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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