Two mornings ago Lunesdale Silver Belle didn’t come to me to be haltered as she normally does. I don’t know why; perhaps it was the wind in the air or the fresh dusting of snow or extra hunger from a colder morning or lots of mud. Instead of coming to greet me at the fence when I appeared, she went off and stood where I normally tie her while she gets her vitamin bucket. I could have just walked over to her and haltered and tied her since she was where I would put her anyway, but I didn’t. Ellie’s change in behavior felt like a test of me as a leader. I accepted the gauntlet. Instead of walking up to her and haltering her, I waited until she came to me. It took some effort on my part, but in the end I know it had benefits.
I recently read some research about which horses in a herd other horses mimic. “Horses can learn how to do something simply by observing another horse. But they’ll only readily pick up the new behavior if they have a certain relationship with the horse they’re watching.“ Not surprisingly, the research found that dominant horses are more likely to be copied, as are horses that are familiar. Submissive horses and unknown horses were less likely to induce mimicking behavior. (1)
Whenever I’m with my ponies, I’m on the lookout for changes in behavior. Ellie is the leader of the herd in her paddock, and her change in behavior was not only about our relationship but also about my relationship with every other pony in the herd. How I dealt with her insubordination would have ramifications with the rest of the ponies that were watching, as the research indicated. It was actually somewhat comical because three of the youngstock came up to me wanting to stick their heads in the halter the way that Ellie normally does. Perhaps they were mimicking her normal behavior, not the behavior she was exhibiting that morning.
In addition to benefiting my relationship with the rest of the herd, my persistence in making Ellie come to me paid off in my relationship with Ellie. This morning I sat on her back for the first time. She showed absolutely no indication that my presence there was an issue. It was a major thrill.
(1) “Horses selective in who they copy,”
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2011