I have been photographing horses for many years now. Arguably one of my favorite subjects to capture, these animals never fail to surprise me. Just as I thought I understood the dynamics of this herd of black horses, they surprised me. We may all be a bit guilty of making assumptions of others based on our own biases and preconceived notions. I hadn’t really thought about what mine was until I was assessing the leadership hierarchy of this herd. While this group was domesticated and ultimately under their owner, they had a dynamic entirely of their own.

Typically, when I’m photographing for my horse wall art, I tend to pursue images with high energy and drama. These can often be in the form of displays of power, elegance or leadership. That is what I was trying to capture in the animals running in the pen in front of me. I had zeroed in on a particularly large black horse. He was easily 14 hands high, which is roughly 5 feet tall. While this may not seem like the biggest horse, he was definitely larger than his peers. More importantly, he displayed dominant behaviors. He was assertive, pushy and overall seemed to be a go-getter.

The Black Horse Image in Mind

The other horses gave him a wide berth; some followed him for some time before breaking off to rejoin the herd. I kept waiting for more of the horses to join him and establish his role as a leader. However, that moment never came, leaving me perplexed. I continued watching the running horses and hoped to figure it out.

It seemed as if the image I had wanted for my horse wall art may have been a fruitless pursuit. The herd just didn’t seem to have the dynamic I was looking for, or at least didn’t want to show it. I was debating with the idea of settling for a different image when I noticed something happening on the other side of the pen. The ranch owner had brought out the herd’s feed for their lunch and one of the smaller black horses pushed to the front. The others willingly gave the small stallion the privilege of eating first, a position typically reserved for the leader of the herd. Then it struck me; I had been focusing on the wrong animal this whole time.

An Unexpected Leader

I had been so convinced that the big tough-looking animal would be the one dominating the other. Instead, it was the animal who was the most amiable. When I had seen this stallion surrounded by his friends, I hadn’t equated it to leadership, but I could see it now.

Turns out I wasn’t the only one with this assumption. Horse researchers and owners have long believed that leading horses were defined by their strength or ability to dominate others. This has often been associated with stallions or older mares.  A few years ago, researchers led by Odile Petit, Ph.D., of the University of Strasbourg found that this wasn’t always the case. The French research team found that dominant horses are rarely the ones to initiate herd behavior. In fact, the leader of the herd can change frequently, even daily. “To really be a true leader, you need followers, and that’s true of horses as well as humans,” said Dr. Petit. Her study showed that the horses that take up the leadership of the herd are the most sociable horses.

Unconventional Leadership

I observed the running horses for a bit longer, trying to learn what I could from their interactions. I saw that their leadership was based on the ability to pull together a team that could consciously and effectively work towards the greater good. It was a joint effort of every member of the herd to be able to know what was expected of them and to be able to carry them out so that they could all get along. What stuck out to me the most was the general atmosphere of comradeship in their dynamic. I was at first surprised that the leader refrained from demanding the respect of the others by bossing them around. There was no need for it; they more than willingly gave it to him because of their genuine appreciation for his social nature. 

I couldn’t help but think of how well this sort of leadership would translate to that in humans. Anyone who has had a bad boss knows that people are rarely motivated to follow someone because of their title. It is only by gaining the respect and sincere appreciation of your team can you lead them effectively. I realized that this was a great dynamic for a group to have. It allows people to act as competent individuals who learn their roles and worked to fulfill them rather than needing to report to a higher authority.
This allows people to take full responsibility for their actions and have the integrity to confess to mistakes.

In Conclusion

These horses wanted to follow the smaller black horse because valued him as an individual and wanted to see the success of the herd. They weren’t following him because they simply wanted to obey him. In my opinion, such an atmosphere is highly conducive to productivity and definitely more comfortable than what traditional leadership might grant. As I usually do, I left with not only running horse images for my horse wall art but a valuable lesson as well.

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