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The Family Herd

     When Bo first came to Breaking Free, he was really skittish. He didn’t trust tight spaces; you would have to open stall doors and gates really wide and then he would run through. He didn’t trust people; you would need to approach very slowly, then let him come to you the rest of the way. Because of this uncertainty Bo had, the others in the herd didn’t trust him. He would have been a danger to them in the wild.

     In feral herds, horses have extremely organized social groups. There is one head stallion who decides where to go. He finds a path that works in the best interest of the entire herd. He is responsible for food, water and safety of the entire group. He does not force them to move nor is he aggressive towards them. The head stallion has earned the respect of his herd. Then there is a head mare. She is in charge of the emotional needs of the group. She puts horses in their places based on their temperament and skills. She also handles discipline; sometimes she lets two herd-mates work out their own differences and sometimes she will intervene. In the wild, most horses are born into their herd position and it is rarely contested. They know where they belong and they find comfort in knowing. If you want to know who is in charge, watch to see who can move who. If you see one horse that can move another, then the first horse is at a higher spot in the pecking order than the second.

     If you are like me, you might be drawing parallels between the characteristics of the feral herd and your own family. Perhaps you had a dad (or are a dad) who’s job is to put food on the table and keep his family safe. Maybe you have a mom (or are a mom) who tends to the emotional needs of the family. She is a good listener and knows when to let her kids learn on their own and when to intervene.

      Kelly Wendorf states in her article “Horse Herd Dynamics and the Art of Organizational Success”, that there are also emotional needs in a herd to draw parallels from. To assess where you are in each of these categories could improve your family life, your business life or any other group that you are a part of:

Congruence: Each family member should feel free to express their true feelings and learn to self-reflect in order to be truthful with themselves. Horses are very sensitive to incongruence; they don’t trust it. And honestly, even when we think we are putting on a happy face, those in our family that know us best, can tell if we aren’t being truthful. Humans don’t trust it either.

Sense of Personal Space (right to be here):  Family members should feel secure in their personal space. People often feel insecure about themselves resulting in clinging too close or pushing others away. Horses are not insecure; They never act more important than they are, nor do they diminish themselves or let themselves get walked all over. If only humans could find that balance and be secure in who they are at this moment!

Leadership: A horse that tries to disrespect those above him, doesn’t respect the boundaries of others, tries to intimidate and uses aggression to control is considered a bully. This horse is often a loaner. He does not earn the respect of others and he will never be the leader, try as he might. This is the same in our families. The leaders should lead by being present, giving clear expectations, setting a good example, being fair and just and taking the entire family's needs into account.The leader should not be a bully.

Relationship: In both the horse and human world relationships are EVERYTHING. We need each other. We need to know and be known. We need support and affirmation. We need connection and belonging. It’s EVERYTHING. Isolation for a horse means putting yourself at risk for predators. It is the same for us.

     Horses in a domesticated herd can struggle more than a feral one because they weren’t born into the herd. Position among the others has to be figured out and sometimes frequently as horses come and go. This reminds me of the families we have served who have adopted or fostered children. And also, of families like my own that are “blended”. But just as our domesticated horses eventually find their role in the herd, so do we find our own place in the family.

     And that brings me back to Bo. These days, several years later, Bo has learned to trust. He trusts his surroundings and humans much more than he did 4 years ago and this has resulted in more trust from the herd. In fact, Bo is now much higher in the pecking order. I like watching Bo because he is the perfect example of a quality leader in the field. I never see him acting aggressively when I throw hay in the field and yet, the others let him eat first. I never see him rush the gate when it is time to come into the barn, yet the others let him through if he wants to. I picture him as a leader that has earned respect by working through his own emotional issues to becoming the good herd-mate he is today.


    What qualities does your family or organization have that would make you a successful herd? Let me know in the comments!

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