For them who looks to the herd in the natural environment as base of their training method, this is a very important chapter.
A lot of theory’s about behaviour in the herd are available. I will consider only 2 of them. But these two theory’s are the opposites of each other when it becomes to leading the herd. First I will discuss the alpha way of thinking. After that I will point the things that are difficult to explain with this theory. After that, I will discuss another way of thinking from wich is actually evidence.
On itself it is a great idea to take the leader of the herd as the one to follow if you want to become the leader yourself. Before knowing who is the leader, you first have to know how herd dynamics work.
According to the alpha way of thinking, this is how a herd is lookink like. You have your herd members. And to be able to give your genes to the next generation, you need to become as high as possible in the peckingorder (because the highest is the first to mate, then comes the second and so on). If you are below in the rank you don’t get to mate at all. But this not only counts for mating. But also for who can graze on the best grass, who can drink first and so on. So horses do have to battle their way to the top (survival of the strongest) to get the better survival chances (more and better food and water means you have more strength). Only the strongest horse can be the leader. Because of that only the genes of the strongest horses are given to the next generation. To ensure that, horses that are 1 step lower than the leading horse are often trying to take the place of the leader. Because if they become the leader, they will even get better food and more water and a bigger chance to mate. But also because it is not safe that a horse that is not the strongest is the leader. The leader in the herd is the one that can move the feet of others horses without moving his own feet. All the other horses must stay away from him whenever he wants and certainly when he is eating. The leader is consistent by punishing any behaviour that is not how he wants it (this punishment can go from a warning to a threat to an all-out attack).
If we want to become a leader we have to act like the leading horse. So that means that we have to set boundaries and consistently keep this boundaries. It also means that when a horse understands us, the horse must respond to our request in a given time, because if that is not the case, we have to make clear that not obeying is out of the question. To do so, we gradually increase our pressure with steps. If the horse does not respond on the steps of pressure while he certainly understands our question, then you have to hit your horse to make clear the behaviour is not tolerated. In reality, the alpha method varies from one person to the next and from one horse to the next. But the bottom thinking line remains the same. And that is not piteous for the horse, because in a natural environment, the same things occur.
So this is in big lines the alpha way of thinking.
Now I am going to discuss the things this theory can’t explain.
Actually everything in this theory boils down to one thing. The survival of the strongest (note that it is not the survival of the herd, but the survival of one individual that counts). Badly enough being strong is not all that important in a natural herd. Why not? Because we are working with prey, not with predators. Prey animal will flee. Not fight. No horse, even not the strongest alpha of all horses is going to fight a predator if it can run away. If a herd is attacked, every member will run away. So the survival depends on how fast a horse can run. Not how strong the horse is.
This being said, why would horses fight in the herd? Well in reality they almost never do (in a wild herd, in domestic herds this happens a lot). Why not? Because it is a waste of energy. It servers for nothing. The energy you put in fighting, is better used for traveling to other grazing grounds or to water or to shelter. And certainly every horse will want to safe the better part of its energy for when it really counts. When a predator strikes!
A horse that is non-stop trying to become a ‘boss’horse is consuming his own energy and that of other horse members. That is not what horses are looking for. Horses are looking for the next. Safety, food, water, shelter. In most of the cases in this order. An alpha is not providing any of this. Why not? Because he is often fighting and by doing so taking away the energy that is needed to perform those tasks. Also is it more often than not a younger horse (lets say between 8 and 12 years old by average) that is the strongest horse and would become a leader for that reason. But that horse has a lot less experience as to where it is safe or where is always good food or where the water will be,… So this horse is not having any of the abilities needed to become a succesful leader.
Than what kind of a leader are horses looking for? That is explained in the other model. To make it less complicated we are going to use the idea of a single leader. After that I will post a link where you can see that in reality it is not 1 leader, but a group of older horses that is making decisions together. But for now I will explain it by using the idea of one leader (wich also sometimes occur by the way).
Leading by example:
Let’s get back to the basic needs of horses in the wild. Safety, food, water, shelter. If we know that that is wath EVERY horse is looking for in its life, it becomes pretty clear already that there is not any horse that wants to lead. Because if you are leading, there is no one to look for, when you don’t know how to fulfill this needs. And every horse is sometimes a little insecure. Knowing that we can say that no horse will try to become a leader. What we see when we would go watching a natural herd forming is that there is a horse that seems to be able to avoid conflicts and staying safe almost without any effort. That same horse knows where to find food at safe locations, enough water and shelter when needed. Because other horses see that that one horse is being able to do the single most important thing in a horse’s life (conserving energy to flee away when his life is threatened), they will try to do the same and actually follow that horse. That horse in his turn is also seeking such a horse. On the end every horse in the herd is following that one member that can provide best in the basic needs of the horses. Because of that, conflicts seldom occur. Note that the horse is chosen instead of trying to take the lead.
Knowing this, we can adjust our way of training and become a chosen leader ourselves. For them who want more information about this idea, I suggest you read the book “horses never lie”, written by Mark Rashid. In this whole book is explained (piece by piece) how the herd is working and how people can become such a leader that the horse chooses us as leader. I am not going to explain it to detail here, because that would mean that I had to write a whole book instead of a blog. So for the interested ones I suggest you read that book.
Some time ago a study of leaders in the herd was published. In that study it became clear that indeed horses in the wild almost never pick a fight, but also that there is not one horse that is always leading. It rather seems to be a group of some older horses that are leading on turn. After I read the entire study, it was clear (at least to me) that the most confident horse is leading. If one of the leading horses is more confident than the other leading horses, that is the horse that everyone will follow. Also that part of information is becoming more clear in the same book “horses never lie”. The fact is that every horse is searching for a confident horse that can fulfill there basic needs. Also the leading horses. So if one horse is confident at something, the rest will naturally follow that horse. Because there are more leading horses, there will always be one horse with leading capability’s that is confident enough to lead the way.
The results of the study I am talking about can you find by the next link: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0126344
But some people point on the fact that there is an alpha in almost every herd. And that is correct. We now have evidence that those horses are no leaders. But why are they in the herd? And what makes them so agressive?
Well, for first I have to make clear that those horse are a lot less agressive in the wild than that they are in domestic herds. In domestic herds, things like food are not for granted anymore. I don’t mean that horses should get more food, because domestic horses are mostly well fed. But I do mean that the horse can experience it that way. A lot of horses don’t get there 18 hours a day of grazing time. Not even close to it. So the horse thinks it needs to eat more. Because of that, he will try to steal more resources from other horses (while in nature the herd would just move on to the next place, something they can’t do when domesticated because of the fences, wich gives the problem that if they start to feel that the food is getting less, they can’t move on and because of that, get more stress wich makes the agressivity only bigger). Another problem is that the stability of the herd is very low in domestic herds. A lot of times members come and go, or a horse is kept seperatedly. Because of that, there can’t be a stable herd. A behaviour that was okay for one herd is not okay for another herd for example.
So they are less agressive in the wild. But why are they in the herd to begin with? For some time that was a question I had in my mind. Until the answer came from another book of Mark Rashid “Whole heart, whole horse”. In this book he explains that some herds are constructed of young geldings. In such a herd there is no horse with the right capacities to lead. But even they are seeking for a good leader. Because of that, those groups often follow another herd from some distance, if that herd does have a good leader. But the bad thing with following on such a distance is that there is seldom plenty of food. Those herds and other herds where a truly good leader is not available, will find another herd that does have a good leader. They will even try to steal such leader for their own herd (one of the tasks of the horse we see as an alpha). The alpha of the herd with the good leader will fight if necessary to keep their leader (another task of the horse we see as an alpha).
It is clear that this alpha is having an important role in the herd. But it is not the leader.
As discussed here, it is clear (based on the study and findings of different observers) that an alpha horse is not the leader, the leader is chosen because of its abilities to fulfill the needs of the herd and that there is mostly more than one leader. The most confident of the leaders will lead the way until that horse is becoming a bit less confident, at wich point another leader will step forward that feels more confident in the new situation.
That means a lot to our way of handling horses. First, this means we can be chosen as leader by our horse. And second, that it is not dangerous after all to let the horse lead when we do not feel confident enough. The horse will follow us again whenever we feel confident enough. (for example, when a young rider is learning a certain thing on a very experienced horse, this horse might lead as first and in this way train the young rider. When the rider feels confident, the horse will hapily follow). Of course it is important to become the one that is always the most confident of the 2. This is important for safety, but also for the well-being of a horse (because horses do not want to lead).
That both of the points are possible, is something I tested to be true. You can become the chosen leader. And you can be confident enough to always lead your horse. If you are not yet that confident, you can follow a very experienced horse on a safe location without any problem. From the second you are confident and you want to lead the horse, the horse will happily follow.
I hope I could give you some understanding of how a herd works and wich horse you can follow to become the chosen leader.