The new herd leader – me!

With the end of Carolyn Resnick’s WRIC Summer 2012 program, I can go out to the herd without feeling pressure to film something. I am enormously grateful to be so lucky as to have Carolyn’s feedback on my work with my horses! But the class did make me focus more than usual on making something happen. Today I left the camera and feed buckets at home and went out light-hearted and with a desire to do nothing more than to share space and time in the late September sun with the herd.

The minute I stepped into the high pasture, a golden blonde head came up on the far side and watched me approach over the well-cropped grass. It was Chance, usually more interested in eating than hellos, but today she crossed over the creek to wait for me and never took her eyes off me. When I reached her I was laughing with happiness to see her and with humor at seeing the mess of thistles in her forelock that made her look like a teenager from the 1950’s with her hair in curlers. Pulling out thistles has become part of the ritual of greeting my thick-maned girls this fall. Today the bond formed quickly through grooming and caresses, and when I turned to go to the herd, she walked beside me across the creek and back to what was left of the summer grass.

Chance started grazing and I stood beside her scratching her withers and looking at the rest of the herd. The horses were scattered over a fairly large area, each one grazing in solitude. Today there were seven , and I went around and said Hello to each one, something I do most days. I had never worked with the entire herd, but today I thought I would try Eye Contact with everyone. Carolyn has said that the lead horse uses eye contact to make sure that all the others keep their eye on her. It has survival value if she suddenly needs to get everyone’s attention for some reason – a predator or some other dangerous situation.

I walked toward Tigra, a large grey mare who was the farthest away from the herd and was facing away from me. I recalled a day when Carolyn was working with the haflinger mare Marilyn. The horse was eating from a hay pile with her back to Carolyn. In order to get Marilyn to move around so that she was facing her, Carolyn stood about 15 feet behind the horse and clucked. No response, so she walked a couple of steps to one side and forward, and clucked again. She continued doing this until Marilyn moved forward and then circled around and came back to the hay, but this time with her head toward Carolyn. This is what I did with Tigra, and it worked – Tigra moved forward as in Leading From Behind, and instead of following her, I stopped and waited. Tigra walked in a small circle and as soon as she looked at me, I walked away.

I went toward each horse with the same objective, that is, to cause the horse to shift position so that I could clearly see we had made eye contact. Every horse responded eventually, and the most interesting thing was that Hoss and Rhoda, the lead gelding and mare, were the quickest to respond and to “get” what I was asking. Over the next little while, I repeated the exercise, leisurely and without urgency, until every horse would move in response to my approach, and would shift its body to keep eye contact, if I walked in its direction with that intent.

As I stood at the edge of the herd looking at the horses, I began to feel a sense of protectiveness toward them, and a sense of responsibility. With it came a new confidence, and a connection to all of the horses that I had never felt before toward an entire herd of horses. The thought came into my head that I was, at that moment, the herd leader. While I was pondering this idea, Hoss walked right up to me and looked into my face. I had a sense from him that he felt relieved. It has been said that horses seek leaders, and even a lead horse will gladly turn that responsibility over to another capable leader. It may have been my imagination – but I felt as if that was happening now. I told him in my own way that I would take over for awhile.

During a given grazing period, a horse herd slowly moves around the property available to it, and the timing and direction are usually determined by one of the lead horses, in this case Hoss or Rhoda. I wondered if, as the current  leader, I could influence the movement of the herd as it grazed. Most of the horses at this time were more or less facing me, so I turned around and walked forward, away from them, for about fifty paces. Hoss followed right behind me, and when I stopped, he dropped his head and began to graze. Within a minute, Rhoda joined us, and she was deliberately herding another horse ahead of her, which happened to be Chance. The only other time that Hoss has ever followed or walked with me was one other time when I took over the leadership of the herd briefly. So it was significant to me that first he, then Rhoda, followed my lead, because it indicated to me that they accepted my leadership.

Hoss came and stood with me awhile, sniffing me all over. He raised his head and sniffed my hair. He pressed his muzzle against the back of my head, and then he pulled his lips back, and I felt his teeth on my scalp. I was about to caution him not to bite, but I suddenly understood that he was asking to be groomed. I obligingly scratched his withers, the dock of his tail, and the inside of his leg. He picked up my willow reed, waved it around, and chewed off the end. We were best buddies.

For the next hour, every ten or fifteen minutes, I moved forward forty or fifty paces.  Hoss, Rhoda, and then the herd slowly followed, just as they usually follow lead horses. But I kept watch on which way most of the horses seemed to be facing as they grazed, and I moved the herd forward in that direction, because there were two things going through my mind: first, Carolyn’s rule that you must lead in the moment that the horse is inclined to follow you, and second, the words of an Indian leader who said, “I need to find out where my people want to go, so I can lead them there.” That summarizes to me the definition of leadership, as opposed to dominance, and reveals the democracy that is an inherent part of true leadership.

Usually when I leave the herd for the day, one or two of the horses may watch me go, but none of them follows me. Today, I went to each horse and connected briefly, saying goodbye in my mind, and handing responsibility back to Hoss and Rhoda. My backpack was stashed in the opposite direction to the heading of the herd and I went to it and packed up my belongings. By the time I had finished, the horses were all moving toward me. I waited for them because it was too hard to walk away in that moment. Even now, hours later, I still feel connected to them. I have to believe that they feel it too.


About Ladiehawke

Born in the USA, of Canadian parents, family is cross-border and I have lived most of my adult life in Ontario. PhD in developmental neurobiology, DVM from Ontario Veterinary College. Married, no children, we own a 107 acre farm and I have two horses - haflingers, mother and daughter, named Folly and Chance, hence the name of my blog.
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