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So when you walk into the field that your horse knows as home, do they come to you unasked? Perhaps they come to you when you call? And does your horse then walk freely with you to the gate? So if your horse chooses not to come to you, does this say something about your leadership (or lack of it)? Or does it say more about your horse’s desire to follow you? But does not the one imply the other, that by definition a leader has a follower? Perhaps. Yet should your horse choose to follow you, does that not make you your horse’s leader? Really? Or is there perhaps something more to following than simply a passive acceptance of “leadership”? Could it be that horses have mastered the art of followership and that it is also through this that we have so much to learn from them?


Please note that this is an unedited article which has since been revised and published in the book, When Horses Speak and Humans Listen. More information is available here: http://www.horsesandhumans.com/mainsite/whsahl.htm.


Leaders or followers?

Of course, these questions in turn seem to beg the question as to whether horses are leaders or followers, or at any rate whether any horses assume the role of a leader at any particular circumstances in their day-to-day life. The mythology of “leadership” which is so inherent in the “natural horsemanship” movement (see my discussion paper masquerading as a post entitled, Horses and the Myth of Leadership, for more detail) makes mention of at least three types of “leadership” which are said to occur amongst horses in the wild and may therefore serve as roles which we humans could assume in order to become a leader to our horse. First, there is the “alpha” horse, then there is the “lead” mare and finally there is the stallion.

Let us start with the stallion first, if only because there is a temptation amongst humans to consider a stallion to be a natural “leader” given his nature, status in the herd, especially as the head of a predominantly female band of horses. Within the same breed, stallions generally tend to be bigger and stronger than their female counterparts. A stallion utilises his size and strength to capture a harem band of mares – usually accompanied by foals and young stallions – more frequently than not after a fight with the existing band stallion, although a band may be left on its own if its stallion has a fatal encounter with nature. As the young stallions grow and develop an interest in sex, there comes a time when the band stallion banishes them from the band (at about two years of age) and they generally join a group of bachelor stallions until such time as they manage to take over their own band of mares and young.

Pingo greeting his mares, Anaïs and Pip

Pingo greeting his mares, Anaïs and Pip

You may have seen videos of band stallions in the wild snaking members of the band to ensure that they remain together. This you may be tempted to view as an example of leadership. To the extent that a stallion does this in order to protect his band against whatever he deems to be an external threat, this could indeed be interpreted as a form of leadership, for it does offer its members safety and security and this may be the reason why most, if not all, of the mares in a band remain loyal to their stallion. However, we need to be aware that the primary reason why the stallion does this is to safeguard what he views as his legitimate assets. It is this rather than any desire to be a leader which motivates the stallion. In addition, during the frequent times that the stallion strays from his band to chase off predators or perceived arrivals, there is ample opportunity for any of his mares to wander off. Although few choose not to, there is at least one documented case that I am aware of in which a mare does exactly that. In Cloud’s Legacy: The Wild Stallion Returns, the second in the Cloud series  of videos, filmmaker Ginger Kathrens introduces us to a very pregnant roan mare whom she calls Blue Sue. Cloud captures her from his brother, Red Raven. Months later the mare retires from Cloud’s band to foal but does not return. Shortly afterwards we see Blue Sue reunited with Red Raven, a newborn foal at their feet. Whether the mares remain with their stallion or not is ultimately their choice irrespective of the fact that the majority choose to do so. And it is precisely this element of choice coupled with the stallion’s preoccupation with safeguarding his equine assets that suggests that the mares’ “followership” is far more significant than any “leadership” on the part of the stallion.

The Cloud, Blue Sue and Red Raven episode starts at about 39’10”


A so-called “alpha” horse is said to be one that makes their presence emphatically known within a herd by resorting to dominant behaviour directed at fellow herd members, usually in order to secure some sort of advantage for themself at the expense of the latter. Many horse people have dispensed with this notion, arguing convincingly that most, if not all, of the members of the herd usually avoid such dominant horses for the simple reason that they do not want to be on the receiving end of their aggression. There are even some commentators who suggest that such “alpha” horses are actually an aberration created through human abuse, as they are not normally found in the wild. We may therefore dispense with the “alpha” horse as a role model for “leadership”.

As an alternative to the notion of an “alpha” horse being a convincing leader, Mark Rashid postulates the occurrence of “passive leadership”, being a form of leadership by example on the part of a middle-ranking, older mare in the herd. There is fairly well-documented evidence to suggest that an established mare within a band usually takes the lead in moving towards a watering hole, a meadow in which to graze or something else which is of benefit to the group. However, it would appear that this role is not reserved for any specific mare. Rather, it may vary from one occasion to the next with different mares taking the lead (as opposed to “leading”) in different circumstances. In addition, it is important to realise that the mare does not turn around to draw the attention of the other members of her band and gather them around her to move off in a particular direction. She simply takes the lead in moving in a particular direction. The rest of the band, including the stallion, who usually takes up his position at the rear of the group, may choose to follow or not. If they do follow such an older mare, it is perhaps important to bear in mind that they choose to do so and that the mare, rather than actively leading the band, is simply the first to move in a particular direction.


Pecking order

So what about pecking order in a herd: is this not a form of leadership? Interestingly enough, with the exception of the band stallion, who may claim priority within his group and is usually accorded it if he does, the so-called pecking order is something which is usually only seen when horses need to compete for resources. If sufficient resources are available for the number of horses making up a band in the space available to them, there is no need for the members of that band to compete with each other. The other side of the coin is that, where few resources are available relative to the size of the group and the space available to them, or only just enough, there is usually competition and some type of pecking order becomes apparent.

It should therefore come as no surprise that observers of horses in the wild note little in the form of a pecking order within the bands that they observe, as there are normally ample resources available in the area in which the horses roam. Rather, it would appear that a pecking order is typical of horses kept in captivity. And where a pecking order is apparent, it has nothing to do with leadership but everything to do with gaining access to resources and because competition is involved, it is usually accompanied by aggression. The Welsh ethologist, Lucy Rees, who has spent many years observing and studying feral horses in Spain, amongst other places, notes that there is likely to be twenty times more aggression amongst horses in captivity than in the wild (Epona.TV: https://epona.tv/bonding-behaviour-largely-ignored-by-scientists – consulted 20 July 2017).


An ideal concept of leadership

If you were to ask a fairly enlightened human to provide you with the definition of a “leader”, you may be presented with something of this nature: a leader is someone who is capable of exhibiting empathy, who is empowering, who sets an example, who is charismatic, and who inspires, motivates, encourages, and ultimately liberates. Let us assume for a moment that you actually manage to become someone who fits this description. Would this make you a leader? And if it does, would you not have followers? After all, you can only be a leader by definition if someone follows you, surely?

But what if no one knows that you are this kind of person? What if no one has heard about you, that you are capable of being all of these things? You would not have any followers, would you? Which means you would not be a leader by definition even if you do have all of these qualities, surely? And is this not in turn another way of saying that, even if you possess all of these qualities, which would make you probably the most enlightened leaders of the world has ever seen, would you not ultimately depend on someone first learning about you and then, based on acknowledge, choosing to follow you before you can become such a leader?

So, if having these qualities would not necessarily make you a leader, what would they make you? A friend perhaps? And your horse, would they choose to follow you if they experienced all of these qualities in you?


Reasons to follow

The chances are that your horse would not choose to follow you, even if you possessed all of the qualities that would make you the most enlightened leader the world has ever seen. Why not? To answer this question we need to examine why horses choose to follow others of their own species.

Essentially, there are two main reasons why one horse will choose to follow another. One of these is friendship but not as an enlightened human might care to define it. Truly, it is far more basic. It is feeling. It is bonding through the gut. Unfortunately, our awareness of friendship amongst horses is largely based on our observations of domestic rather than wild or feral horses. As Lucy Rees has noted, ethological studies have largely focused on agonistic (conflict-related) behaviour amongst wild horses rather than affiliative (companionship-related) conduct (see Epona.TV: https://epona.tv/bonding-behaviour-largely-ignored-by-scientists – consulted 20 July 2017). There are some things which science cannot explain and friendship is one of them. Essentially, as I experience it with horses and my best friend and partner, friendship is an energetical and emotional confluence between two life forces, which can become more important to the creatures involved than even food. Indeed, they will even risk safety and security to be with each other. So too with horses.

Pip and Pingo exchange intimacies under Gaviota’s watchful eye

Then there is that special form of friendship which also involves a sexual relationship. As I write this, we are three weeks down the track from a reunion between our mares, Pip and Anaïs, on the one hand, and Pingo, a gelding who was castrated late and still behaves like a stallion right down to recruiting his own harem band within a herd of a little under forty horses within 24 hours, the only time I have ever seen anything like this occur amongst domesticated horses (see my blog post entitled Nature, Riding and the Bottom Line http://horsesandhumans.com/blog/2016/06/04/nature-riding-and-the-bottom-line/ for more details). Although Pip and Anaïs have been close friends for years now, Pip is in season and she constantly leaves her female companion to go in search of her male lover. While the relationship between Pip and Pingo is largely sexual at present, there is a great deal of tenderness and caring in the way they interact with each other. Amongst other forms of endearment, they brush their muzzles against various parts of each other’s body, spend time standing close together even to the point of touching, rest the underside of their heads on each other’s necks and gently rub up and down each other’s mane. From time to time Anaïs tries to intervene between the two of them. She literally moves between them, faces Pingo and paws the ground. Initially, I thought she was doing this in order to protect Pip but later on I noticed that she herself had come into season and was clearly demanding attention. A little astounded and nonplussed at first, Pingo would ultimately have none of that. He had set his heart on Pip and Anaïs simply had to go. So he chased her away and she withdrew smartly, looking very subdued. Within twenty-four hours Anaïs was no longer in season, yet she again tried to intervene between the lovers (since then I have also noticed another female member of the band do the same and she too was not in season at the time). Now Anaïs remains in the lovers’ vicinity marking her time until the two female friends together return to being the core of Pingo’s harem band after Pip comes out of season.

Anaïs inserts her formidable body between the lovers

Anaïs inserts her formidable body between the lovers

Secondly, there is a collection of reasons why one horse will choose to follow another and they have everything to do with equine well-being. Here I am referring to those which serve to help the horse feel safe, secure and content. Horses choose to follow other horses to escape danger, find food and water and enjoy each other’s company in natural surroundings, and so forth. In other words, any kind of movement which a trusted horse makes in a direction which makes sense to other senior members of the band is likely to result in them choosing to follow that horse with the foals, adolescents and the stallion taking up the rear.


Choosing to follow

There are several conclusions which we can draw from our observations of horses choosing to follow other horses, especially in a captive herd. They may be summarised as follows:

  • horses choose whether to follow another horse or not;
  • horses choose which horse to follow;
  • horses can exercise this choice as and when the occasion arises;
  • similarly, horses can choose not to follow another horse, whenever they want to;
  • horses are more likely to follow a friend (and even more so one with whom they have a sexual relationship) or a trusted horse whose movements are known to be in the interests of their well-being;
  • following does not imply the existence of a leader;
  • as such followership is a more appropriate model for understanding equine interaction than leadership.

There is a temptation to view following and followership as passive activities. However, because choice plays such a crucial role in determining whether a horse will follow another of this species or not and because such choice is so fully in line with horses’ active commitment towards sustaining and preserving the communal nature of their social structure, we need to view following and followership as what they really are, namely, active undertakings with a hidden power which even borders on the subversive.


The power of followership

The flip side of choosing to follow may be found in a choice not to do so. The decision of the roan mare, Blue Sue, to abandon Cloud and return to the father of her foal, Red Raven, is a particularly moving example of this. Nevertheless, such an occurrence is quite rare. The most profound example of the power of followership amongst horses may be found in their choice not to follow a bully. The vast majority of horses actively deny the power of “leadership” to a so-called “alpha” creature who throws their weight around and seeks to dominate others of the species. Let us not underestimate this power of choice. Conversely, it is also within a horse’s power to choose to associate with such a dominant horse at times. An example of this was when Pip returned to the herd in Belgium after recovering from her tendon injury. Duke was around to greet her and Pip responded warmly.

Pip being courted by Duke, the resident dominant monster, upon her return to the herd

Pip being courted by Duke, the resident dominant monster, upon her return to the herd

To illustrate the potential of this power, let us try and imagine an equivalent in human society. In our so-called free Western democracies, we humans get to exercise the type of choice that horses take for granted every single day only once every three to seven years depending on the country we live in. This we do in the form of elections. Our choice of whom to follow is limited by strict rules governing the nature of political parties. Yet it is effectively limited far more by the media, which is largely held and controlled by vested private interests or corporations that effectively have little or no form of public accountability. And once we have exercised our choice, we are denied every right to withhold followership from whomever assumes power. Most Western democracies deny ordinary people the right to hold referendums on important matters between elections. More importantly, there are none that effectively allow ordinary people to revoke their support and recall the government to pave the way for a new exercise of choice. Indeed, there are countless measures to enforce our compliance with whatever our “chosen” leaders decide to foist on us, from the economic in the form of the threat of unemployment to the criminal if we decline to have up to one third or more of our hard-earned income spent on implementing policies which we do not support in the name of tax. In practice, our form of so-called leadership seems to have more to do with the pursuit of vested interests by a small wealthy minority with the connivance of politicians driven by self-interest who ultimately rely on manipulation, control and force or the threat of force to “lead” us under the guise of “democracy” and the “rule of law”. As a result, the disparity between the obscene wealth of a few and the diminishing disposable income of the many has become so acute that some organisations, which have traditionally served as the guardians of this societal imbalance are warning against the inherently destabilising contradictions which this disparity represents. And I have not even got to the less developed parts of the world.

Now imagine our human society with all its warts and pimples being run according to the principles of followership which guide communities of horses. Gone would be the bullies, those who rely on subterfuge, manipulation and an incessant streams of exhortations to materialism coupled with dumbed down media entertainment, the modern equivalent of gladiatorial games, contests to dominate and control us and, ultimately, legalised violence or the threat of it in the name of justice. No longer would the tail wag the dog. The notion is utterly subversive and, dare I say it, liberating. Perhaps we need to reassess our idea of followership as opposed to leadership?


When you next go to your horse

So when you next open the gate and enter the field which your horse knows as home and watch your horse approach you, should you not perhaps stand in awe and feel blessed to know that your equine friend has chosen to come to you and that they are doing so, not because they have been trained (conditioned), cajoled or threatened into doing so. Rather, does your horse not recognise in you a human they seek to be with: a friend and being trusted with their well-being?

Pingo's band starting the day with breakfast

Pingo’s band starting the day with breakfast



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6 Responses to “Horses and the Art of Following”

  1. Cindy says:

    Domesticated horses and Wild horses are mentally and physically different. Comparing the two is like comparing grapes with a raisin.
    The domesticated horse needs proper support and care. We created them and have an obligation to handle them humanely and reasonably. They are not equipped to survive the wild and would perish before a wild horse would. The domesticated horses biggest problem is inconsistent communication from the human. They learn the wrong thing as easily as they can learn the right thing. That thing depends on the humans education, self-esteem, leadership “skills” and ability to think critically.
    In response to your last question in the article. I have seen horses in a state of fear/panic actually run to the person who has been mistreating them??
    All the best

    • Andrew says:

      Dear Cindy

      I would hesitate to suggest that the differences between domestic and “wild” horses are that great, especially if we bear in mind that, with the exception of the Przewalski line in Mongolia, all other horses that live in the wild are feral, that is, originally domesticated. Indeed, those feral horses are living examples of the fact that domesticated horses are not only eqipped to survive in the wild but that they have also actually done so.

      The question of horses “in a state of fear/panic” actually runing to “the person who has been mistreating them” is one which I dealt with in my previous post entitled “Horses and the Myth of Leadership” (http://horsesandhumans.com/blog/2017/06/24/horses-and-the-myth-of-leadership/). The example I cited was that of “join-up”.

      Is not this insistence that we all-knowledgable humans have a monopoly on the truth and are therefore the only ones capable of determining what is right and wrong, not created more problems for the horse than solutions? And ultimately also for ourselves? After all, who but humans have brought the earth to its knees with the threat of widespread natural disasters and regional conflict due to global warming and the relentless spread of poverty and deprivation in the world? Are we really capable of being “leaders” to the horse, assuming that the latter has been waiting for centuries for us to provide such “leadership”?

      Are we not perhaps entering into an era when we are called upon to show humility in our dealings with other species, including the horse?

      Be well!

  2. Geerteke Kroes says:

    Essentially, as I experience it with horses and my best friend and partner, friendship is an energetical and emotional confluence between two life forces, ……… <3

    Extraordinary blog, Andrew … observant and therefore valuable …

    Take care and be well,

  3. Michelle Roockley says:

    Hmmm …. timely blog reading for me as I’m going through ‘another’ dilemma stage of my way with horse(s) and feel very torn between human conditioned (to any degree) as I believe horses are so super – hypersensitive with any human interference creating impact on their behalf; and the idea of providing space for horses as a complete wild beings … but I work with people and horses therapeutically for social, emotional and mental health, with horses who all have their degree of human trauma-based experience(s) … Mostly, I’m noticing my sensitivity to the 2 mares in the small herd here – I feel I’m finally ‘listening’ and they are adamant on refining my ‘listening’ skills for their being ‘heard’…. much of it is around leadership / followership / friendship and I think a little mentorship for the human society they have chosen to find and experience a ‘dialogue’ of contact and all that happens in and around the space of contact between horse and human … thank you so much for ‘opening this up’ for me as another curiosity for learning with and from horses, rather than a set description and then trying to achieve the description of whatever it is … I believe horses have no description for leadership / followship etc. but are experts on ‘following a feel’ which is aligned with their very being through a sensory awareness which we will never fully understand – nor do we need to – I believe. To enhance our role in horse / human society, the answer lies in finding a way to make ‘contact’ to create space in our being for learning and individual growth (for both horse and human) through shared experiences and open learning – discoveries are continuous as this evolution … and we are all part of it! Hmmm I think I’ve just answered a whole set of my own questioning around this – thanks to you … Michelle

    • Andrew says:

      Dear Michelle

      “I believe horses have no description for leadership / followship etc. but are experts on ‘following a feel’ which is aligned with their very being through a sensory awareness which we will never fully understand – nor do we need to – I believe.”

      This I could not have said any better. Is it not the humans who are searching for understanding rather than the horse?

      Be well!