Three bleachers bulged with spectators during internationally renowned horse trainer Mark Rashid’s talk, “Herd Dynamics: Understanding the Difference between Domestic and Feral Horses’ Behavior” at the 50th Equine Affaire, which was held in November in Springfield, MA.
Attendees were quiet, avidly paying attention as Rashid spoke, as though putting into action something he has noticed while studying feral herds. “[Horses] have to stay quiet. If they make noise, attract predators. There is one reason bands of wild horses are so quiet — preservation,” said Rashid, of Estes Park, CO, the author of seven horse-related books.
There’s always a stallion in an established band, protecting the band and babies and breaking up fights. Beyond that, they lose the ability to defend the herd. “People think a stallion in a herd is an alpha horse — not even close. Completely inaccurate. Who’s the leader? It’s an old mare born who was into the band, stays with the band for life and knows where to go when weather’s bad or when there’s a drought.”
In an old study that took place in Nevada, a filly was born to a lead mare during a drought year. The lead mare took the band to a small, desolate watering hole. Later, the mare died, and the filly took lead position. There was another drought. The last time she was at the watering hole was 20 years earlier. She remembered, and took the herd there.
“All of [the lead mare’s] babies will be at the top of the ladder. It’s automatic,” Rashid said.
If the lead mare doesn’t have a filly, another mare is chosen. Bottom rung sees younger mares or more stallions brought in, absorbed by herd. Middle rung, there’s a lot of activity, jockeying for a higher place. If a stallion sees things getting out of hand, he’ll straighten it out, but the lead mare has the power. Mares make up herd’s majority.
From a training standpoint, a horse needs three things: speed, direction and destination. “If we’re not supplying those three things for a horse, then there’s a problem.”
When a feral lead mare turns, “They all turn. She stops, they all stop. Nobody passes because they don’t know where they’re going.”
In the western United States, a herd of 20 is big, especially during drought. A feral herd’s motivators are procreation, food and water. A domestic herd’s motivator is food.
“People tell me all the time horses see us as predators. Horses see a mailbox as a predator,” he said. “This is where folks get a little mixed up. Taught like we have to act like an alpha horse in the herd. Now if we go back to wild horses and start looking at that group, there’s not an alpha horse. There’s a leader. The last thing they want to do is be chasing each other around — that attracts attention.” When domestic herd horses chase each other, it is instigated by dominate horse who is not an alpha horse. “Most horses are like they are out in the wild. The one thinking he’s not going to get anything to eat, spoiling the herd, that’s not a leader. That’s a bully.”
Are behaviors like ignoring us, coming into our space or turning their backs to us acts of disrespect? “Whatever horses do, has been taught to them by somebody. Most of the time, they didn’t mean to teach them this behavior.” Each time horses benefit from a behavior, they’ll repeat it.
“Approach a horse when we’re upset, the horse’ll back away from us. People think, if they are taught and repeat a behavior we want, that’s respect. If we inadvertently teach a horse something and they repeat that, that’s disrespectful. Has nothing to do with respect. Concept of respect doesn’t exist for a horse. Horses don’t have ability to understand respect and disrespect. We start watching behavior of domestic horses and think that’s how horses operate. That’s false.”
Infuse food. Or, bring other horses into domestic herd and take horses away. When dynamics change, horses have to find their way around it. In wild, bringing other horses in happens very slowly. They start on the outskirts, go away a little bit, and before long they’re part of the herd.
“What I’m looking for is, how can I be a good leader for my horse,” Rashid said. “Are we looking for relationship built on fear or one of trust? Horses can’t differentiate from way they feel and what they think.”