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Part 1: Herd Leadership

Horses, we know, are herd animals. And, happy herds (in any species) require good leaders.

Kris Kokal, a talented horseman dedicated to elevating and preserving the Mustang breed, has dedicated most of his life to studying herd dynamics and the language of horses, and the insights and knowledge he has acquired trickle down into everything he does with them (and he does everything well).

(See him in the movie "Wild Horse, Wild Ride)

My daughter and I recently had the privilege of studying under him and much of our time was spent observing his Mustang herd, figuring out their pecking order, and learning more about horse psychology so that we could transfer those concepts to our groundwork.

When discussing wild Mustang herd dynamics, Kris had an interesting way of looking at the roles a stallion and lead mare play. The stallion, he said, was more of a Company Manager, and the mare a CEO of said company. The stallion looks out for threats to the herd and the CEO/mare oversees the individuals in the herd by enforcing rules and providing clear behavioral guidance to all. As horse owners, our role (as I understood him to explain it) is to be “mothers” to the CEOs and managers in our herds and to help each horse become the best version of itself it can be. I couldn’t agree more.

In my original horse herd of 3, I had, for 9 years, an amazing Palomino mare. Joya was 9 when I bought her in the village of Tequisquiapan, two hours’ northwest of Mexico City.

Joya was a physically talented mare with a clear sense of self and self-preservation, and she had an uncanny sensitivity to the energy of those around her. For the nine years we shared our lives, I was her “mother” and she was unequivocally the CEO of my herd, no matter how many different mares or geldings passed through it.

Joya’s leadership was never questioned by her herd mates, not even for a millisecond. Joya never needed to kick, bite, or threaten another horse in order to get her point across; with a mere backward movement of her ears, she could get any horse to step quickly out of her way. Her body language was extremely clear and she, herself, was clear-headed and therefore worth listening to.

When in the pasture, Joya didn't waste time herding anyone around or being aggressive just to prove she was the boss. She knew she was the boss, and so did everyone around her, so why waste energy proving something that was already a long-standing truth? Smart leader, this one.

When Kiowa, a retired, athletic polo pony, was introduced to the herd, I was worried, because Kiowa’s owner had told me that Kiowa had always been his dominant mare.

Now, Kiowa was huge compared to Joya; she was at least a hand (approx. 4 inches) taller, super-muscled, and much more needy, pushy, and nervous. Oh, boy, I thought, here comes a battle of the ages. And yet…when Kiowa entered the pasture, Joya gave her the benefit of the doubt and did not approach her immediately. It was Kiowa who decided to immediately press her case for dominance, and engaged Joya. Thank goodness both mares were clever and experienced; they realized that more than just egos would be damaged should they engage in all-out combat. Instead, a spectacular “air-kick fight” broke out, with lots of flattened ears, some squeals, agitated foot movement, and showboating, which Joya, within a minute or two, won (hands) hooves down. Not one touch, bite, or kick, later, and Kiowa was converted to an obedient follower (and later worshipper) of her temporary nemesis. If only all human and equine conflicts could be so quickly and painlessly resolved!

You would think such a dominant mare as Joya would then be difficult to get along with under saddle, that she might not want to take orders from anyone! Yet, it was just the opposite. Joya’s confident, firm demeanor with her herd was a reflection of her own self-confidence, intelligence, sense of fairness, and trustworthiness. She didn’t spook at much, was proud of her place in the world, and was therefore rarely intimidated by new experiences. On top of that, Joya was a good communicator, and therefore she was good at listening to other good communicators.

This lovely mare became one of the most cooperative, clever, and responsive equine partners I’ve ever had. When ridden, she asked for her human to be the same kind of leader she was and would not stand for bossiness, aggressive commands, or unnecessary intimidation. As long as I was fair and kind, had a quiet/calm demeanor (no aggression!), and was sure about what I wanted to do (where to go, how fast), Joya was the most light, responsive, and connected horse!

That’s why, for the first few years, only I and my eldest son could ride her safely; the younger kids or arrogant/bossy friends never enjoyed her as we did. With Joya, as long as you gave clear directions quietly ("Please go to that spot at a medium trot") she was a dream ride.

She and I built a strong mutual trust and enjoyment of each other and, as I became a softer, more intuitive rider, she made all my wishes commands.

Joya’s confidence and self-assurance in the pasture and on the trails positively affected the other horses that were being ridden alongside her, too. Joya not only gave me, personally, the gift of fantastic trail rides, but, in being a guiding and calming force for the other horses on the trail with us, she was the main reason that all my children could ride on their own horse in nature from as young as 3 years of age!

The horses and the riders that rode alongside me and Joya became much more calm and quiet than they might have been, had Joya not been the herd CEO. Loud bangs, excited kids, backyard BBQs, noisy motorboats, leaf-blowers, or rabid wild dog packs never ruffled Joya, and, in turn, she role-modeled this good behavior to her herd mates.

My children didn’t need to be afraid—Joya had herself and her herd under control!

Joya’s leadership had another, fantastic by-product: by keeping the herd well-behaved, calm and confident, not one of the five horses in our changing herd ever came up lame, sick, injured, or in need of veterinary attention in the 9 years she was CEO. The only time my horses saw a vet was to get their annual vaccinations and dental work! I consider her leadership a key component of the mental and physical health of the herd, and will be forever grateful to her for it!

Thanks to her wonderful, consistent, calm leadership, tens of dozens of inexperienced kids and adults (even babies) got their first taste of a safe, fun, horseback ride on Joya and my herd of horses. We could stop on the trail, lift some smiling kid (or two--see pic) onto one of the horses, and take them for a ride on the spot.

Other rides were given to our non-horsey friends and their children who timidly got on the trail, unsure of what to do or expect; an hour or two later they returned courageous, excited horse-lovers eager for the next ride!

Yes, thanks to Joya and her excellent leadership, my horse herd was healthy, safe, and fun; and, even more wonderful, they were generous on the ground and under saddle to beginners and advanced riders alike.

I will be ever-grateful to Joya for all the gifts she gave me, the best being the experience of galloping alongside my small (and then,

not-so-small) children in the wild, evergreen forests above Mexico City, the back-country endurance trails of Northern California, the grandiose hills of Utah, the Aspen-dotted mountains of Colorado, and the rugged trails of Northeast America with huge smiles on our faces.

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