Do horses want a leader?
Maybe you have heard that horses want a leader. That they crave the type of security that a good leader gives them. Maybe you have been told that horses don’t really want to be the leader themselves and that they would rather someone else step up into that role for them. If there is no one willing to take on that role, then the horse will have no choice but to be the leader himself, despite the fact that he would rather not.
What can be confusing in the horsemanship world is that as many times as we have heard that our horses just want a leader and preferably not themselves, we have also heard that we have to gain their respect and prove ourselves as capable leaders. Well, which is it? Are horses natural born followers, that willingly submit themselves to whoever is brave enough to step up to the plate or do they constantly challenge authority?
This is what happens when we anthropomorphize horses. People end up confused and with a lot of misinformation to sort through. However, because it appeals to the human’s way of thinking, it “makes sense” and is easy to believe, but is it actually correct?
From childhood, we understand ranking. We know that our parents call the shots and that they are the leaders and we the followers. At school, we learn to listen to the teachers because again, they are the leaders. At work, we have a boss and we understand where we fit in in the chain of command. Naturally, we apply these principles to the horses in a herd and in turn, to our relationship with them. Have we gotten it wrong?
Yes, and on many levels.
First, in order for a horse to desire a leader to begin with, he must be able to understand the concept of rank. This would mean that horses have the mental ability to understand where their position is in relation to the other horses in the herd. Equine cognitive studies suggest that this is not likely. Each horse has an individual relationship with each other horse in the herd, they interact with each other on a “bilateral level”. They do not see the whole picture. They do not understand an order of rank. This alone, should be convincing enough information that horses don’t “want a leader”- they don’t view other horses or themselves as leaders or followers, or even understand where they fall in the “pecking order”. It is beyond their capabilities. Social hierarchy is a man-made concept.
Second, conflict usually only arises when resources are scarce. This suggests that these competitions are more about retaining resources than working their way up the ladder. One horse may have stronger resource holding potential over hay than he does over the best spot in the shade. Why is this? If there was a single, clear, leader or “dominant”/”alpha” horse, shouldn’t this be the same horse no matter what? How come one horse who is the winner in a competition over a spot at the round bale, is the loser to a lesser horse when there is conflict over the shady spot? We often just attribute this to subordinate horses wanting to challenge the leader and move up in the ranking. But actually, it has little to do with dominance or rank, and is actually about what resources are important to the horse. If the shade is not worth it, he may submit easier than if he is hungry and really wants some hay. With horses, it is very simple. It is about survival and nothing more. First, survival of the individual and second, survival of the species. Adding much on top of that complicates things more than what they really are. Horses are unconcerned and unaware of a social hierarchy. They are want what they want in the moment. These competitions predict the outcomes of similar future situations between two horses, but is again on a bilateral level. Each individual horse knows based off prior interactions, the outcome of such contests with each other individual horse. He does not see himself as at the top, middle, or bottom rung. He sees himself as either the winner or loser of whatever resources, not the dominant or subordinate nor the leader or the follower.
Third, if horses wanted a leader to follow, only the dominant horse would lead. Seems obvious right? However, movement initiation has been studied extensively and research has found that any member of the herd can be a leader. This means that the top horse or one horse does not always lead. Kind of blows the whole theory apart, doesn’t it? In fact, even horses that we might consider to be at the bottom of the pecking order, can lead the herd. How is this? What determines this? The animal with the greatest need usually initiates movement. It is not the most dominant horse or a single leader that tells the herd when and where to go. The thirstiest horse, regardless of where we might say he falls in the ranking, heads for the water. Because of synchronization within the herd, they all drink at the same time, they all eat at the same time, they all become thirsty at the same time. When the other herd members see the first, thirstiest horse heading for water, they follow because they too, are thirsty. Not because their leader bids them. There is nothing more complex about it.
Finally, even if it were so that there was a single leader that came out on top in every conflict, led all the other horses all the time, and even if horse’s brains were capable of understanding and mapping ranking, there is no evidence that they view us as part of their social system. We are not the same species. Have you ever seen your horse try to incorporate any other animal, say a dog, into their herd? Never! In fact, what do they do when approached by another species, predators in particular? They run! What makes us think that the horse would ever decide that they want to “follow” us? Or that they want us to be their leader? It is rather absurd. No matter how hard we try to imitate their behavior, it doesn’t change the fact that they are horses and we are humans and they do not view us the same way.
Can you have a great relationship with your horse? Can you have a great partnership? Can you build trust and confidence? Of course you can! But selling the idea that horses want a leader is not the way to go. Horses want food, water, and other horses. They aren’t waiting for someone to come push them around and show them what a good leader they are. They are just out there living their best lives. How can we fit into it peacefully, is the real question.
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Chrissy Johnson shares her personal experiences and lessons learned training horses with reward based methods.