Humans and horses share the need for complex, emotionally rich and enduring family relationships. There is an amazing depth and range of emotions within the herd, as well as a finely tuned communication system. In order to form an effective relationship with your herd, you must observe and employ the dynamics at work. In doing so, you can reach a whole new level of communication and friendship with your horses.
The primary focus of the herd is survival. This survival depends on intricate language involving bodily, verbal and telepathic cues, through which each member of the herd is connected and ready to respond in a second should danger threaten. Much like a flock of geese or a school of fish, the herd moves in unison, its members tuned to each other and their leaders. The lead mare, the stallion, and the dominant mare are the herd elders and each is responsible for order and safety.
Living close to and observing my herd, I have noticed that when their communication is good – that is, the herd is stable with no horses being added to or leaving the herd – then all is well. The males, in my case geldings, take on the stallion role and watch and protect the herd, in particular the young foals.
There have been publicized cases of stallions in the wild killing foals, but having observed my herd and their strong family ties, and in discussing wild herd behavior with experts, I feel there must have been complicating factors in those cases, such as serious environmental stress or possibly a severely compromised foal. I have never seen anything but proud “fathers” caring for and teaching the young ones. Hostility, from what I have learned, comes from a serious life-threatening breakdown in communication, such as when an outsider tries to join an existing herd, or members of the herd come and go and need to be re-educated as to their status within the herd.
This education is usually the job of the dominant mare, who cares passionately about the working dynamics of the herd. She makes sure the pecking order is maintained and that all members, except the lead mare, adjust their positions and keep their eyes and ears open to her direction at all times. Should any infraction occur, she will punish at lightning speed, and severely if necessary.
To develop a strong and intuitive relationship with our horses, it is important to master the skills taught by the herd leaders. You can then place yourself in the position of both understanding their language and communicating your concern for their welfare. Your horses will then feel safe in your company and happily look to you for leadership.
For example, you can adopt the behaviors of the stallion by leading from behind and having your horse move away from you when you ask. You become the dominant mare when you ask your horse to go away or invite him back, or allow him to eat or not. You are the lead mare when you provide the food and see to his welfare, or become the leader in activities that increase his trust in you.
It is easy to blame a bad relationship on having a dominant or lead horse to deal with, but with a little understanding, you can become herd leader no matter what the rank of your horse. First of all, it is important to establish a friendship or bond with the horse so he will look to you for his welfare and have a positive attitude to the relationship. It is the lead mare who finds safe meadows, providing food and water for the herd. She is also the wise decision maker and disciplinarian, but reacts more with the benevolent guidance of the family grandmother. People often confuse the aggressive behavior of the dominant mare with that of the lead mare, but if you watch closely you will notice the difference.
Developing the relationship
When I’m establishing a relationship with a new horse, or starting a young one, I make sure they realize I have their welfare at heart and spend time in their company just making them feel good. I groom them, not with the purpose of getting them clean, but being careful to find and scratch all their itchy spots. I also generously ply them with treats and praise them verbally. We develop friendship and trust first, then a working or playing relationship when the trust is in place.
Once friendship has been established, you can begin asking your horse to move various body parts, to walk ahead or follow at liberty, and he will both respect and enjoy the relationship. I always make it fun and rewarding and have found that my horses both love and respect me for it. They also run to the gate whenever I invite their company!
Liz Mitten Ryan has co-authored three books with her herd and has developed a system of playing with horses called “Friendship And Communication With Your Horse”. One With The Herd – A Spiritual Journey has won great acclaim along with several awards. Learn more at www.onewiththeherd.com.