A couple of weeks ago, after I turned Connell out following our Wednesday night hour, I stood around and watched while the rest of my lesson mates brought down their trusty steeds. It was hot, hot even if it wasn’t Ireland, like the kind of hot you might find as normal anywhere else in the world, and we’d had an excellent and thorough jumping lesson.
Connell was standing in front of me as though he could conjure yet another Polo mint out of my pocket, and the other horses milled over to the automatic water thing. I stepped back after one last pat and a sincere vow that I hadn’t any more treats; Connell turned towards the water, and I noticed something interesting.
One of the horses had been drinking and backed off as soon as Con moved, even though he was nowhere near the water yet. Two more stood back, looking like they were pretending they weren’t all that thirsty, thanks very much. One stood in between Connell and the water, his body blocking the way forward, but he kept looking over his shoulder and twitching — defiant, but nervous with it.
Connell put one big foot in front the other and strolled on over. The horse that was blocking him backed off sharpish and the one who had been drinking sloped off down the field.
Connell drank; he looked up and around and the two patient ones were like, Nothing to see here and the cowardly-bold one twitched his tail and pinned his ears but didn’t move either. Connell drank again — little lift of his head — all the horses twitched now — one more slurp and Connell decided he was done and walked away; all three went for the trough, noses and hindquarters jostling for the uisce.
Horses in the wild employed hierarchy in order to keep the herd from being a drive-through for predators, and it’s a learned behaviour that has carried over into domesticity. From the top down, in a herd that has representations of all these types, are: stallions, matures mares, then mature geldings, then yearlings and weanlings, with fillies of both these latter sorts being the lowest in the power structure. As well, size matters, depending upon other factors like seniority, and degree of aggression and persistence.*
All the horses that Con cruised by were of a size to him, if not larger, but all were relatively new to the yard as compared to him, and the mare who was undoubtedly the alpha, Delilah, trotted over the Rainbow Bridge a couple of years ago. She and Connell were pals, so I suppose he learned his dominance techniques from an undisputed mistress. However: he wasn’t nasty, didn’t kick or bite; he simply had the assurance that he was meant to be first and that was that.
I suppose I didn’t expect Connell to be the boss because he is generally so chill; he can be bold when going after a piece of apple in my hand, and often tries to scratch himself on me, which I don’t allow. He also follows behind me when I walk out of the indoor after dismounting for a lesson and only gets distracted when — wait for it — he thinks there’s something delicious that he might get in his mouth, like the hay that often makes its way out of someone’s stall.
He got what he wanted without, basically, being a jerk about it, and I wonder if there is comfort for the others in the predictability of a reliable boss horse? Hmmm, time to go for spin round the internet and learn more about herd dynamics — and how such techniques may apply to human life…