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Part 2: Herd Leadership

My lovely Palomino mare Joya was my herd CEO for 9 years, and I, herd “mother”. Joya’s firm, matter-of-fact leadership with her equine herd members, and her uncanny connection to and logical partnership with me and other riders made her an exceptional mare in every way. In her early years with me, she was very excitable, athletic, and fun, and also very intimidating to lesser experienced (or simply more aggressive) riders. But as the years went on, she transformed into a sweet, gentle teacher of the timid.

After 9 active, adventurous years of almost daily trail rides across five different locations in two countries, Joya was ready to move on to a life of less intensity. We found a fantastic family down the road that would ride her less frequently than we and who needed her calm, kind ways to bolster the confidence of their inexperienced teenage riders. We knew she would be happy, and had prepared ourselves for months to lose her from our herd (prepare = cry a lot).

What we didn’t know to prepare for, was how devastated she would leave the now leaderless gelding Patxi and pony Txiki.

For the first two weeks without Joya, Patxi and Txiki were shell-shocked. They were so sad that they barely noticed their surroundings other than to realize that Joya was not with them. It seemed they were counting off time as one more minute in which Joya did not return. I wasn’t sure how they would treat each other now that their CEO was gone, but they barely noticed each other’s presence, so busy were they searching for Joya. They slept-walked through the pasture, neighed at any truck rumbling by (hoping it was pulling a trailer with Joya in it), and seemed on constant alert for the sound or smell of their beloved, vanished leader. I tried to distract them with activity, affection, and treats; slowly they bonded with each other again and seemed to give up on Joya’s ever coming back. Once they began to perk up and race against each other on the trails, I knew their mourning had ended and we were all flooded with relief. That relief was short-lived.

Three months after Joya’s departure, we brought home two young quarter horses, 3-yr-old Maia and 1-yr-old Txoko, and a new kind of crazy enveloped our new herd of four.

Without a Joya to impose rules, explain the concept of personal space, clarify the hierarchy, and be a role model for perfect behavior, my herd came unglued.

Every day the new babies came in from the pasture with oozing bite marks on their necks and withers, bloody flanks, or missing patches of hair on their barrels. The youngsters were battered and bewildered for longer than necessary with the ways of their new world and all because not one of their kind would show them the ropes.

Old, intelligent pony Txiki would have liked to help, but she couldn’t even try because she was like a feeble equine sapling on the horizon compared to the gangly, tall mountainous Redwoods the youngsters were. Maia and Txoko could practically push Txiki over with a big snort!

And where was big, strong, tough gelding Patxi in this picture?

Nowhere to be found, leadership-wise! Patxi scrambled to stay on the fringe of the fray when he was not being forced to be mean when the young ones would not leave him alone. The poor guy looked like he was headed for a nervous breakdown from the constant barrage of physicality and rambunctiousness the new horses offered him.

Even after a few months, kick indentations continued to appear periodically in perfect horseshoe shapes on the youngsters’ fur. On a weekly basis they would get too close to each other in the pasture and push one another into obstacles that scratched them up. When we took them for hand-walks or rides on the trail, they jumped at any new stimulus, be it a falling leaf or terrifying cyclist. Patxi? Patxi became almost feral now when ridden, taking his cues from the freaking out youngsters, spooking at sights and sounds that before he might not have seen or heard.

(Patxi in his good ole, calm days)

In those chaotic weeks I had the biggest fall I’ve had in more than a decade, thanks to his absolutely unprecedented rearing up, doing a 180, and taking off on a trail we had ridden dozens of times before. This, from a horse that had never bucked, reared, or kicked in 5 years and hundreds of rides…my trusty old gelding was trusty no more!

I kept hoping that Patxi would face reality, put on his big boy britches and take the leadership position that was so obviously vacant and waiting for him, but he continued to resist. The newest members of the herd assumed he was in a higher pecking order, but they also knew they could push his buttons for quite a while before strong reprisals came their way. As the weeks turned into months, less scratches, bite marks, and injuries made it clear that the youngsters were beginning to understand the concept of personal space, but they still seemed to be teaching Patxi bad habits rather than he teaching them good ones.

Oh! If only Joya could have been here, those youngsters would have, in a matter of days and without injury, learned proper behavior, good citizenship, and how to be safe.

So, what does the future hold for my herd? Well, Maia is still too young to take over as CEO, but I can see her doing so within the next two years. When I work with her I always have this in the back of my mind; I realize that I must train her to be good at her job, and that I must role model good leadership at all times. For this I try to be extra patient, gently assertive, and calm! I try to expose her to as many “scary” real-life scenarios as possible to build her confidence in me and herself. (The more we can accomplish together, the more confident she will be alone.)

I hope to groom her into a splendid version of Joya!

In terms of the other members of the herd, I have had to assert my maternal presence much more firmly to each member of the herd to give them a sense of security and confidence that they lack amongst themselves due to the lack of a proper CEO at present.

I look forward to the day that Maia will be ready to accede to the position of herd CEO. I can only hope that she can lead the pack a fraction as well as Joya did. And when that time comes, poor gelding Patxi will be the first to celebrate his demotion to the back office!

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