en en en

If there is a leader in a herd?

08 September 2018, autor: Agata Wiatrowska

If there is a leader in a herd?

Horses teach us

For many years I’ve been observing how horse-trainers teach us leadership, how they co-operate, how they demand, how they seek contact with humans in Horse Assisted Education experiences. From our ancestors we know that there is a connection between developing leadership skills in humans and interacting with horses. Thanks to current research we are able to turn tradition and intuition regarding this subject into actual knowledge.


This study which was published in 2015 and was conducted by Marie Bourjade, Bernard Thierry, Martine Hausberger and Odile Petit. It is enti-tled “Is Leadership a reliable concept in animals? An empirical study in the horse”. The study consisted of observing 2 Przewalski horse herds (of 6-12 horses) that live in the wild in some parts of France.


Leadership skills in a herd

Leadership in relation to animals as well as people is often defined as ability of an individual to having an influence on others and coordinating their behaviour (in this case, being a leader of the herd) or making decisions for others. This definition is related to pointing one individual who is a leader (in horse herd it is, for example, an older mare). Basing on these concepts, determining who is the leader was based on criteria of initiating movement or leading the herd. Additionally, researchers took into consideration the process of decision-making (for example, observing signs that would sug-gest the herd would move off particular place.


What were the results of their study?

  •  Each horse would at least once initiate a move (from the youngest to the oldest).
  • Time of the rest joining the decision-making horse was similar re-gardless of its age, gender, hierarchy etc.
  • An older mare was most frequently the leading horse (in both herds/families), however few horses would also take over her role.
  • The process of decision-making consisting of showing the need to change spots would be observed in behaviour of more or less 3 horses about 20 minutes before moving. However, the tendency was more frequent in adults than in children.
  • In the moment of starting their migration, at least few horses were moving along with no hesitation. Researchers suggest that it is a sign of agreement and lack of conflict while heading out.
  • Researchers did not state there was a dependency between behaviour indicating the need of changing spots, participation in decision-making and then leading the herd by remaining at the front of the group.
  • Researchers could not state that there was one particular leading horse, regardless of any chosen definition of being a leader. Despite the fact that there were two older mares remaining ahead of the group, they did not made the decision of moving forward.


In the study above it has been proven that horses make decisions basing on consensus that at least few horses agreed on (we can talk about some kind of a quorum, not all horses). It proves that customary understanding the concept of leadership in horse groups (one horse being the leader) may not be accurate. Additionally, it has been stated that that evolutionarily decisions made based on consensus lead to the most adequate results rather than decisions made by one member.


Scientists also noticed that in horse groups we can see that leadership is distributed between few members of the herd that made the decisions rela-ted to coordinating the group as a whole.


What could it mean for space of Horse Assisted Education?

Many years ago I have noticed that you cannot draw simple conclusions while interacting with horses. For example, we cannot conclude that a horse accepts my leadership just because it is willing to follow me. If we take mentioned study’s results into consideration, we can deduct that leadership of horses is, more or less, shared by them. The role of coordinating the group is played by different members. A leading member plays a certain role, however we cannot talk about leadership as it is and decisions are made by several members (not the same members every time). For the reasons above, we can talk about following possible reactions between horse trainers and participants:

Horses will seek opportunities to hear them (being sensitive to even the most subtle signals, looking for ways to receive communicates from hors-es). This will assure horses they will be taken into consideration when making decisions.


Thanks to this need we will gain information and a training of mindfulness, communication and empathy. The important thing here is preparing horse trainers through proper relation, as horse which is listened to and understood, seeks the same in communication with other people. On the other hand, a horse that is not taken into consideration as for its communi-cation nuances, builds walls. Horses will react to even the smallest changes in people (as they want to include their voice into conversation). This will allow us to receive feedback about our integrity and adequacy of needs and actions.


In relation between us and horses there will be constant changeability and elasticity and newly learned skill will be easily transferred onto other beings and people. However, getting on this level of relationship nuances requires giving up on thinking about yourself as a person leading the horse. It requires thinking about yourself as someone who is in contact, who hears and is being heard.


Agata Wiatrowska
Photo credit: Kraina Wolnych Koni/ The land of free horses, by Berenika Bratny



Sing up to watch free documentary movie "Sound of wings" - meeting free horses

Agata Wiatrowska - Horsesense.pl

Agata Wiatrowska - the president of HorseSense - a center offering development programmes with horses. She is a pioneer in horse assisted human development in Poland. She introduced Horse Assisted Education to polish market in 2005. HorseSense was created due to combination of mission to support people in their development and mission to show the world the yet undiscovered potential of horses - as teachers and guides. Agata is a certified facilitator of development programmes with horses (EAHAE trainer certificate, HorseDream licence), a certified coach and a level-two trainer. She is accredited by European Association for Horse Assisted Education as trainer upskilling facilitators of horse assisted development. Agata helps people to reach their inner strength and authenticity on professional and personal level.

She is the author of following books on horse assisted development: “Horse as trainer. On facilitation of development programmes with horses and lessons from horse-trainers”, 2016 and “Manager learns from horses”, 2013.