusing more on what you can’t do rather than what you can, that’s not a good place to be in. Also having a guru blinds you to being open to the fact that there are many roads that lead to Rome and veering off onto a different path in certain instances may suit you and your horse more.

    • it IS so easy — and when we find someone who can make a difference — or helps US to make a difference, it is human nature to see them in a parental role — which easily becomes the sort of unthinking hero worship we gave our parents when we were young —
      Just being aware of it can help a LOT — and having an instructor who gets it wrong now and then helps too LOL


  2. Very interesting… It does seem to be a deeply human trait to worship some (and on the other side of the coin, demonize others). I have seen this in the horse world a lot. They usually go hand in hand, at least that’s what I observed. Someone follows a certain clinician and s/he is God and therefore everyone else sucks. I guess it comes from our duality thinking. Something is either good or bad, right or wrong. If something over here is right, than that over there must be wrong. I also recognize the being made a Guru thing… which is kinda unfortunate in the long run because when people put you on a pedestal (or mounting block in the horsemanship world) you’re bound to fall from grace at some point. Ough. 🙂

    We are all learners, some walk the path together for sometime but ultimately we have to get to the finish line ourselves. Oops, there is no finsih line! Eternally evolving, forever changing, growing, becoming…

    • Great comment Anna Mae – and yes you are right, there is an element in human nature that builds identity through identifying with an “in group” and demonising an “out group” — this can be changed as we mature which is the good news.

      I respect and admire horsepeople who are learning however “advanced” they get — that is a good trait


  3. a really interesting post, thank you! Mr MG will always inspire me i think, but it certainly isn’t through lack of trying other trainers etc and trying to explore different ways. I have picked up snippets from others that have been very helpful and the search continues for new avenues. I really can’t relate to a ‘Guru’ thing as I haven’t experienced it yet but I understand what you mean when you say you can lose confidence due to someone else’s talent, at that point my confidence was -100 anyway so luckily for me I was shown some of that ‘magic’ that got me back on board and looking at horses in a very different way. Although I don’t idolise him I can never thank him enough – I’ve tried, and he always says the same “it wasn’t me, it was you and your horse” 🙂

    • Hi Julie — having met you I think you have a built in “BS-detector” which will protect you from any aspect of the guru syndrome!!! If I could bottle that and sell it to other people I would be rich — ok , WE would be rich
      And what a lovely line — “it wasn’t me, it was you and your horse” — great indicator of a serious horseman and real coach


  4. Very insightful! Never really thought about it, but how timely! We (my husband, 4 children and I) are moving 4 hours away from our current home in 2 weeks. I need to share this article with my 11-yr. old, as I think she puts her current riding instructor on a pedestal. She has become a terrific rider, thanks to this very good instructor, but I want my daughter to understand that she will be just fine (with mom as her coach!) at our new home, and we will find other instructors from whom she can learn even more. Thanks so much.

    • Hi Jennifer
      Ah it’s hard when you are a child to let go of your heroes — keeping her in the mind will help, and looking at new instructors as “adding” rather than “replacing” will help too — good luck with the move!


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