Wednesday, February 09, 2011

observations and lessons from the herd

This morning I was out in the back field with the horses and the donkeys. We have Keil Bay, who is the acknowledged herd leader; Salina, the only mare and the boss mare; Apache Moon, the pony, who seems to always be on the move to move up in the herd; Cody, who is the lowest status herd member in most ways but a very good friend to Keil Bay and also showing a few signs of moving up in status lately; Rafer Johnson, our miniature donkey who seems almost neutral in his status (he seems to enjoy the benefits of higher status but at the same time doesn't push anyone around); and Redford, miniature donkey with what I would call Total Spunk.

After breakfast tubs the equines filed out to the back field where their hay piles were spread in a long swath. The three horse geldings clustered closely together to eat, while Salina and her donkey guardians went further down and spread out a little.

I was in and out between the two groupings, moving the muck barrow and generally just enjoying the sunshine. It was a quiet, peaceful time.

Suddenly, out of the blue, the pony charged Cody with no warning, moving Cody away from that area of hay. The sounds of the scuffle were loud and intense, but I noticed that Keil Bay, who was right in the midst of all that movement, didn't even lift his head from eating hay. The donkeys looked, much further away, but Salina didn't lift her head either.

Keil Bay gave enough time for things to settle down, i.e. Cody resumed eating hay in a new location, and the pony resumed eating the hay he'd moved Cody off of, and at that point Keil Bay sauntered over, very quietly and with absolutely no fanfare, and moved the pony off the hay he'd just stolen from Cody.

We read and hear a lot about ourselves as humans becoming the "herd leader" for our horses. And although to some degree I think we are in that role, and should always feel our personal space is being respected, I like to think of myself as the kind, easy-going, benevolent leader that I see in Keil Bay. He didn't try to surprise the pony - he lifted his head, looked at the pony, and then casually walked over. His ears were not back at all, he didn't flag with his head, and there was absolutely nothing but good will in his demeanor. However, somewhere in his demeanor there was the message: move away. But the communication was done quietly, with no malice or harshness, and with a very quiet confidence.

The most interesting thing happened next: the pony went and joined Cody, making it very clear as he approached that this time he was NOT trying to take over, but simply wanted to be close and eat hay side by side. This even though there was more than enough hay and more than enough space to steer completely clear of any other equine.

By that time I had moved up to clean the water tub, and the pony decided it was time for a drink. He walked up and in every way revealed himself to be a pony with only good will in mind. He drank for a long time, periodically lifting his head to stand with me (I was filling as he drank) and when Rafer Johnson approached the tub made no claim on the space at all.

Then, Salina decided SHE wanted a drink, and my expectation was that she would approach and flag the pony away. But she decided to take the much longer walk to the main tub in the paddock, leaving Apache free to finish his drink. She was immediately flanked by her donkey boys, who accompanied her to the big tub and stood with her while she had her drink. On the way back out to the field, they went ahead of her, showing her that if she walked along the edge of the very muddy paddock, the footing was firm and easier to manage. She followed right behind them.

This morning's observations came on the heels of my reading a thread about dressage riders and the "volume" of the aids. I've realized over the past six years that every equine here responds best to quiet aids, both on the ground and in the saddle. But the surprising thing is that the "loudest" equines seem to truly need the quiet aids to form a partnership. The tendency is so often to get louder than they are - and I'm thinking specifically of the pony here, but what works the best is to get very very quiet.

Today I saw Keil Bay do that very thing, and in one graceful and well-timed move, he seemed to set ripples of peace and good will through the entire herd. There's no question in my mind that we humans have so much to learn from our horses.


Anonymous said...

Every time I watch horses interacting with one another, I see and learn new things - I think I'll never stop learning from them.

ponymaid said...

Billie, you are one of us. That is why you are able to see all the subtle interactions that take place constantly in a group of equines. I myself am very Rafer-esque - of no status in particular and happy with that rank. Everywhere and nowhere, we are life's observers. Now Redford on the other hoof, is more of an action-oriented donkey, much like Jack. And of course Salina is the Dowager Duchess.

billie said...

Kate, I agree. An ongoing source of knowledge and inspiration.

billie said...

Sheaffer (I initially typed RAFER!), I take that as a compliment from anyone, but the highest compliment, coming from you!

You and Rafer are truly life's observers - it is a charming role to play. Redford - action-oriented is the perfect word for him. :)

Shinyfluff said...

that was a really lovely post. it made a small quiet place of serenity open up inside me and I know I will be able to share that with my horse tomorrow : )

billie said...

Shinyfluff, that really makes me happy - thank you so much. I just visited your blog - wow - Slovakia! I am going to go back when I can browse - I'd love to see landscape photos of your horse and pasture.

Matthew said...

Amazing to watch the dance and rhythm of the herd.

Shinyfluff said...

Thanks Billie, I'm so glad you liked it! I will try to get some more pics up. There are some really nice ones (i hope) from a ride we took out to Branc Castle on Sunday (not on Sementa though). I am waiting for my friend to send them.

billie said...

Will look forward to those castle photos! I read a part of that post out loud to my husband - we were both so intrigued by the ride to the castle and in that missiles of filth-filled gallop on the final stretch to home... :)

billie said...

Matthew, exactly - dance and rhythm of the herd.

Grey Horse Matters said...

Great post. I enjoy watching our her too. They all go about their daily routines quietly and peacefully. Most eat side by side but there is the occasional thought that "hey, your hay is better than my hay" with the following push off. It's done quietly, with just a move to the different hay and if someone doesn't get the message some ear movement.

I'd like to think they have some form of horse etiquette or manners learned from us but I'm sure that's not the case. It's probably more that they know there is plenty to go around and they need to assert their individuality once in a while.

billie said...

Arlene, almost all herd altercations here are provoked by the pony. It just seems to be innate in his personality to push the boundaries. I have often wondered what it would be like to have an entire herd of ponies! He came from a herd of painted ponies that were for the most part all his siblings of one degree or another. I can only imagine the shenanigans!