Dominance is Not Leadership

Willowtrail Moujntain Honey Leads the Herd

Willowtrail Moujntain Honey Leads the Herd

Willowtrail Mountain Honey is the youngest pony in a herd of five mares.  She doesn’t hang out with her mother, which is a little surprising to me because her older sister and mother were fast friends.  And she doesn’t hang out with the dominant mare.  This choice, in contrast, doesn’t surprise me at all.

In her book Power of the Herd, Linda Kohanov states, “Studies of both wild and domesticated herds show that even though aggressive alpha-style leaders win the right to eat and drink first, these horses mostly succeed in alienating others…. [If] you sit down and really watch the rest of the herd, you’ll notice most horses following more settled individuals around.”(1)  I appreciated this articulation that alpha-style dominance behavior is not necessarily a leadership trait, a leader being an individual that others choose to follow around.

At about the same time that I read Kohanov’s distinction between dominance and leadership, I also read an article entitled, “Busting the Lead Mare Myth” in Equus magazine.  “The idea that a single high-ranking alpha mare initiates the movement of the entire herd may be nothing more than a pervasive myth,” according to a study in Germany.  (2)

In the study, the ‘lead mare’ was defined as the highest ranking one, and movement of the herd was the behavior that was considered the definition of the lead mare’s role.  While I consider the finding of the researchers interesting, based on my own observations of herd dynamics, I question the definitions on which the research was based.

For instance, the researcher studied herds with “well-established hierarchies,” and identified each horse’s ‘rank’ within the herd.  The idea of a strict hierarchy and well-defined rank just doesn’t match what I’ve observed.  My essay “Contextual Dominance” (click here) describes the dynamics in my herd, which are anything but a well defined hierarchy.  (I suspect that my hours of watching my herd and its dynamic far exceed what I consider a meager 15 hours put in by the researchers.)  Instead of hierarchy I have found Carolyn Resnick’s description of herd structure more accurate because she distinguishes between dominant horses and leaders, as Kohanov similarly suggests (you might find my essay “Herd Leaders and Dominant Horses” of interest; click here)

The mare in my herd that Honey doesn’t hang out with is aggressive and gets to eat and drink first.  Kohanov calls this alpha-style, and Resnick would label her dominant.  Instead, Honey follows a more settled individual that Resnick would call a leader.  Kohanov follows her description above with one from Mark Rashid who insists that, “most horses seek out a leader ‘that they know won’t cause them unnecessary stress or aggravation,’ someone with ‘quiet confidence, dependability, consistency, and a willingness not to use force.’” (3)  Rashid’s words aptly describe the mare Honey prefers to hang with.

The photograph here illustrates the point made by the Equus article.  It shows Honey leading the other mares towards me when I arrived at pasture.  In no way would Honey be considered a lead mare at the moment, but she surely initiated movement of the herd that day, busting the lead mare myth just as the research described in the article did.

The Equus article, in debunking the role of the lead mare, also attempts to debunk the idea of humans taking on the lead mare role as is sometimes advocated in natural horsemanship circles.  I keep coming back to definitions.  I agree that we as humans shouldn’t adopt the alpha-style type of leadership.  But what Resnick calls a leader and Rashid describes as “someone with ‘quiet confidence, dependability, consistency, and a willingness not to use force” does, on the other hand seem a reasonable role to aspire to.  Honey certainly seems to agree!

  1. Kohanov, Linda. The Power of the Herd:  A Nonpredatory Approach to Social Intelligence, Leadership, and Innovation.  New World Library, Novato California, 2013, p. 76
  2. Barakat, Christine and Mick McCluskey, “Busting the Lead Mare Myth,” Equus #444, September 2014, p. 8
  3. Same as #1

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2015

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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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