Monday, August 31, 2015

Follow the Leader

Who's the Herd Leader? It Depends, Researchers Say |

Hint:  It's not you.

It's also not the biggest, baddest horse in the pasture.  Turns out, as this fascinating research uncovered, it's the popular kid.  It's the one with the most friends.  Or not.

In sociology there's a concept regarding leadership in small groups.  A small group generally contains about 7 to 12 members.  According to economist Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point, Back Bay Books, 2002), the optimum size for a group depends greatly on the context.  A comedy is funnier if between 700 and 800 people are in the audience.  People's social capacity is 147.8.  That's about how many people the neocortex ratio of the human brain suggests an individual can relate to in a genuinely social way.  Close human relationship groups are smaller in number, and when the 150 is breached, the group subdivides.  The average answer in a study to how many people you know whose death would be devastating was 12.  We can easily remember 7 digits or words or colors in order before we have to break larger groupings into groups of 5 or less, hence the pattern of phone numbers.  Brains are quirky bits of stuff.

The size of the neocortex is directly proportional to the size of the social group a species can deal with.

I couldn't find any scholarly studies on the average size of a horse herd in the wild, which could be because they're hard to track and count and there are too many intervening variables in terms of climate and human interference to really consider anything "natural" regarding wild horses.  But we certainly know that in captivity groups larger than 100 tend to break into subgroups very quickly.  At a barn where there were 52 horses turned out in a 50-acre pasture, there were two main groups, one directed by each of two geldings, and a bunch of stragglers that moved between the two groups or remained solitary.  The identity of the leaders was obvious if one watched the herd for a day as one gelding took the morning shift in the loafing shed for his band of mares and was driven out in the afternoon by the other.  The second gelding--who happened to belong to me--was the tougher kid on the block as he was able to get the shed at the hottest part of the day.

No clues in this photo as to who's in charge of this subset.
Only by being a non-participant observer over a long
period can the dynamic be identified.

The friendship piece was also obvious.  Neither of those geldings was aggressive.  Mine was the one who would stand for hours licking a herd mate.  If the horse walked away, Grady would continue to  lick air in a kind of reverie.  Back to the sociology for a moment, leadership is two-fold.  There's an expressive leader (the one who represents the face of the group to the public) and an instrumental leaders (the one who does all the work involved in running the group).  They are chosen by default according to who makes the best choices for the group.  So the aggressive stallion who beats up young studs at will and tends to drive the herd towards open spaces that might leave them vulnerable to predators isn't going to earn many idiosyncrasy points, so he won't be the leader.  The horse, male or female, that always seems to know which way the water is and where the best grass will be found and doesn't cause a lot of trouble will be the one with the following.  So you may find a male as the expressive leader showing the world what the herd is all about in his beauty and mystique, and a female as the instrumental leader, keeping watch for new fields to graze.

You do not figure into much of the herd dynamic.  As I said last post, you don't speak their language.  You don't get what it takes to make them think you're on their side.  You can pen them up, handle them at will, and with luck they won't try to kill you.  That's your payback for kindness and caring about their needs. But unless you have segregated them into individual, private paddocks where they can't form herds (so cold!), you'll see a pattern emerge.

Studying their behavior requires a few changes in perception for many horse owners.  That you're not a horse or "in touch with Spirit of Horse" (*retch*) is key.  That you can't observe while you're interfering is next on the list.  That nothing we do with them is "natural", so you can't begin to judge how they're really feeling is a given.  And finally, that you need to give it time is crucial.  What you see today is not what you will see tomorrow.  As the linked study discovered, the leadership changes in horse groups just as it does in human social settings.

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