Sunday, October 17, 2010

Herd Dynamics Are Your Friend (Except on Facebook)

Herd dynamics.  The term has been bandied about for several years, usually in connection with training issues.  It is the Boss Hoss who makes the rules, and the best-case scenario places you in that head honcho position. 

But do you really understand what that means?  Have you put in the hours and the miles with the herd—any herd—to see what makes it tick?  Do you know that it’s called “dynamic” for a reason?  The reason is that it changes, not just with your ability to command (not “demand”) respect, but with what may appear on the surface to be tiny and often unpredictable (to humans) paradigm shifts among the horses.

Beginning with your need to take charge so that you will avoid injury and be able to manage the horses singularly and en masse, it is vital to note that while horses appear to be a bit rough on each other (bleeding is not unusual when a new horse is learning the hierarchy or a foal is getting too big for his hindquarters), the ability to lead does not depend on physical strength.  Horses, herd animals and basically prey for anything with teeth, are always looking for safety.  And food.  Safety and food are their currency.  There’s safety in numbers, which is why they cluster together.  In a group, there is always someone available for sentry duty and generally someone who is willing to become president and get the perks that apply.  A singleton horse is an easy mark by comparison.

In human society, small group behavior governs everything we do.  There are always two leaders.  The Expressive Leader offers the face of the group to the public at large.  The Instrumental Leader does the dirty work of keeping the group operating on all cylinders.  Leaders are chosen on the basis of accumulated Accountability Points.  Points are scored each time a group member makes a decision that has a positive effect on the group.  The guy who makes the most good decisions (politics excepted) is tacitly voted Instrumental Leader.  The guy who most consistently represents what the group stands for becomes the Expressive Leader. There’s no actual election.  This all happens without fanfare.  Look around you at your group of friends or coworkers, and you will easily be able to identify the leaders, the “Go-To” guys, the ones the rest of you emulate and look up to in an unspoken agreement to follow their lead.

Horses operate in much the same way.  It’s not always the biggest or strongest stallion who runs the herd (though he may have more mares following him around), but the one who is best able to find water or good grazing grounds.  The mare who has the best ears and is on the money with her danger warnings most often becomes Lead Mare.  When those two pair up, the rest of the herd follows like sheep in pretty much unquestioning loyalty. 

Unquestioning, that is, until the new guy moves in, or until the admitted leader is taken away for a while for training or lay-up after an injury, or until the lead mare chooses the new guy to mate with, and all bets are off.  That’s the “dynamic” part, and that’s where you come in. 

How do you go about securing your position in the herd without creating chaos?  First, you need to be consistent.  You need to recognize the equine body language that says “I challenge you, interloper!” and know how to fight back.  You need to avoid putting herd members in jeopardy.  You need to get the cooperation of the herd leaders.  To do that, you must do some serious training with them and never take Nuh-UH! for an answer. Learn quickly, as well, that fighting a 1200-pound animal that has a memory is fruitless.  Finesse is the name of the game.

I may never truly be in charge as long as Zips Fireball thinks he has my number.  Every time he runs through the lead line or plays musical stalls on his way in for dinner, and I don’t stop him or at least make a successful show of my anger, I lose accountability points.  Laid-back Leo can be counted on to throw a tantrum just days after Zip has had a whopper.  Even if I win (and I always do), Leo has to give it a shot.  This is where consistency comes into play.  Every horse gets treated as an individual, but they also are all treated with the same level of both respect and firmness.  I may adore Princess Pokey, but when she’s in heat and gets a little full of herself, when she tries to boss me like she bosses the geldings, I have to stand up to her and take her down a peg.

Working your way into the herd as human partner does not (necessarily) require violence.  That’s not to say that a quick swat with a crop to stop truly dangerous behavior can’t ever happen; it’s to say that there are other ways. 

Horses hate being separated from the herd.  Monty Roberts explains that the best way to stop a young horse’s bad behavior is to let all his friends and family out into the pasture, and keep him away from them.  Take that a step farther and also keep his feet moving so that he begins to get the idea that he’s no longer in control of the situation, and it won’t take long for him to shape up.  With a young horse, the apology comes in the form of wide-open mouthing, a juvenile behavior indicating submissiveness—mimicking nursing, is my best guess.  With an older horse it will come with rapt attention to your every move and an unfettered joy at being allowed to stand still and do your bidding.

John Lyons says that if you control a horse’s feet, you control his mind.  Truer words were never spoken.  A horse’s “fight-or-flight” response is strong.  Prove that you can prevent his flight or control it, and don’t allow him to fight (eg: don’t stand like a moron where he can run you down or kick you), and he’s yours. 

Add Curt Pate’s admonition that a horse can only think of one thing at a time, and it should be easy enough to out-smart your Boss Hoss and move into his position.  You already own significant points for being the Giver of Food and the Opener of Gates.  Add Controller of Feet, and you’re a shoe-in.

Never forget, though, that you are not a horse.  They don't see you as a horse or a part of the herd.  That's a misconception that can get you killed or make you look stupid to your neighbors when they see you walking around with the horses, pretending to graze.  They see you as another critter, part of their world but slightly outside the herd, and one from whom blessings and craziness flow.  Work with that.  Your aim is Controlling Executive Partner, not co-worker.

Visit the herd and watch them for a bit.  When you’ve figured out the hierarchy, make your move on the leader’s spot.  One day you may, as I did recently, be startled to find the entire herd lined up behind you in order of importance as you walk from the pasture.  It's an interesting experience and leads to a much better relationship on all sides. 

Networking the Human Herd
But I mentioned Facebook, right?  And some readers are probably curious to know why.  It's ironic that the social networking sites seem to completely defy the dynamic.  Some research has been done into the phenomenon, but there's nothing conclusive thus far.  What's obvious is that the "Best Decider is King" rule doesn't hold water online.  Perhaps it's the anonymity factor.  Perhaps it's the fact that the written word at best, when wielded by a pro, still only carries about 10% of its intended meaning forward to the reader.  Flung about by the less-than-verbal poster, it carries less but sometimes has more impact.  

The online herd is generally cowed by the loudest, angriest, most-able-to-find-the-Caps-Lock-button rather than the one most able to make good choices for the herd.  This herd isn't being led to water or good grazing, isn't trying to set up a village or a business.  Generally the online networking herd is just looking for diversion and support.  From strangers?  Sure, why not?  

It would be helpful if all the online profiles were factual, because the upshot of this dynamic is that the best BS-er sometimes appears to be the best option for one of the Leader roles.  At one time or another everyone who has frequented an online forum or a networking site has come to that Ah-HA! moment, recognized someone's leadership skills, bowed deeply, kissed the ring...and then been gob-smacked when the Chosen One has been shown up as a 60-year old pervert or a 16-year-old pervert wannabe.  

In time the research will catch up with the Networking Effect, and the results should be intriguing.  Wait for it!

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