And Why I Appreciate My Horse's Place In The Pecking Order
Somehow, I managed to squeeze in a short ride yesterday between work, dinner and an evening meeting. I have been thinking a lot lately about how much I appreciate my horse. He is right for me in so many ways, from his size to his personality and work ethic. Yesterday, I thought of another reason why I love my horse: he is an alpha.
Harley is a leader of other horses. Since I have owned him, he has gone from a somewhat delinquent horse who did not understand the basic physical cues of his paddock mates to a master of the equine language. I have written a memoir documenting my observations of his transformation:
A Girl's Horse Learns the Horse Language
Even though my horse only has one paddock mate, he is very clearly the one in charge. Harley is always first at the gate for meals and he gets first shot at the hay and water. He can sniff his paddock mate freely and and will greet him when they have been apart. He may choose to share piles of hay with his friend or chase him from a more desirable pile. He can move his friend around the paddock with subtle gestures and corrects any overstepping of boundaries with an escalated response. Sometimes he stands watch while his friend sleeps on the ground. In addition to this, he will assert himself with other horses if necessary. For example:
Harley will defend himself. Harley is a great trail horse, but if the rider behind him allows his horse to repeatedly run up Harley's butt, he will kick the offending horse. Interestingly, he has only had to do this twice and both horses were big-chested Fjords with poor brakes. They each backed-off after my horse delivered his swift justice. Harley also loves to lead on the trail (Most other horses are too slow for him, anyway.)
Harley will protect a timid horse. I observed this interesting behavior, again, on the trail. We used to ride with a nice paint horse that was well-matched with my horse in pace, but this horse had a nervous personality. He seemed to get comfort from being in contact with Harley's backside when we were standing at a halt. Unlike Harley's corrective response with pushy horses, my horse allowed the paint to rest his face against his hip. He never made an attempt to correct this horse and showed no resentment toward him. The support he was lending the nervous paint, became very clear on a fateful trail ride when a women's horse bolted dangerously through the woods and she fell off face-first. She suffered some minor injuries and was extremely shaken up, which required that the entire group stop and wait. Her horse was high-strung and nervous. Harley remained stoic, almost indifferent to the wacky horse. His demeanor was not influenced at all, which put me at ease (while I silently vowed never to ride with a wacky horse/rider combination again). The nervous paint buried his face in my horse's flank for the entire time that we had to wait. His rider was very grateful for this, as she felt must safer knowing that her horse was glued, almost literally, to mine.
Harley does not tolerate rudeness from other horses. There have been a couple instances where my horse was grazing outside his paddock and another horse (in a paddock) said or did something rude. The rude thing was either sniffing Harley without permission or saying something "explicit" in horse, which I did not understand and could not detect at the time. In both cases, Harley sent one of his hind feet toward the face of the offending horse with lightning speed. If you ever see how quickly horses can deliver a kick, you will realize how lucky we are that they are rarely aggressive toward humans. One of these kicks sent the top fence board flying. He drove it right off the nails without splitting the board. In each situation, his muzzle never left the grass and he never missed a mouthful. His hoof did not make contact with the rude horse, but the horse still backed away and left Harley to enjoy his grazing.
Harley knows when to ignore other horses. I find this behavior to be particularly interesting. There is one horse on the farm who is also an alpha of sorts. He is much younger than Harley and has a very different style. He can be pretty aggressive toward his paddock mates if they fall out of line and he has much less subtle gestures and tactics. I kind of consider him a "poser". I think that if he and Harley ever went head-to-head, my horse would be the victor, but I am NOT interested in testing this theory. If I walk my horse by this horse's stall, the horse will bare his teeth and pin his ears. He makes horrible dinosaur faces at Harley and on occasion kicks his stall door. These gestures are very clearly directed at my horse, although they have never been paddock mates and rarely interact. I expect my horse to retaliate against this very rude horse behavior, but Harley never does. His response is to completely and utterly ignore the young horse. He doesn't even flick an ear in the angry horse's direction and sometimes has a noticeably sweet look on his face. It is difficult for me to tell exactly what is going on here. Is my horse purposely insulting the aggressive horse by not responding to him and sending the message that his assertions are not important or is he so uninterested in the young horse's advances that they literally do not register? This behavior is so intriguing and has led me to believe that the young horse is a "false alpha" attempting in vain to fool Harley into submission or fear.
So what do these things have to do with riding an alpha horse? Based on my observations and experiences with my horse, I have concluded that his alpha status contributes to his reliability under saddle. He is not upset by other horses who are upset and he does not imitate the behavior of other horses. When horses in the paddock immediately adjacent to the riding ring play and run, sometimes at a dead gallop, he carries on with our ride, as if they are not there exploding with energy. He ignored a fiery mare on the Turkey Trot a few years ago, who was so unpredictable that she reared several times in the company of strangers (As an aside, I think her helmet-less rider should not have brought her to a public trail ride.). Harley considers himself the one who gives direction, not the one who receives it, at least as far as other horses are concerned, and I see this as an asset in a riding horse.
Despite his alpha status, my horse is far from dominant or disobedient towards humans. Harley likes taking direction from me and wants to communicate. He is not timid, nervous, or dull (passive aggressive) under saddle, which I think a horse lower in the pecking order may be. The only downside to his alpha status that I can think of is that he will anticipate movements (but I can even use this to my advantage). He is also opinionated and will object if I "do it wrong". For example, if I put my legs too far back when traveling forward he may stop ("You're blocking me.") and if use too much leg in asking for the canter he will leap or bound into the gait ("Don't shout at me!") to remind me to whisper my aids. On the upside, he seems to know what I am thinking and will often begin moving sideways, changing gear, or changing his bend before I physically change my aids. I attribute these qualities to the confidence and free-thinking that is required of the lead horse.