I was sitting on my porch watching the horses one afternoon. It was muggy, hot, and flies were plentiful in our new Virginia setting. I watched the horses moving around and around in a circle in what initially appeared to be random. As I continued to watch them I realized the movement wasn’t random at all but very intentional with a specific goal in mind. As I watched this deliberate act, I realized Etta was the mastermind of all the movement, i.e. the leader of the group. In that Etta had never taken on a leadership role in the herd, and had always stayed to herself, I was not only fascinated with the circle dance but her rise in power as the new herd leader. As I continued to watch, it became clear that Etta, a Kiger Mustang, who is essentially more wild than domestic, was teaching the group what to do.
Etta is an older mare who I took on many years ago, not fully aware of her wilder side. During her years on the ranch, she was very wary and untrusting. Although I could work with her, she was quite hesitant and kept her distance from people. She was not the kind of horse you could just casually go up to and pet. She would move away before your hand could touch her. Keeping her distance. Bothering no one. And no one bothering her. While at the same time she chose a lower rung on the hierarchy of the herd.
As Etta continued to set the little group up, she did so in a way where they were lined up next to each other with each horse standing in opposite directions. It became clear that she did this so that they could keep the flies off of each other with their tails while providing a slight reprieve from the heat with each swish. Etta placed the horses exactly where she wanted them by continuing to move her body until it was just so. Along with this she positioned herself in the middle allowing her to get 2 swishes of 2 tails to their 1 swish of her tail. An obvious statement with no argument from the other horses.
Another fascinating aspect of this dance was that Jack, the only gelding in the group, who initially was not allowed into the girl-pack, was now accepted as a part of the team. Jack needed this group dynamic and Etta allowed it. Whereas Hope and Mya (both mares) chose to create a duo partnership by themselves, copying Etta’s movements and standing close-by.
There wasn’t any fighting, squealing, or kicking as Etta asked and corrected, asked and corrected, asked and corrected, until the horses were in the exact position she wanted. There was simply a need to solve the problem of utter discomfort and to do it as fast and efficiently as possible. Etta took on this role where she otherwise never had before. And interestingly enough, her role was accepted by Cariad (the previous head mare) who stepped down with cooperation verses argument or drama. A smooth transition to say the least, resulting in everyone’s needs being met in an effort to create some sort of comfort on a miserably hot, humid, fly-driven day!
The obvious lesson here is that there can only be one head mare, one leader. But the head mare (leader) needs a team that is not only willing but trusting of the leadership. In this case it was Etta, and I believe this change in hierarchy occurred while traveling to Virginia on the 5 day journey with someone other than me. The trip was riddled with problems from the start and had to be rerouted on Day 1 due to unstable horse issues. More problems occurred on route which created stressful situations. Horse hotel stops in unfamiliar territory made for high heads and tense bodies, with Tommy the donkey trying to escape a few times! And yet through all of this, from what the driver told me, Etta proved to be the calm, cool, collective one, completely opposite of what I anticipated.
When the horses finally arrived in Virginia and were being unloaded, I wasn’t sure what to expect. My worry had always been about Etta and her ability to make it across the country. So, imagine my surprise when Etta unloaded without an apparent worry in the world. Quiet, composed, and immediately putting her head down to eat the green Virginia grass. All of this, so unlike the reluctant mare in my old Nevada pasture.
Pondering all of this as I sat on my porch watching the horses, I realized there were definite lessons in here for people.
Teambuilding, cooperation, partnering, conflict resolution, release of ego, just to name a few.
It certainly speaks to leadership and the fact that anyone can learn to be a leader if they so choose. It speaks to teamwork from a trusting group who follow without question. And it speaks to cooperation in an effort to solve immediate problems.
Etta, the mare who I asked nothing of, chose to be a leader to her herd because she had to and in turn because she could.
Never underestimate what you are capable of. Life is a journey of changes and on the journey new opportunities arise that you may never have expected.
Kim Chappell, M.Ed., Instructor and Equine-Facilitated Life Coach. For further information on riding programs and Equine-facilitated life coaching, you can contact Kim at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.chappellranchllc.com