Herd Dynamics – The Life of Brian

Brian is a special horse. He is a Friesian and was purchased by Trev (my other half) as a rather scrawny and malnourished 4 year old; nearly 7 years on he is now a beautiful big lad, built like a brick outhouse!

Brian isn’t like most other horses, for many reasons. How many horses do you know that will go out hunting and decide to amble along quietly, letting the rest of the field go totally out of sight because he didn’t really feel like galloping as it was a bit muddy? Yes, very special.

However, what is truly special about Brian is the way that he manages the herd for us. He really is worth his (rather ample) weight in gold for how well he does that job.

You see, Brian likes a quiet life. He likes mooching around the field, or standing around the big round bales of hay, quietly contemplating his rather contented situation. He also likes chilling out in the field shelter when it’s hot, with one or more of his friends hanging around, swishing flies from each other’s faces. He really doesn’t ask for much, although he’s equally happy to entertain Trev out for one of their nice little hacks, when it’s asked of him. However, for Brian to continue to enjoy such a quiet life, he needs the rest of his herd to be similarly quiet. So, while I’m not convinced that Brian ever put himself forward for any leadership roles, his insistence on everyone in the herd minding their manners and enabling him to continue his nice quiet life has in effect made him top horse in the herd.

I spend a lot of time watching our little herd of 6. I mean a lot. Trev is forever coming and telling me that I’m “staring again” and we’re late for something. Again. Or sometimes he’ll just take pity on me and bring me coffee instead.   However, my staring has taught me a lot about the dynamics of our little herd.

So long as it doesn’t get in the way of what he was doing (eating or dozing, mostly), Brian will sometimes ignore it if any of the other herd have a scrap over something, but if it appears to be in danger of interrupting Brian’s need for calm, Brian will tell them such behaviour is not wanted.   This telling can be a lift of the head and a *face* and if he is not well heeded then he’ll go over to the other horses – shoulder leading – and shoo them away. If they have the audacity not to go away promptly enough then he’ll turn his hind end and threaten to kick, although in all the years I’ve known Brian, he’s actually only ever laid a hoof on one horse, and then only enough to cause a small bruise (the other horse in question did, unfortunately, need to learn a few life lessons).

Whenever we get a new horse in that will be staying for a while and which we therefore want to introduce into our herd, they are always turned out first with Brian (after some time in a field next to him, of course, to get to know him a bit).   So long as the new horse respects Brian’s need for peace and quiet, all goes pretty smoothly. If the new horse is a bit pushy, Brian explains that if that’s how they’re going to be then they can be like that somewhere else. Away from him. He uses his trademark “shoulder offence” toward any pushy horse and if needs must will show them his hind end.   Without fail, they always get the message, though Brian really isn’t energetic enough to want to be doing any more than he has to and so nothing ever really comes to blows.

Once the new horse is well established with Brian, we’ll start to let other herd members go in with them. Normally things are happily uneventful by this stage. However, if there’s any trouble, Brian ostracises the offending new horse from the rest of the group; “If that’s how you’re going to be, be like that away from me and my herd. I like it quiet.” The offending horse can return once it has decided that quiet is a better option.

When it’s time for Brian’s humans to serve him and his herd dinner, they hang around the yard gate, in a large hard standing area we have. Any new horses, not yet ready to be fed in the group, are taken out and stabled for feeding, and any horses needing extras in their food are stabled for feeding to make sure they eat what they’re given. Otherwise, they all have the same food and it gets dished out in their bowls in the hard standing area. Brian, naturally, has his bowl first. Next in line is his 2nd lieutenant – Fin.   Closely followed by the mares and then last but not least the baby (a 2yo, orphaned from birth).

You’d probably have rightly assumed that the baby is at the bottom of the pecking order. Certainly that’s right to the extent that she’s not about to be pushing any of the other horses around any time soon. However, what does very regularly happen at dinner time is that baby shares Brian’s bowl with him. Naturally Brian starts first but then provided she isn’t rude about how she asks, Brian will generally let her share. A step toward Baby, with Brian’s shoulder leading, soon puts her straight if she thinks she’s going to be pushy about the whole situation. In fact, if truth be told, I rather suspect Baby thinks it’s a very good game to see how she can get to share Brian’s food. Baby is also allowed to share with one of the other strong mares in the group, Doris, though is less often seen sharing with any of the others.

Brian and Fin will also often share a food bowl (that is, it’s Brian’s food bowl and he allows Fin to share). Likewise Brian will share with Doris and also with another mare, Ritzy. Brian is actually surprisingly generous with his food (provided that we haven’t inadvertently been too slow in putting hay out when the grass is eaten down, leaving Brian feeling a bit too hungry to want to share!).

Brian is, though, probably the least brave of all our horses in terms of tolerating outside stimuli. When out hacking, he prefers if he and Trev go behind whatever horse I’m riding. He’ll be brave and go first if needs be, like if I’m on a youngster needing some help, but really it’s all a bit much effort and he prefers to mooch along behind.   He’s also hardly the first to work out new food situations, like putting a round bale of hay out in a new spot in the woods. So, as I say, I’m not all that convinced Brian is what you might call a traditional leader. However, he certainly does an outstanding job of keeping order in the herd for us.

If you stand and stare at our herd for as long as I often do, you’ll also notice that the “pecking order” is not lineal. It’s more a web of interaction. For example, Doris and Buffy – both very strong mares in the herd and who at first therefore clashed – have become very good mates and will often seek each other out for companionship and mutual grooming. However, if Doris wants Buffy to move out of the way, Buffy moves. Ritzy and Buffy haven’t really bonded, but they generally respect Brian’s wish for quiet in the herd. Buffy can move Ritzy around and Ritzy gets out of the way. However, Ritzy can move Doris around.

Trev and I often have the pleasure of chilling out in the woods by one of our fields, sitting with a small campfire and having a glass of wine. The horses will very often just come by with us and stand and chill. I used to worry about how safe that was, and I do still keep an eye that Baby in particular isn’t going to get pushed onto us by any of the rest of the herd. However, what I have learned is that the horses do in fact take pleasure in hanging around their humans – perhaps enjoying a little rub, or perhaps just standing in quiet company. They all know not to tread on their humans. It’s amazing what trust and intelligence a horse will display, when given the chance.

So what’s to learn from all of these musings? A lot, I think.

Sadly nowadays in the UK it is quite unusual for horses to live in such a herd such as Brian’s.   I can understand the reasons for this, not the least of which being the risk of injury, but in all the time Brian has looked after his herd, our injuries have been limited to the occasional bruising from a kick or bite, nothing worse. However, for me, the benefits of herd life in terms of the mental stability it offers the horses is worth the risk. And the sheer joy of being able to sit or stand within the herd and chill, you enjoying their company and them enjoying yours, is a treat and a therapy unlike no other.

There’s more, though. How often do you hear theories about how people think a horse operates within a herd, given as reason for how we need to behave with our horses? A very good idea, in my mind, except that somehow a lot of people have been sold the idea that we need to behave as the “Alpha” with our horses, as that’s the herd boss that tells all the others what to do ….. this word “Alpha”, in reality, generally being little more than an excuse for being a bully.

Now don’t get me wrong, Brian makes his point when he needs to. But he’s no bully. The other horses seriously enjoy being around him. They don’t move away from him as soon as he moves towards them, they can identify the times he wants them to move from the times he’s just coming by or perhaps he wants companionship. He has an air about him within the herd of just a nice, calm presence. He mutual grooms with all of the herd members at different times and he shares his food with most of them. You’ll often find 3 or 4 of the herd in with Brian in the field shelter, keeping away from flies and dozing in the summer. Oh, and when Fin gets wet (which he hates), he’ll rub all over Brian to try and dry off. These are not the actions of an “Alpha”, as most people use the term.

So Brian is not only invaluable to me as someone to make sure our little herd functions well, he is also my role model. If I must, I’ll make my point, but actually I’d much rather concentrate on being something that my horses just want to be around and co-operate with, and I’ll happily mutual groom with them and share food with them.     Life is just all a lot easier if things are done in quiet and calm understanding. Thank you, Brian.

Oh, and with a Blog title like this, I just couldn’t resist a quote from the Python crew:

Brian: I am NOT the Messiah!

Arthur: I say you are Lord, and I should know. I’ve followed a few.

Brian likes a quiet life.
Brian likes a quiet life.

3 thoughts on “Herd Dynamics – The Life of Brian

  1. NICJOLLY October 6, 2014 / 8:37 am


  2. Alison evans October 6, 2014 / 5:15 pm

    Another lovely piece of writing Janet.
    Although different from Brian, amongst other things, because she was a young mare, this brought dear Ramona to my mind. Maybe it’s that gentle giant thing!
    I had the opportunity to work at a ranch type riding stables in Oz where all 20+ horses ran as a herd. It was fascinating watching the changing dynamics between the horses. You could feel and see the different tensions when out riding too. Looking forward to your next instalment!

  3. janetpaterson October 6, 2014 / 9:06 pm

    Thanks Alison….. and oh, wow, Ramona was just lovely wasn’t it. It’s such a shame we have to say goodbye to them.

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