Monday, January 07, 2013

Benevolent Despots

If you were to walk out to my pasture where the herd is happily munching on forage (and trees, and blankets, and tennis balls, and what-have-you), you would be hard-pressed to pick out the herd leader.  As you approached the fence, Zip would approach you, hoping for admiration at the least and cookies at best.  The other horses would automatically open a pathway for him, no one brave enough to make eye contact or ask questions.  In a few seconds, his mom, Pokey, would follow, stealing with girlish coyness into a spot close enough to allow you to rub her head while she gave you the big-brown-eyes stare that wills cookies into her mouth almost without fail.  You might think one of them was the dominant horse in the herd or the herd leader.  You'd be right by half.

Zip is the dominant male in my herd.  He's the biggest and the silliest and the most reckless, and that seems to have earned him the position.  That, and the fact that the next older horse is old enough to totally get that food is always coming regardless of folderoll, so all the fuss of driving the herd around the pasture is a pointless waste of energy.

Pokey can be domineering, but she's not dominant.  She hides behind Zip's protective shield and pretty much minds her own business.  She's got a permanent grudge against the one-eyed horse for no reason except that they had a brief fling some 14 years ago, and she never quite recovered from the break-up despite it having been her choice.

The herd leader is almost invisible from the ground.  And she has a disarming smile that lures one into thinking that she's just the most innocent of bystanders.
"Let me check with my manager...I know I can get you a better deal..."

Who could distrust that face?  I've bought cars from folks with creepier smiles.

Yes, Dolly, the widow of the former herd leader, is the incumbent now.  Friends of Gallant Hope Farm remember her from the early days when she and her partner, Grady, ruled the roost for some seven years.  Then she moved on to greener pastures, and returned only this spring for permanent retirement as my play-time favorite mount.  

The dynamic involved in her take-over was fascinating.  There was the sucking up to important herd members, the raising of campaign capital in the form of access to the water troughs, the power-brokering, and, finally, the election-with-a-hint-of-coup.  None of this was apparent from ground level.  The horses, like small children, have a talent for freezing in mid-craziness to turn and give the observer a "What?" stare.  But stand in my living room and watch unseen through the window, and it's a whole different experience.  Dolly has a personal space that is very precise and well-maintained, and should anyone come a foot too close, she can back up, flash a glance over her shoulder, and, in less than a heartbeat, clear that extra foot.  No one balks.  No one questions.  She accomplishes with the tilt of a perky ear what I can't manage with hysteria and dire threats.  Leo asked for a tape measure for Christmas since he seems to be most likely to inadvertently cross the Dolly-no Line.

Miss Innocence having some down time

But she truly is benevolent.  I can watch her use those flashing hindquarters to back the one-eyed horse away from the bale feeder, and an instant later she will maneuver him into a different position where he can graze unmolested by his arch nemesis, Pokey (who is anything but benevolent).  And every  hour or so, the Queen takes a break, walks a few dozen feet farther up-field, and rolls or relaxes while her loyal subjects have a free-for-all around the hay, Zip flexing his dominance in chest-bumps and high-fives with the Boyz and totally incapable of real leadership.  Without her to guide them, they can't seem to figure out where to be.  I don't know how they didn't starve during the eight years of her absence.

As I'm writing this, Dolly is on emergency duty.  There's a roofer doing repairs a half-mile away on a storm-damaged house.  I can barely see him on the peak of the roof, but Dolly is all eyes and ears, and she's been standing stock-still staring at him for the past two hours.  Every couple of hours she takes a break and the herd parts so she can get at the hay, then she is back on post.  That's our Leader!  No Roof Guy is going to threaten the sanctity of her herd.  If she had nukes, she'd use 'em.

Watching all of this, I can't help but think that horses really are not so different from us.  My hindquarters space-clearing maneuver may not be as stylish as Dolly's, but it never fails to get me that extra wiggle room in the check-out line at the supermarket.  And left to our own devices (media and outright fraud notwithstanding), small human groups will always choose the member with the most positive-column "idiosyncrasy credits" to lead them.  There will always be two leaders:  the instrumental leader (who does the actual work of leading) and the expressive leader (the PR guy in the public eye).  There would always be a benevolent leader who has traditionally made the largest percentage of good decisions for the benefit of the herd because campaign financing would be limited to hamburgers, soft drinks, french fries, and spaces at the bale feeder.  

That's Democracy in action.  I can't help but wish it were ours.


Marissa said...

That's so funny! Your herd sounds hilarious

Unknown said...

That was a wonderful piece of writing and imagry.
Love it!

Joanne Friedman, Freelance Writer, ASEA Certified Equine Appraiser, Owner Gallant Hope Farm said...

Thanks, ladies! The horses make the humor; I only clean it up. LOL