Herd Leaders and Dominant Horses

Last night I continued my bedtime reading on herd dynamics as documented by Carolyn Resnick in her book Naked Liberty.  When she was a young woman, Resnick spent several months studying a wild horse herd, to whom she gives credit for teaching her the most important lessons of her horsemanship journey.  So far the distinction she makes between herd leaders and dominant horses has been the most intriguing of her observations I’ve encountered.

Any of us who spend time with equines have seen that some are dominant and others are more submissive in temperament.  If we’re lucky enough to see a herd and the interactions within it, we may also have seen leadership displayed by one or more of the herd members.  I now realize I had subconsciously equated herd leadership with dominant behavior.  Resnick’s observations helped me reflect on my own experiences with my pony herd to see that in fact the roles of herd leadership and dominance are separate.

Generally speaking, Resnick observed that leaders are concerned with the welfare of the herd, for instance on issues of food and water, and dominant horses are concerned with their position in the pecking order.  “Over the years, I have seen that with horses put together in a herd by humans, the lead horse at first acts much like a horse with a submissive personality.  The lead horse, whether it is a lead stallion or a lead mare, is simply waiting for the horses to sort out their pecking order.  Once the order is established, he or she knows that the horses will naturally be able to accept his or her direction.  Lead horses will at first avoid conflict.  I have even seen them run to escape from a dominant horse.”  (1)

I have had the great good fortune to see lead horses, in my case all mares.  They are quiet and confident of their leadership role, knowing that they can do their job without excessive displays of aggression.  I have also been witness to mares more interested in dominance than leadership.  They push the other ponies around, at times unmercifully, without any purpose other than to assert and then re-assert their status.  I have many young mares in my herd.  My two lead mares are in their twenties.  I find myself wondering how a lead mare develops.  Should I be watching for a transformation in my dominant mares, or is it more likely that the leader will emerge from the more submissive group?

As someone fascinated by equine interactions and horse-human interactions, I see huge implications for Resnick’s distinction between leader and dominator for humans interested in training and horsemanship.  It’s easy to imagine, for instance, that horses have accommodated rough or mindless treatment by humans just because someone has dominated their spirit.  And for me since I’ve experienced it, it’s easy to see that when leadership is provided, a more harmonious and productive relationship is possible.

I’m barely halfway through Resnick’s book.  I already find myself paging back to portions I’ve highlighted to inform my pony interactions for the day.  And each time I go out to a herd of my ponies, I watch for signs of leadership, dominance, and submission.  In myself, I also am noticing the difference between dominating behaviors and leadership behaviors.  It’s clear there’s a lot more to learn.

1)      Resnick, Carolyn.  Naked Liberty:  Memoirs of My Childhood.  Los Olivos, California:  Amigo Publications, Inc., p. 2005, p. 170

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2012

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About workponies

Breeder of Fell Ponies, teamster of work ponies, and author of Feather Notes, Fell Pony News, and A Humbling Experience: My First Few Years with Fell Ponies. Distributor of Dynamite Specialty Products for the health of our planet and the beings I share it with.
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One Response to Herd Leaders and Dominant Horses

  1. Pingback: Dominance is Not Leadership | Willowtrail Farm Musings

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