On leadership

So, is Ben the leader? The answer is that I don’t know and that surprises me. I can easily put the horses in order of dominance based on what happens at feeding time if I put Cassie too close to Ben. Ben needs a lot of space around him when he’s eating his dinner and will push Cassie away by turning his hindquarters to her. Cassie will then take Minnie’s bucket, Minnie will take Rosie’s and Rosie will move away and wait until I have sorted Cassie and Minnie out. In order of dominance, Ben is at the top and Rosie is at the bottom. But does that make Ben the leader of the herd? Does the most dominant horse usually become the herd leader? What does a herd leader do?

If being the leader means making decisions about the daily life of the herd, then Ben is not the leader, because as far as I can see, he doesn’t seem to make decisions, unless it is so subtle that I just don’t notice. He does not move the mares from pasture to pasture, in fact it is usually Rosie who leaves the herd to move into a different field. Rosie seems to like her own company because I often find her on her own in a different field from the others.

Does a small herd always have a leader? Ben, Rosie, Minnie and Cassie seem to operate mostly by consensus; they are comfortable with each other and respect each other. Their roles seem to float within the herd, depending on the situation. Minnie’s nervous disposition means she is most alert for danger and functions as look out for the herd. Her head will come up when she hears something and the others take their cue from her. If Minnie’s head stays up, they will all look up and turn in the same direction. If Minnie continues to graze after a moment or two, the other three don’t even bother to look up. Minnie is definitely not a leader, but on the day that Ben and Rosie arrived, Cassie let Minnie take the lead and was happy to follow. Ben can be fiercely protective of Rosie and he stands beside her when she lies down to sleep, but he will also let her wander off into the next field where he can’t see her. The horses are all generally relaxed in their surroundings here and there is no need to live in a state of constant anxiety. If leadership in a herd is about protection, then there hasn’t been a reason for a single leader to come forward.

I have been thinking about how these four horses interact and what the lack of obvious leadership means. Perhaps they haven’t been together long enough for a single leader to emerge?

I wonder about the implications for my own relationship with my horses. I have often been told that I have to try and become more of a leader and I have also been told on occasions when I got stuck with a horse that this was because I wasn’t the horse’s leader. I have never been sure if I actually want to be the leader. In my own life, I wouldn’t class myself as a leader, but neither am I suited to work directly under someone. I prefer equal partnership. I also wonder to what extent you can be an active leader for a horse and when does active leadership become predatorial to a horse. I am not a horse and they know it.

I have let Cassie ‘get away’ with things that are definitely against ‘the rules’. While riding out I have gone right when Cassie refused to go left, because I didn’t see the point in forcing the issue and perhaps damaging trust and the relationship in the process. I have dismounted when Cassie planted her feet and led her until she was relaxed again. In the field Cassie will come right into my space without ‘invitation’, but I can go straight into her space too. Sometimes, I will step out of the way, but there are also times when I ask her to give me a bit more space. I don’t think that Cassie now feels that she is the leader.

With Minnie, I do things differently, because Minnie has a different personality. Minnie will never step into my space, unless I ask her too. Consequently, I don’t go into her space unless I feel that it is okay to do so.

This is the first year that I am living with horses and to watch them interact in different herd situations has been fascinating. There is a lot to think about. I get the sense that leadership is more about feel and communication and voluntary cooperation.

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5 thoughts on “On leadership

  1. Lovely to read about Ben while Maire’s away!

    It’s cool that you treat Cassie and Minnie according to how they treat you – not stepping into Minnie’s space as readily as you step into Cassie’s. I’ll have to think about that with our horses.

    Our George is definitely a step-into-your-space kind of guy – but by the same token, he is fond of physical contact and likes to have you stand up close to him. I sometimes feel that bossy horses have a thinner “aura” and thus need to defend their space by posturing and dominance, that they’re actually more vulnerable. George used to not be all that comfortable having me next to his side, but now he seeks it out – I wonder if now that he trusts me more, he finds it makes him feel protected … ?

    Your musings on “who’s the leader” are interesting. I wonder why we humans are so insistent on categorizing horses in this way, as I do the same thing myself. At feeding time, like you say, it’s clear – but not so much at other times. It would be depressing if, in a group of humans, there was a cut-and-dried hierarchy of dominance. We wouldn’t want to think of ourselves that way. So I guess we don’t have to think of horses like that either.

    What a beautiful place you have for your horses!

    • June, I think you have a good point there about the more dominant horses actually being more vulnerable. Cassie is very sensitive and she doesn’t take any form of pressure well at all, but she often leaves the herd to actively seek out contact with me. Like George, it could well be that it makes her feel protected. Minnie is more self contained and not dominant at all, but in certain situations she is much braver than Cassie, and Cassie will follow her.
      I think it is a human thing to want to categorize horses and make up rules on how to deal with them, because it makes life easier for us. But what if we admit that their personalities are as complex and deep as our own…

  2. I’ve experienced/heard of several examples of less-dominant horses being the braver ones. It’s interesting, isn’t it? It’s probably often the case with humans too.

    The tendency to want to categorize horses is linked to thinking of them ultimately as machines. Ultimately, it’s linked to a tendency, I feel, to think of all creation as a “mechanism,” which makes us humans into lonely weirdos, whose possession of a mind/soul is a chance freak of nature. Whereas I believe all of nature is driven by mind, and is not a mechanism at all. I’m reading (cough, trying to read) a fascinating book called The Mechanization of the World Picture” by E.J. Diksterhuis. If I ever make any sense of it, I’ll get back to you!

    • Yes, it’s so much easier for us humans to think of horses, and all other animals for that matter, as machines, because then we can just use them as we see fit, without taking their personalities and needs into consideration. It’s a form of arrogance to think humans are the only ones with a mind/soul and it would make us into lonely weirdos indeed! I have always had lots of animals, horses, cats, dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs, and they all have their own distinct individual personalities. The book sounds fascinating, I’ll be interested to hear more!

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