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.