Herd dynamics – the social lives of horses

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herd dynamics

Herd dynamics are fascinating to observe. Read about herd hierarchy and how you can find your own place within your equine family. 

We are lucky to be able to connect and communicate with a one-family herd of horses here at Equinisity Retreats. I have lived among them for 23 years and have witnessed their huge capacity for love, joy, passion and grief – emotions no different from what we experience as humans. The horses in our herd descend from four sisters and have each been “welcomed to the world” using non-invasive imprinting. The herd has the ultimate freedom to experience life as they would in the wild, while also experiencing a loving and supportive association with their humans.gentle imprinting

The herd order – everyone has a part to play

A year ago, we lost our first herd member, Limited Edition, the grandmother and lead mare of our herd. She was 23. Her daughter is now filling her position. In a natural herd, the lead mare is the wise elder. Gentle, calm and loving, she supports the well-being of the herd. She leads them to food and water and makes wise choices to protect their safety.

Next is the dominant mare, usually the lead mare’s younger sister. In our case, that’s Diva, who is still with us at age 23. The dominant mare is in charge of herd order and discipline. She is often confused with the lead mare, but they are uniquely different positions. In her youth, Diva was quick to discipline any herd member who did not respect her directive. What would start as a look quickly became a bite, charge or kick, whatever punishment she thought fit the crime. I have had many “discussions” with Diva over the years, reinforcing that in a safe family herd, an order of discipline is not really necessary. Our geldings, too, are there to teach and guide rather than discipline. Like stallions, they serve as partners to our mares and protectors of the young. I believe we have much to learn from horses, and they too can learn important lessons from us.

Two steers share the herd

Our herd also has two steers. They are wonderful peaceful beings that would long ago have become meat if we hadn’t taken them in. They have known only love and show us a level of intelligence and affection that rivals our horses’.

They follow at liberty. They do agility, touching cones or putting their feet in hula-hoops for praise or food rewards, just as the others do. I have found it to be a group mind activity that somehow all our members understand.

Our newest addition, Thor, was only two weeks old when he first visited the playground with his mom, Micah.  He went straight over, touched a cone with his nose, and then put his feet in a hula-hoop as though he had been doing it forever!

Bridging the gap – encouraging empathy and respect between ranks

Empathy and compassion are two of the biggest human qualities that may not always be readily apparent in horses. This is particularly true in situations where herd safety is important. One of my meaningful “discussions” with Diva illustrates this. Epona, our blonde goddess who is often picked on for being another color, had injured her leg. After she was stitched up, I put a blanket on her as she was in shock. Blankets are a rare occasion in a wild herd and anything that could draw a predator’s attention is a concern. As a result, Diva began charging her and keeping her on the outskirts of the herd. At first, I tried to talk to Diva, explaining that Epona was not endangering the herd. This was to no avail, so I thought of another plan. I found a blanket and gave our angry, stomping, but beloved mare a chance to “walk a mile in Epona’s shoes”. It didn’t take long before she indicated to me that she fully understood. I took the blanket off and she has never displayed that behavior again.

As the human lead mare of our herd, I have acted as a mediator on behalf of submissive members that seem to be pushed around more than necessary. When the lead mare offers extra attention by grooming a fellow herd member, or chooses him or her for company, it raises that horse’s status within the herd. In order to encourage this connection between the lead mare and the more submissive members of the herd, I take them out to share a mutually rewarding exercise together. This fosters stronger relationships between higher and lower ranks, and unites the herd.

Earn respect, not obedience

The herd and I interact with mind pictures, words and body language. These shared tools of communication are learned primarily from the lead mare, as she is the wisest and most loving in her teachings. She walks through the herd with clear focus and intent, and so the “waters part”. A herd member would have to be completely disrespectful to receive a nip from a lead mare.

When instructing on human/horse connection and communication, we teach invitation and reward using focus and intent – the language of the herd. Humans often place themselves in the position of the dominant mare while “training”. This often translates to “I tell you what to do and you obey…or else.” The response this receives is based on fear rather than love and respect. Horses choose to follow a human who displays lead mare behavior, moving body parts when asked and joining in mutually rewarding activities at liberty. They seek out the human and enjoy sharing time with him or her. They often show us things we would never think to ask for. Our herd has coined this “natural horsefriendship” as opposed to “manship”.

When we allow our horses to live together in a family (whether biological or adopted), there are many health benefits, both emotional and physical. Having the freedom and choice to be in or out of shelter, to run, role play and develop friendships is as important to any animal as it is to humans. When horses are kept in paddocks alone, without the ability to share activities with other horses, they develop behaviors similar to humans who live in isolation. There are still places where horses live in stalls (which is like keeping a human in a bathroom) and are only occasionally taken out. It is completely unconscionable to treat an animal as if he or she has no emotions.

Among all living things, there exists a shared consciousness. An awareness by the mind of itself and the world around it. When we allow our animal family members to live naturally, as they choose, and enjoy a quality of life that affords them love, family, freedom and the right to happiness, we access the highest levels of connection and community. Sharing in this enlarges all our hearts and enriches our relationships with joy, understanding and love.