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Leadership changes in the herd

It has been fascinating to witness is the changing dynamics in our herd. In the spring, our lead horse Yankee died suddenly, leaving the remaining four horses to figure out their new hierarchy. Horses are prey animals (the hunted) that depend on the strength of the herd to survive. They are quick to submit to the ‘strongest’ - but not necessarily the largest or most dominant - horses in order to keep harmony within the herd.

Typically in the wild, horses have a male leader (stallion) and a female leader (mare). The others would show traits of dominance and submissiveness at times, and may even challenge, bother or pester the leaders. This would be tolerated to some degree. I see this within our herd, with our youngest horse. At five years old, he is strong, confident, and sees himself as a stallion. He has no fear and likes to see how far he can push. Sometimes visitors peg him as the leader.

Upon closer examination of the herd, you would sense that although this horse tries to jostle others away from the feed bowl, and bumps them with his haunches, and sometimes even gives a playful bite...he is just hopeful for a little sparring match. He’s not really expecting to be respected. In time he may become the herd leader - for his confidence and sensitivity. For now, he remains our energetic socialite. I won’t tell you his name as our opening activity, Meet the Herd, gives participants a chance to see, hear, and feel the herd dynamics and peg each horse according to personality, age, and place in the herd. Often this is the time when people feel drawn to a particular horse, or a horse makes it clear who they want to work with. This is when the

magic begins!

So, who is the leader of the herd?

It has shifted in the time period after Yankee’s death. Yankee was the undisputed leader, but there was a clear Second-in-Command. This horse had been the leader of the herd he came to our farm with, but he immediately gave the lead to Yankee. With Yankee gone, we were curious to see if this horse would automatically take the lead again.

For a time he did. Our newest horse on the farm had been going through a rather dramatic physical and emotional transformation. I’ll write more about him another time, but the short story is this. He was jumpy, removed and uneasy being more than a few steps away from the herd - outward signs of the wall he had built around his heart. Six months after arriving, he has gained a few hundred pounds (in a good way), ceased his self-harm behaviours, and fully recovered his coat. Perhaps even more noticeable is the change in his eyes. Once cloudy, reluctant to look right at a person, and often described as sad, his eyes now sparkle when they meet yours. He has found his footing, and now he has risen to the leader of the herd. He is a most gentle leader. He shows his position without ever harming the others. In fact, it’s difficult to even pick up that he’s the leader. There’s very little of the usual ‘ears back’ warnings that I’d see when others crossed into Yankee’s path or tried to steal my attention while I was with Yankee. In contrast, our new leader is demonstrating a peaceful way of leading. He’s the Yin to the young one’s Yang.

Please do visit if only to observe this fascinating group dynamic! I find it amusing that in University I majored in Sociology, “the study of people in groups”, and now I’m immersed in the sociology of horses. Have to say, I find the latter more interesting!

Enjoy the rest of this beautiful summer season. I’m not rushing it way, but Fall is my favourite time to be outdoors. We’ve booked some exciting events and plan on being with the horses a lot more. Hope you will too!

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