Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Bluffing Alpha

My last memoir post was about Harley learning to speak the horse language.  Since then, I have observed some interesting horse behavior that made me think about a comment I made at the end of the last "Horse Language" post.

"He knows who the other alphas are on the property, which ones are for real and which ones are bluffing."

Of course, at best, this is my interpretation of what Harley knows.  Since he cannot tell me in plain English, I have to make an educated guess based upon my own experiences around these beautiful creatures.

Any bloodhound in there?  Harley is always sniffing around.

So I had a suspicion that there was a bluffing alpha horse at the farm.  A young hotshot.  He is not turned out with Harley, but he is turned out with the largest group of horses, whom he appears to rule.  The reason that I say "appears" is that he stands at the gate first for meals and will pin his ears and move other horses around, but there is an older horse who seems to be humoring him.  The older horse (not old, just older than the hotshot) can move the younger one if he chooses, it just seems that he often does not feel the necessity.  I guess he is not highly food-motivated or has exceptional horsey patience.  Horse relationships are not as cut and dry as I used to think.  Time watching Flash and Harley and their unexpected role reversal taught me this.  Believe me, no one saw that one coming or ever imaged that Flash would let another horse lead.  And despite the years he had on Harley, his vibrance and vigor never really faded even as his days grew short.

The opportunity arose to see if this hotshot would step up to the plate if given the chance to interact with Harley.  Harley's paddock needed some mending, so he and his buddy were turned out in the big ring which adjoins the hotshot's group.  I was part of the mending team for the fence, so I was there to supervise, just in case the horses got into trouble over the fenceline.  After a roll in the nice arena sand and nosing his buddy over to the water trough, Harley approached the fence line of interested horses, his buddy calming walking as Harley herded him toward the group to say "Hello".  Nearly every horse was standing at the fence, ready to sniff and interact with my pair.  They had been turned out with Harley's buddy before so they greeted him with a calm "nice to see you again" and then eagerly went on to meeting Harley, whom they only saw in passing.

This lovely bay horse is the young hotshot.  He is a very nice riding horse with a very knowledgeable and caring owner.

Oh, hi!  A sweet little guy.

Everything looked pretty cordial.  I heard some squealing and saw that it was the nervous horse sniffing noses with Harley.  No one was doing anything to anyone else; the nervous horse was just very vocal.  Harley's expression was gentle and friendly, with attentive ears and relaxed facial muscles.  He faced the other horse with his shoulders and remained nonreactive;  neither showed any sign of swinging their hind quarters to the fence.  After a couple good squeals the nervous horse calmed down and dropped his head.  The older horse, who can move the hotshot now and then, decided to take a nap right under Harley's nose.  He laid down in the sand and slept, flat on his side.  I guess he was not concerned with Harley's presence, or perhaps he felt safe?  I looked and searched, but I could not find the hotshot.

When I mentioned it, my friend also looked for the young alpha.  No where to be seen.  After moving around we discovered where he was.  The hotshot was hiding behind the shed!  He was completely blocked from view, ours and Harley's.  Once his head appeared on the other side of the shed, but disappeared again like a turtle peeking out of its shell and returning to cover.  This was too funny.  He was the only horse who did not greet Harley and his buddy, and he had been the one I was worried might try to start some trouble.  This same horse has pinned his ears or made angry gestures at Harley numerous times on the trail, in the barn, or when passing us while Harley was getting a shower.  One time, he also tried to approach us rather aggressively, when he was loose on grass and I was walking Harley from his turnout to the barn.  I knew he was there, so I had a long lead with a leather popper in my hand.  We had to pass the grazing hotshot on our way to the barn.  As we got closer, he immediately leapt up from the grass and approached us with puffed out shoulders, tightened facial muscles, and widened eyes.  I immediately swung my line in a circle to define our space and warn him not to enter.

"I am protecting my horse.  Back off."

The hotshot got close enough to get a pop on the nose with the end of the line.  He tossed his head and mane before turning to leave.  I aimed the swinging line at his hindquarters, so that he would not turn completely around.

Harley remained unperturbed.  Either he was content to let me handle the situation or he was unimpressed by the hotshot's lively display.  I found it convenient that Harley knew the swinging line had nothing to do with him.  He did not back up or startle.  I am told by many horse people that horses are masters of reading "intent".  I believe it.

So I had plenty of reason to suspect that the hotshot would at least attempt a conversation with my horse, after making so many nasty and threatening comments from a far.  Nothing.  Aside from the nervous horse's squeals, the social event was peaceful and pleasant.  So the hotshot turned out to be bluffing, at least for now.   This is an intriguing dimension of horse language and behavior.


  1. We've got a similar situation here. Sami the little Arabian rescue thinks he rules the world. He's 14.2 hands of bluff. All our herd leader 'Mellon' has to do is give him the evil ears and off he goes. Horse language is interesting and helpful to know when you are handling them too.

  2. Herd dynamics is so fascinating to me. I bet it was funny to see "hotshot" peeking from behind the shed. I am glad everyone got along. Good boy Harley! I really enjoy the way you and Harley interact. He is truly a special horse! I sometimes wonder how he would be with out your patience and understanding.

  3. Grey Horse Matters- That is cute. I guess your Arabian is not fooling Mellon. What is the motivation for bluffing, anyway?

    Mary- I could not help laughing when I saw him peek, partly with relief. I was glad he was not coming over to fraternize.

    I am totally and completely biased, but I think Harley is special, too. His last owner loved him, but did not have the means to ride or work with him, so Harley spent several years of his life confined to a round pen with no other horse in sight. I learned this from a friend of a friend. I was very sad to hear that, but at least he was not abused or mistreated. I am relieved that he can be a curious, social horse now. :)

  4. Val - herd dynamics ARE fascinating. At our last barn there was a big pinto horse two or three horses from Speedy G and an equal distance away from Sydney's stall. The pinto NEVER made any faces at Speedy, no one did actually, but he almost leaped over the gate with teeth bared the first time I passed by with Sydney. For the next two months I had to walk by with a swinging rope to warn him to back off. Sydney was never bothered by the pinto's theatrics and, much like Harley, seemed to know that my swinging rope was not aimed at him.

    Your observation about the hotshot is quite funny. Horses can be such goofballs!

  5. I wonder what made the pinto react so aggressively. I am sure Speedy was like "Ha, my mom won't let you near me." :P

  6. My horses live with a belgian and a mustang mix. The belgian is definitely top hoss but the mustang has enough attitude for 5 horses all by herself. She's big on posturing and threatening especially when she thinks there's food nearby. Her demeanor gives the impression that she's in charge but anytime the belgian gives her "that" look she gets out of his way ASAP.


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