I’ve seen a lot of chatter – and some interesting convictions – concerning the alpha equine. Some base their comments on alleged scientific fact culled from published and apparently credible herd observer gurus and others either expound on what they’ve been told or make it up as they go. Admittedly, I’ve logged many years as part of the “don’t know what I don’t know” crowd of horse handlers, but like to think I’ve crossed over to a place that has me watching, thinking and learning more while defending precepts a whole lot less.
Does a boss make a leader?
These days, there seems to be a lot of agreement that alpha mares need to be bossy and aggressive. Interestingly, this hasn’t been what I’ve observed with the herd here. Sure, there’s always a nasty mare in the mix who intimidates the herd so she gets first dibs and dines alone, but she’s feared and not respected, nor followed. There always seems to be another mare (or filly – my four-year-old took over the biggest herd last year) that quietly and kindly gains the respect of the herd by being confident and fair. Horses in the herd gravitate to her not because she rules, but instead, because she doesn’t.
True leaders attract and don’t demand
I’ve changed my mind a lot about alpha mares in recent years. In fact, I wouldn’t define the bossy bitch as an alpha at all anymore, as I’ve come to see that most of these characters’ behavior comes from fear, not confidence. The leader, on the other hand, rarely inflicts any pain on the others in the herd. They choose to follower her willingly, relishing the opportunity to choose a leader who doesn’t demand subordinates. Her calm, unflappable and fearless demeanor seems to encourage the herd to gravitate toward her naturally. Sure, she’ll jump in occasionally if another is being harassed and will stand up to a horse that attacks her, but otherwise, she does little to discipline or control the herd. Yet, she’s seen as chief without asking for the job.
Horses in the wild may be a different story – I can’t speak to this dynamic as my first-hand experience has been limited to animals coming through the domesticated systems. Even so, humans have been breeding horses for millenniums and I wonder if some of this intervention makes for a different kind of alpha mare than what might be ideal for a predator-rich setting.
Herd lessons learned for horse training
What I have learned from watching all this unfold in the herd is training techniques modelled after a dominance approach do little to encourage respect and camaraderie from the horse. Even with alpha mares. Instead, I’ve discovered the best approach to horses that are wilful, smart, blessed with tons of heart and/or belligerent, is to not only be steady, consistent, unflappable and clear in your requests, but also responsive to the horse’s comments with understanding. This requires a human ready with an approach that shows no fear, but also, no aggression. I do believe horses seek a leader they can respect – especially alphas. Interestingly, as with humans, horses seem to respond better to a leader who deserves respect vs. one who dictates compliance.
The next time you encounter a strong-willed horse (or human), think about how much more effective you may be taking some tips from a mare the herd chooses as leader.