Part One: The Future for Horses, a Different Narrative about Herd Dynamics

The first story I remember about herd dynamics was that stallions lived on the rise above the valley to watch for danger and protect the herd. The mares and foals grazed like idle, hapless creatures while the business of the herd went on between a dominant stallion and young stallions fought to take his place. Even now most photos of wild horses show stallions fighting; herd life is all about domination. At some point a set of eyes got past the boys brawling and noticed that the herd usually had a mare that others deferred to. She ran off trouble-making stallions and solved disputes. Then the mare narrative took on dramatic names: Alpha. Boss. Is Dominatrix too strong a term? The infamous reputation of a chestnut mare comes to mind, with her ears pinned flat, a serpent’s neck, and teeth-bared as she rears, pawing the air with razor hooves, alternating with double-barrel kicks behind. She was a mare cut of “stallion” cloth.

You could look at the very same herd and tell a different narrative. You could acknowledge that the horses spent most hours of the day peacefully grazing or standing head to tail, swishing flies. The herd attends births with curiosity; mares dote on their foals and geldings sometimes play the part of wise or silly uncles. That the whole herd watches out for each other, there are special friendships, and a near-invisible old mare with scars and experience who stands in the background. No stallions fight to the death, but there are some bitey-face games. On warm mornings, they like to nap together. No matter the size of the pen, they practically touch each other. Some days you think the old gelding is the herd leader but when the old chestnut mare dies, the herd mourns with particular heartbreaking anxiety. Each horse seems lost. In hindsight, you’re sure it was always her.

Is the herd dynamic one of fighting or cooperation? Is the question who is in charge or is the herd safe? An aggressive fight for control or some relaxed horses singing kumbaya? And my personal pet peeve: Where did we get the crazy notion that the horse who over-reacts with the most fear and insecurity is the alpha? Why don’t we value quiet confidence? The perspective we tell stories from, do research from, and build opinion from, come from beliefs so deeply woven that we believe them without question. We live in a patriarchal culture. Men generally control the narrative and women are so used to it; we think it’s normal.

Who picks the narrative matters because if you believe the first version, then the only “natural” response would be to dominate horses in training. Fighting is what equines understand. A strong leader would force respect, break the horse to obey, and the horse would be grateful to be subservient. Sure, some horses go nuts or are untrainable, but it’s their failing. Horses are naturally resistant and would only work if we forced them, so we pressure them until they submit. Sometimes the downside was the same horses could be hard to catch. So, the horses got chased until they shut down, were halter-broken, and this part still confuses me, somehow then the horses recognize or confuse the brutal human predator for a herd mate and end up being a trusting partner?

I keep thinking of that adage: If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Aren’t we the ones picking the fight? Why do we think aggression is the logical language?

Yes, I know there are exceptions: Men who train with compassion like Xenophon and the ancient Greeks who thought horses were like dancers. Women can certainly be abusive and cruel to horses. Still, over 90% of horse owners are women, yet the horse training profession is dominated by men. Yes, dominated. It has had a huge impact on how we train horses. The most common thing I hear from riders is that they aren’t comfortable with how they were taught but still hear the old voices telling them that they need to show the horse who’s boss. That they can’t let the horse win. That lily-livered riders ruin horses.

I was asked my opinion about the future of horses and horsemanship. I think things are shifting; that an entirely new paradigm is unfolding. I believe women are on the cutting edge of the future and horses will benefit immensely. I’ve never been more optimistic.

More of us look at our herds in our pastures and believe the second narrative is truer. That most of the time, horses share their lives in peace, that they willingly cooperate in the herd. We find that the less we attack them, the less we behave like predators, the more horses volunteer. It’s humans who need to be respectful of how horses think. It is literally possible to build trust through two-way communication with calming signals and our “body-voice.” How can any of us even sleep, it’s so exciting! The more willing horses are to be ridden and the more reliable they become. Trust thrives, fewer injuries for both, and relationship becomes more important than we ever imagined because we finally recognize it’s the foundation of their herd life. Leadership is feeling safe. Everybody wins.

The best part? Science has proven that horses are sentient and have emotions; they are more than mere tools. Research found that horses have an autonomic nervous system and we can choose to work in alignments with that knowledge for even better training results. Science backs affirmative training and positive reinforcement. There are still two narratives, but science is on our side. Jane Goodall, for all the taunting she got in the beginning, was right all along. I hope we carry that torch on and do her proud.

May I add a third narrative, equal time for a sarcastic and sappy narrative I wrote eight years ago as a valentine to an old gray gelding:

“A Horse/Human Creation Story. In the beginning, humans ate horses. Some Neanderthals still do. About 25,000 years passed and one day a human –I personally think it was a woman- heard a voice in her head that she didn’t recognize. It was a deep soft voice, like Barry White, only 5,956 years too soon. The human looked for the cause of the voice and saw a horse –I personally think it as a white horse. The human was a bit unsettled, so the horse took a deep breath and exhaled, and sure enough, the human mimicked it back. The horse thought there might be a chance that this frail human had a soul, so he offered his help. And that’s how humans domesticated the horse.”

This silly valentine feels truer to me every day. I wonder about the narrative of how horses came into our lives. I doubt there was some version of an ancient rodeo. Cowboys didn’t invent horse training. I think horses wandered into our camps. They befriended us, but our ego took the credit. Horses maintained their pride, their intelligence, and that made us look bad. And we are predators after all, more prone to fight than negotiate. Still, after centuries of humans showing horses that we are not smart or dependable, they continue to volunteer. I hate over-romanticizing horses but I will never believe that we domesticated them. I will be eternally grateful that horses continue the work of domesticating us.

Next week, Part Two: The Future of Horsemanship.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm

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Anna Blake

64 thoughts on “Part One: The Future for Horses, a Different Narrative about Herd Dynamics”

  1. How many thousands of years & “domination” of equines has it taken for that to be realized & said out loud? The realization of women that we just might know better ways of living with our species AND others. Remember the old saying: What goes around, comes around!! About time.

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  2. The herd is so true. My herd is 5 the stallion separated from the rest by a fence. When they lay so flat and still I whistle to make sure all are well.

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      • I adopted and cared for an ancient, toothless wild stallion who came off the range when he was estimated to be over 25 years old. One of my favorite photos of him shows him standing guard over four young bachelor stallions who came to his fence line (we live with wild horses all around us) and decided to all lay down right next to the fence and take a nap because they felt so safe in his presence. Wish I could attach it here!

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  3. Oh I love this so much!! As a breeder we ran our stallion with our mares and foals, only removing the mares to a smaller area with their new foals so they were not bred back on their foal heat, and so we could introduce ourselves to the newest members of our herd. After 3 weeks or so the mares were let back out into the pastures with the stud. NEVER was there a danger to a foal, even when our vet warned us he would certainly kill the foals (A vet!!). We never had a still birth, we never lost a foal and we never had a mare not settle.
    And such a gift it was to watch the interactions of various herd members as they went about their daily lives. It still is. Even though the stallion is long gone, grandma mare is still here, the matriarch ever watchful for any stray dog or coyote that may wander into her pasture. One new colt, the last, discovering the world in a herd, learning the way of the horse from his elders, still nursing when he can catch a drink.
    I hope you are right about the future for these horses: I hope people can see how soft they are, how little it takes to move them and how intelligent they are, and how much they give to us, even that we may not deserve.
    My very best wishes to you and your herd for a wonderful 2020!

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    • Jane Greenwood, I just want you to know that your account of how you allow your horses to be horses moved me enormously, especially in regards to your stallion. As a species we have done such untold damage to horses; I am so very glad when I hear stories like yours. Thank you.

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      • Marcia, I sure agree we have done untold damage to many many breeds of horses.
        We were blessed to have a small enough operation to do that and we only ever had the one stallion. But I do know other breeders who run their herds in much the same way, maybe it’s because of the breed of horses that we have and our commitment to keeping them as natural as possible. Or maybe it’s because it is the best thing for all the horses to be in a herd learning herd dynamics. As I watch this year’s colt galloping round and round the pasture, rearing up on the “Uncle” gelding to mock fight, and then, tired, finding a sliver of sun to lay in the snow, I wonder of all those poor babies locked in stalls 🙁

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  4. Right on Anna as usual!! I am also optimistic. Slowly, slowly the picture is changing. I think one of the reasons is that more and more horse owners are being exposed to a better way of caring for and training horses and they are not seeing that better way being demonstrated by many of the men dominating the training scene.

    Thank you Anna for all you do to help promote a better way.

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  5. We used to board our horses and I never saw the herd dynamics. Three years ago we built this house so we could have them with us. What a gift that has been. I have learned so much about them and how they relate to each other and to me as well. I believe they trust us more than before. This morning they are confined to their stalls, it is cold and the turnouts are a muddy mess after 3 days of rain. Their unhapiness is apparent. I also know when we get a break in the weather and they go out (hopefully this afternoon) it will be a party and a rodeo for the first 30 minutes; then they will all be napping in the mud happy & content. I love this life. Thank you for the conversations and I look forward to learning from you in 2020.

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  6. A worthy effort on an important topic – for both equines and humans. Keep chipping away and you’ll get closer to core truths. Just a couple of small suggestions; or really, all the same suggestion. Think of it as friendly nickers from across the corral.

    “Is the herd dynamic one of fighting or cooperation?” Why either/or? Why not both/and? Surely both dynamics exist at various times under differing circumstances. Is the “victory” of one dynamic over the other merely a case of a modified form of conflict using different weapons? Maybe you balk at that perspective; but I urge you, in the gentlest way possible, to think about it.

    “The best part? … science is on our side.” I may not know horses, but I do know science and rhetoric. And this is a particularly telling example of the former (science) being used in partisan service of the latter (rhetoric). Science – in the best sense – “takes the side” only of what’s true. In my experience, that’s rarely all on one side – or the other – of a fence.

    The “horses chose us, not we them” narrative is one I’ve heard before. It has a certain appeal. To my ear, though, the narrative that makes the most sense is one that might be labeled “co-evolution.” It’s a model where where both sides get an evolutionary advantage out of a relationship. Not a matter of domination or winning for one side or the other.

    Same can be said for the male-female dynamic within a single species too. Sexual differentiation is something utterly necessary for mammalian survival, propagation, and adaptation to environmental change. So, for change of pace, consider: What’s the Dude Rancher’s perspective on all this? Hey, now there’s a question worth considering, right? Though perhaps it’s a different topic for a different day? But remember this: You have fans who are not all mares. Hell, some of us are not even horse people! As my old grandma used to say: “It takes all kinds to make a world.” And sometimes that old (mare) wisdom is the best.

    Sometimes.

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  7. Ann.
    I love, love, love this. Can’t wait for Parts II, III, IV — keep the narrative going, please.

    1. Yes, it would have been Barry White, if I had chosen. Or even Johnny Mathis.
    2. My past gelding, Strider, Hanoverian, galloped on at age 28. He ruled with a velvet hoof. In fact, no hoof at all — he ruled with just a look. If a horse was out of line, he just gave them his ‘look’ and they knew. They followed quietly.
    3. Girls rule, but softly.
    4. Watch Frederic Pignon. Magali does most of the riding. Frederic Pignon, most of the ground work. His horses love him and they have fun. I have begun some of this work with Jack — with amazing results.
    5. Remember, your horse has a sense of humor — draw it out, don’t squash it.
    6. They understand when you laugh, when you show joy. Be joyful with them!
    7. Quietness is the platinum of our age.

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  8. Wonderful article. I also appreciate Linda Kohanov’s book “Five Roles of a Master Herder”. We take groups of people to spend time with the wild Nokota horse herds in North Dakota and there is much to learn from them!

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  9. Such beautiful pictures of your horses…and I especially love the photo bomber! So funny!!
    A little bit every day, the world and the people in it, are changing for a better way.

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  10. LOVE LOVE LOVE this…and I am glad to “meet” you!

    Sidebar: reading through all of this, I had a parallel image running in my mind as I reflect on House Leader Nancy Pelosi and dealing with the (white) male dominated Congress and White House. I am sensing (well, OK, praying for!) a similar shift beginning to emerge in the age of leadership in America, and the world. Several countries now have women leaders, some have purposely created legislatures with 50/50 representation. I have believed for a long time that it will be competent, compassionate women who will lead our country into sane governments that have as their purpose care for all people in the kingdom (Herd). We will have egos and we will know how to balance and share strength while tending the lesser. The lessons we learn from horses could help us save us from ourselves, and save our planet. I hope. I pray. I listen and learn every day from the horses.

    Thank you for all you are doing, most notably writing and sharing your observations.

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  11. I think one of the reasons horses are so special, especially for women, is that like horses we are prey animals. Sure our big brains and opposable thumbs gave us an edge and elevated us to the apex predator role, but ultimately we are fragile beings easily taken down by most creatures. We are best and safest in our tribe/herd and have similar tribal/herd dynamics. We are far more like horses than like man’s best friend.

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  12. Anna, Thank You! Thank You! Thank You for this wonderful post!! Truth be told, even if science went the “other way,” I still would cling to all that you describe here. Because to me, it just makes sense. I agree: “How can any of us even sleep, it’s so exciting!”
    Best Wishes to all for a Happy New Year!

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  13. I loved your idea of how horses came into our lives. Way too many of our lives, laws, culture, religion is dominated and dictated to us by men. The idea you had in your valentine is so true. Teaching students to breathe with their horses makes an amazing difference in how both do so much better in bridging the communication gap.
    I would agree that horses like wolf/dogs came to be domesticated. Their natural curiosity would lead them to explore humans and their encampments. It is such a shame that men felt brute strength and domination was the “correct” way to train these wonderful creatures

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  14. Wonderful, Anna. I couldn’t love it any more. I am optimistic, excited to see things evolving. But it is important that we ALL speak out more, write, or whatever we can do to expand awareness

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  15. Here’s a beautiful bit of poetic language from a speech by Abraham Joshua Heschel: “..our individual moments of faith are mere waves in the endless ocean of mankind’s reaching out for God.”  When Angel (Mustang mare, orphan foal, the anxious one) is able to keep breathing into a stretch for a few more seconds, (her neck reaching forward and down in response to my scratches) even though Cheri (also a Mustang mare) is coming looking for attention, the moment joins an ocean.

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  16. Anna –
    Please don’t take this as sarcasm or an attack – but do you honestly see volunteers?? Because at worst I see slaves and at best, maybe, “inmates.” Sure, I see people who care, and love and try their hardest to be good to horses, but I don’t see volunteers.

    I am very interested in how domestication of horses came about. I understand why dogs wandered into out camps, but it looks like horses were first domesticated by people (the Botai) whose diet already consisted mostly of horsemeat (they were NOT Neanderthals, by the way). Domestication probably didn’t look like a rodeo. It probably looked more like a trap. And, yes, once horses got used to people, maybe the first rides didn’t look exactly like a rodeo, but it’s just as likely that they did. What we do know is that humans seem to have opted for bits almost immediately. Volunteers don’t need bits, and I doubt that the Botai were trying to do dressage.

    Your kinder training methods don’t make horses into volunteers.

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      • In my image, it all started slowly, with someone just being quietly curious near a herd of horses, and allowing a conversation to find its way to the surface. Greg Boyle describes his work with gang members in LA as being fundamentally about our common call to delight in one another – but in particular, “it’s really a delighting that enters into full kinship with each other”. When I can let go of the need to imagine the world as perceivable and describable, a space begins to open for appreciating the vastness of the thing: If “there’s only one thing and I’m a part of it” wants to take the shape of “Grandfather led me to Angel to support the work she didn’t get a chance to do with her mom”, I’m about done fighting it. I can’t really know whether she feels kinship and delight, but she initiates the work every time. And 5 months in, her confidence and top line are noticeably better (and we’re probably still some months from addressing her panic at the very IDEA of a halter). Poetry and breathing, poetry and breathing.

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    • I think that some horses genuinely enjoy the work we do with them, and some don’t. I had one young APHA who absolutely loved people and attention, and would literally shove the other horses out of the way if he saw you coming with a halter, saddle, flag, etc. He was practically shouting “Pick ME! Pick ME!” I’ve had other horses that followed me around like a devoted dog, all day, if I let them. One was a pony at a riding school where I worked. The facility was 40 acres, and as I was always having to go here and there and it was a lot of walking, I started letting her follow me around, and she would wait outside the arena or hang out with me while I taught a lesson, then I would hop on her and go wherever afterwards. No saddle, no bridle, just me and my sweet little friend. They are not all like that, however. My current mustang would rather hang out under his favorite tree or do something like trick training with positive reinforcement, but is not keen on being ridden. I think they are all individuals, just like people. I do feel icky if I sense that I am forcing them to do something they would rather not do, so I do my best to bring them around to enjoying it, and I do believe that we can bring value to them by bringing them to a place of greater confidence and peace in the world. Perhaps that makes up for what we “force” them to do at times.

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  17. Anna, I enjoyed part one and am looking forward to the next installments. I don’t have any personal insights to share, but I do have an observation. For whatever reason, this topic brought out more controversial comments than usual. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the pulse of the nation. Thanks, as always, for your wonderful perspectives.

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  18. “Yes!” on a new future for horses! I’ve had this dream for 13 years when I entered this industry. And you’re just the one to describe it! As long as the question is going to be asked, “And what do you DO with your horse?” I’m hoping there will be a new category of trainer who specializes in matching each horse’s specific “being nature” to the best “doing job” that horse would thrive in and enjoy. Kinda like Myers-Briggs for horses—to feed strengths rather than ignore weaknesses.

    The very first training clinic I went to I walked out of in tears. A very popular trainer expected his student’s horse to keep circling around him at a steady pace at the end of his lead until he indicated otherwise. If the horse came into him at all, within his reach, he walloped him across the butt with his 4 foot stick, saying to the audience, “And why did I just hit him? BECAUSE I CAN! Do you think horses are easier on each other than I just was? OF COURSE NOT! This is the way he learns in the herd, so it’s the way he’ll learn with me.” When his one-predation-trains-all approach didn’t work on one especially resistant Paint (who reminded me of Dodger), he “joked” about Paints being notoriously stupid. I stood up, desperately wanting that Paint to take him out of our misery. That was the moment I knew that growing empathy for horses was going to be my work.

    Thank you from the bottom of my heart for blazing that trail, loud and clear. Lead on! 😉

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  19. Your blog is such a blessing, Anna! So often the e-mail arrives, and your words give me such encouragement and emotional relief. I take a deep breath and feel part of a “herd” of searchers for truth and understanding. Big words, I know, seemingly old-fashioned.

    Regarding the question of horses volunteering, in my work with horses and people as an Equine Facilitated Learning practitioner I certainly find that happens every day. The way I work, the horses mostly work at liberty, in a field, no head-collars or other restraints. My clients come to discover who they are and what they want. The horses and I are co-facilitators in the process. The first step -“meeting the herd”- involves the client meeting the horses in the field. To prepare, we have done some breathing exercises and body scans. Explained about basic horse communications. To prevent strong habits dominating the meeting, I ask clients to avoid touching the horses and to keep talking to a minimum. To “feel” how each horse feels and how they feel in that horse’s presence.

    To my eternal astonishment, every time a different horse (out of a herd of 6) chooses to be with the client, mostly the same horse that the client also wants for their session horse that day. At the same time, there are often a couple of horses who, after a quick “hello”, wander off and clearly indicate that they are not available that day. Which we respect, of course.

    For the first time this year I am able to work with a herd of horses who are together all the time and live together in one field. 5 out of the 6 are mares, two of the chestnut! They are taking my learning to a whole new level!

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  20. I absolutely loved this blog (can’t wait for the next instalment) and all the beautiful comments too. I now feel strong enough to acknowledge that I never agreed with the “show him who’s boss” attitude (though sometimes trying to comply with instructors in a half-hearted way), and have never wanted to “dominate” any other living creature. I dream of a horse being happy to carry me because he /she knows what immense joy it gives me, and has confidence I will never hurt them or push them too hard, BUT … I am still confused. Sadly, many horses are still treated as slaves, with every aspect of their lives controlled by humans, and that horrifies and repels me. However, I can understand the argument that unless we can control the speed and direction of a ridden horse then our safety is at risk, and yes, I (a basically timid person) want to know that the horse is willing and able to do that for me. Where is the happy medium? Where is the line between slavery and friendship?
    Our horses live a fairly natural life in a herd that is stable (forgive the unintended pun!): once they arrive, only death causes them to leave. It is lovely to see how they choose to arrange their days, with free choice of about 60 acres, hills and flat, dams to play or swim in, shelter shed to enter if they wish, trees to stand under, meals brought twice a day at the moment (drought), veterinary attention if needed (seldom necessary). They are barefoot; we can lead them anywhere with a piece of bailing twine draped over their necks; I will never use a bit again; I bought a Total Contact saddle, which fits any shape horse and is well-accepted. I think they are quite happy, yet (and even if this sounds silly, it is how I feel and has been troubling me for some time) how can I know whether the two that could be ridden are willing? The barely-backed Icelandic doesn’t seem to worry about anything, although at the moment he is not quite sure about “go forward” (me on his back) as distinct from “come forward” (me on the ground – he will tuck his nose into my back and follow me anywhere like a large dog). My little Brumby mare, who had basic training with a kind and careful trainer three years ago and by all accounts took it all in her stride, has said via two different animal communicators that she isn’t keen on being ridden. Have I the right to say: “Well, I now know my first saddle didn’t fit you properly, and yes, I know it’s been a while since anyone got on you, but I would like to convince you it isn’t too bad after all, and we’ll take it very slowly.”? It looks like I’m ignoring her feelings – although on another level I myself have sometimes had to be persuaded to participate in something new, and then found it enjoyable.
    I apologize for writing so much – I just felt such a rush of “Yes!” as I read the blog that I had to comment. And as we have been having heatwave conditions and bushfires nearby (we are some of the lucky ones) this gave my mind something joyful to savour. Thank you for writing such an inspiring piece.

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    • Thanks, Cynthia. We hear about the fires constantly and are heartbroken for Australia. Glad you and yours are okay…

      I understand. Seeking that middle path is an art involving sensitivity that’s beyond us some of the time. I find horses rarely give us a hard no, so it’s all about listening to their calming signals and negotiating. But it is literally an art. I’d suggest searching the blog for posts about Calming Signals.I have an online group if you want more… and I’m coming back to AU a couple of times this year. Most of all, be inspired because people like you are changing the world. Wonderful comment!

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