The term “alpha” has earned a negative connotation in our current language. It implies dominance and suggests an unhealthy power dynamic. In a herd, however, it’s important to remember that a dominance hierarchy promotes harmony.
Often times the alpha of a herd is an older mare. Why is this?
Robert Miller, DVM, who has studied herd dynamics in horses for over 50 years, suggests that it’s because she has:
- Seniority- She has been able to stay alive longer and must therefore know how to survive
- More experience dealing with new and challenging situations
- Control of the motion of the herd, and “control the feet and you control the mind”
Horses are, by nature, prey animals. As a result, they are beautifully and wonderfully designed to protect themselves in the most profound, primitive, and perfect ways. They are innately attuned to their surroundings and keenly aware of the dynamics around them as it is a literally a matter of survival to do so.
Consequently, the term “alpha” doesn’t hold the same meaning for horses as it does for humans. Rather than the implication of oppression and submission, in a herd dynamic the alpha ensures safety, harmony, and peace for the group. The alpha is something, or someone, to be trusted and relied upon.
For this reason, in a human-horse interaction, our four-legged friends need to understand immediately that we are to be “trusted and relied upon” and are therefore the alpha in the dynamic. We, as humans, don’t exist in relationship with our equine companions to coerce, intimidate, or induce fear with the goal of compliance. It should be our goal, rather, to commune and co-exist with these amazing creations. In understanding how to do so in the most fruitful way, the rewards for both horse and human are well worth the thought and effort.
To be alpha, or a leader, with your horse is to give the gift of peace. Providing the assurance that you are “in charge” and able to provide safety allows your equine companion to relax and relinquish the burdensome aspect of vigilance to some degree.
Check out the video below for a wonderful illustration of natural dominance behavior in the herd. Observe how the alpha mare works to ensure the safety of her herd in response to a perceived threat…
The practice of developing ourselves as leaders who are, at the same time, servants in a sense to our horses holds invaluable lessons for our lives. We are challenged to work through and combat the conditioning we receive in our society regarding dominance and inauthentic relationships fraught with unhealthy power dynamics. What an incredible gift to explore this dynamic in its most pure experience through our relationships with our horse companions.
As discussed in a previous post, the key to this dynamic is trust. Your horse must trust that you’ve got it, you’re the leader. As we develop the skills to lead in a healthy, safe way (and our horses will definitely let us know if we are not leading this way!) the dynamic between us and the horse will shift. The horse will respond differently and more positively, and our connection will grow stronger.
Because horses are “hard wired” to be intensively attuned to their surroundings in order to survive, they give pure and raw feedback regarding our internal workings, even those we are as of yet unaware of. We here at Red Moon Ranch sincerely hope that you are fortunate enough to get to explore this dynamic and experience the potentially profound growth that can result from it. We are honored to be witness to, and facilitators of, that experience with our friends at visitors here at the ranch.