I’ve been fascinated recently by the dominance games that seven Fell Ponies are playing in my largest paddock. My two year-old filly is pushing my 25-year-old around. My four-year-old gelding is pushing his grandmother around, while she still pushes my 5- and 7- year old mares around. And yesterday my eight-year-old mare, who is at the top of that herd, decided to try a dominance game on me.
Usually when I appear in the morning with buckets of vitamins, Lunesdale Silver Belle meets me at the fence to be haltered and tied. Yesterday, though, she was standing and waiting where I usually tie her. I could have just gone to her, haltered her and tied her since she was, in theory, being accommodating of the routine. However I was mindful that ‘he who moves loses’ in equine dominance games, and by me having to ‘move’ to her rather than she to me, I would have been letting her win the game.
So I undertook the “catch me” game. Ellie needed to catch me rather than me her. I walked into the paddock with the halter and lead rope and began watching her reaction. This process was made a little more challenging by the three young ponies who came to me wanting to stick their heads in the halter. They followed me around for the next ten minutes while I moved around Ellie at a distance of fifteen feet or so, stepping away slightly when she looked at me, and moving closer when she looked away. When it was clear that she really was testing my leadership, I moved in closer to her hind end and began encouraging her to turn and face me. It was then even more clear that she was testing me, as she kept her hind end pointed my way despite occasional whisper-touches by the end of my lead rope. After about five minutes of this, she moved off rather than come to me. I followed, making arcs around her hind end, again stepping back when she looked at me and moving closer when she looked away.
Still working through a curtain of two to four young ponies, Ellie eventually stopped again near where I usually tie her, but this time she looked at me with more interest. Then she swung her hind end around and stood facing me. I let this be a win for me, recognizing it wasn’t a slam dunk. I didn’t get her to come all the way to me, but by turning and facing me, she acknowledged my presence and my leadership. The rest of the herd was hungry enough that it felt like the right place to quit. It will be interesting to see what dominance game Ellie will choose to play with me this morning!
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2012