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  • Writer's pictureSarah Rivera

Leading the Herd

Fight. Flight. Freeze. Horses have three reactions when facing danger. In the wild, the sick and the weak are targets for predators. A horse knows that being alone is a death sentence. The number one thing a horse looks for and needs is to feel safe. This is why the herd is so important. Even if he only has a herd of two, a horse's survival rate just went up 50%. The protection of the herd is life for the horse.


However, the horse cannot do as he pleases in the herd. Each member had a role and a rank within the herd. The stallion is there to protect the herd from predators and other stallions who look to dethrone him. The lead mare usually has the most experience and knows where to find food and water. Everyone else helps to keep an eye out for predators and an eye on the youngsters.


The herd is a family unit. They stick together, have each other's back, and share responsibility for looking after the young. This structure is what ensures their survival in the wild.


With the need for the herd comes the need for leadership. It's not just leadership from the stallion or the lead mare, but on smaller levels within the herd. Mothers will lead foals, but other mares will also step up as aunties and keep them in line and from harm. Friendships will also develop between herd members, but one will be more likely to lead the other between the two or three of them.


This structure is ancient and even domestic horses still keep these dynamics as they are able to. Because every instinct a horse has is focused on that first question: Am I safe?


When horses feel safe, we then have a curious horse who looks for balance within the herd. This is where some of the most amazing connections happen between horse and human. As a human in the herd of two, it is us who need to step us to lead. That is a challenge with a 1,200lb animal with extremely fast reflexes. But when we gain that trust, respect and curiosity from the horse, he willingly decides to join our herd.


That willingness to connect and to follow the leadership of a creature usually much smaller than itself says volumes. Leadership is not about our size, but our mindset and our actions. To have such a big animal look at you and decide that you are a worthy leader to follow is humbling and thrilling at the same time. There is, however, a catch to stepping up to leadership in this human/horse herd. If for one moment, the human steps back from their leadership role in any way, the horse will step up into it. This is horse law: there must always be a leader.


A trusted leader makes the horse feel safe. They are fair, but firm. They know how to give and take. A trusted leader can ask a horse to consider something he is unsure of or outside of his normal behavior. The horse accepts a trusted leader and a trusted leader does not betray his horse.


There are many opportunities in the human world for many different types of leadership. Leadership roles can be as big as leading a country, a large company, or a like minded group of people. It can also be on a smaller and much more personal level. We lead our communities, families and children. More personally, we have the ability for personal leadership or being the leader of ourselves.


Do you take care of yourself? Do you give yourself rest? Do you make good choices for your well-being? Many times, we are better leaders when it comes to caring for others around us than we are to ourselves. Humans have the ability to be very self-sacrificing and it is an admirable trait. There are times when we can also take this too far. A good leader knows when to make a sacrifice, but they also know that they cannot be an effective leader if they do not take care of themselves.


Even mother nature knows this. Eventually, the stallion will lose his position and will no longer lead his herd. If his health is poor or if he becomes injured, the predators will come. If he is lucky enough to keep his health, he will be eventually forced out one day by losing to an outsider or to a younger stallion he has groomed to replace him.


Leadership acknowledges that there will be other leaders coming after you. We see this daily in families. Parents care for their children only to rely on those same children in their old age. While we have the ability to lead, let's take on the responsibility of not only to those under our care, but of ourselves as well. What kind of leader do you want to be?




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