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The Social Structure of the Horse

Over the years I have heard people say that the “Equine Social Structure” places certain horses above others through the use of force. In other words the strongest ones is the one that is in charge. I too was taught to relate to the horse herd structure in that manner, but as my knowledge of as to how the herd was structured, who the real leaders were, how the horse communicated and what was the actual method of communication has developed a different picture of the horse and the relationship created within the herd. As I progressed and studied the horse and its relationship within the herd I discovered that actions of individual horses and the results of those actions had a definite result on the entire herd. The biggest step forward came when I discovered that it was not always the lead horse at the front of the herd. Next I realized that the position that the horse in charge had, did not come from fear or dominance of the other members of the herd, but from respect.

The respect that the lead horse was given came from the confidence that was placed on that particular member of the herd through various tests that had been placed on them. These tests came from other members of the herd and from situations and forces outside of the herd. Respect was granted when the member of the herd, that was being tested, reacted to the situations in a manner that was beneficial to the entire herd. This showed me that there was no fear or dominance factor, but a respect that was earned and cherished, then and only then was the position earned by that herd member and was retained until it was no longer possible for that herd member to accomplish tasks that would relate to and be required of the position that had been granted.

The entire process of positioning within the herd was done in a fashion that showed consistency that did not deviate and it was accomplished in a manner that did not allow for the cutting of corners. There was a traditional structured method for a member of the herd to obtain a specific position within the herd and all of the steps had to be accomplished in their specific order. If the order of accomplishment of the tasks were not consistent or accomplished in the required sequence, the position would not be granted. The position would only be granted when the requirements were met in their proper sequence and the required pattern followed, without deviation, as set down in the social structure of the herd.

I realized that this was the pattern that had to be followed in order to be able to work with the horse and obtain the greatest results. Horses are no different today than they were many decades ago. They need that same structure and guidance within their lives, they long for the structured lifestyle that the herd places upon them; in fact they require it. Most horses are followers, not leaders. It is very rare that you will find a horse that is a leader because in the real world of the horse there are many more followers than there are leaders. Horses do not think like or respond as horses unless they have this required structure within their lives. Our task is to learn how to place that structure within their lives and earn the respect that can be granted to us. Once that we have earned the respect that allows us to be the chosen one, the trusted one, within the mind of the horse, we have begun to reach a point on the road of communication that will lead to a life-long friendship.

Creating a Social Structure That the Horse Will Understand In order to create a social structure that the horse will accept and understand you will need to have an understanding of what the “Equine Social Structure” is, how it works and why it has to operate in the method that it does.

In the last section we covered the basics of how a position is to be obtained, but what we need to do is go into greater detail as to how all of it ties together. I have found that it is not always the strongest horse that is the leader, just as in people there are leaders that are not always the strongest. The strongest one may be out in front protecting the herd from danger, for that is the position that they have earned, but it does not make them the leader, it makes them the strongest one.

The earning of the trust that is necessary from the beginning is initially accomplished through a state of mind. You need to be able to remove and block out all negative thoughts that might be within or entering your mind. These are thoughts of problems like; money, home, family, work, etc, we could go on for hours. The horse does not have these type of problems because they do not live in the much more complicated world that we do. They have no interest in these types of problems and do not want to hear of them in any way, shape or form. The best thing to do is leave them in the house or in the car when you arrive at the barn. The horse can be your best friend and your sounding board, they will never talk back, have no opinion (so you are always right) and will never tell you of any of the problems that they are having with the other horses. So, it is best to return the favor and keep your problems to yourself.

Once that you learn to block out all of the interference that can come between you and the horse you are ready to go onto the next step. Learning about social structure of the horse.

The social structure of the horse is a method of self-preservation and caring for one another that has been the same since time began. The basic structure will explain that each member of the herd is equal, that no one horse is more important than the other and that any action of any single member of the herd affects the entire herd. This can be best explained when a mare is ready to foal and the other members gather around her to allow for the birth to happen and at the same time protect her when she is most venerable. This allows for the actions of the entire herd to protect the individual member and it continues on when the foal is born and has a problem that will endanger the outcome of the entire herd. The mother of that foal has to make the decision that is best for the protection of the entire herd. It is a two-way street, all protect one and one protect all, this is the basis of the social structure that you need to become part of. This is a structured environment that we were part of centuries ago it was through our development and advancement that we lost a lot of that ability, but it still exists within all of us, if we are willing to face it. Facing and accepting it will place us in a much better frame of mind to be able to communicate on the same level that the horse communicates on. The same preservation of group and sacrifice of one for the other is your first step in earning the trust and respect that will place you in the right position with your horse. Initially you must realize that you have to give 110% in effort and sometimes even more to get only 75% or less in return. The horse, to see if you are worthy of being allowed into their herd structure is giving you the first and preliminary test, fail this one and you get no more. This step can take time and in many cases I have seen many people give up due to that one point. Doing anything with a horse takes time; it is accomplished in “horse” time and not yours. They do not have a schedule to keep or people to see or even get the kids to school; all they have to do is live. This initial step has to be accomplished the same way, in the same sequence and without deviation each and every time that you do it.

It could be a simple action of grooming or saddling your horse but it has to be the same every time. Each step has to be noted and remembered and placed in that exact sequence. If you are cleaning the feet always start with the same one, then go the second, the third and finally the fourth foot always following the same pattern. Touching actions with the horse are one of the most important actions since it is their main sensory communication method. Any time that you can integrate touching actions with the horse you are allowing them go get to know you on a level that they fully understand and can relate to much faster. Touching allows the horse to start the communication process through analyzing your reaction to the process.

All of this is preparing you for the step that you have to take; which is proving to the horse that you are putting them ahead of yourself and that you value yourself no more than you value them. What they want is an equal playing field and to know that in a pinch you can be counted on, getting to that point of acceptance can take a great amount of time due to the fact that the horse may have tried to trust another human, placed their respect in them only to be disappointed. The time that it takes to get past this first step will vary with each and every horse, some will be fast and some will be slow, it all depends on their life experiences and you.

fieldhorsesLet’s say that you have gotten to the point of being accepted into a position of trust with your horse, you have followed all the steps and passed all of the tests that you have been put through. You now feel that the horse is ready to go to another level of training and that you don’t feel that you are capable of doing it, so you start to look around for a trainer to accomplish this for you. You take your time and talk to everyone that you can and you have now settled upon a particular person to work with your horse. It is at this point that most people make a major mistake in the process of relationships with their horse. The horse, in most cases, has been moved to a new place, the horse is unsure and has to readjust to the new surroundings and most importantly the member of the herd that had been chosen to be their leader is no longer around. In the mind of the horse there is complete chaos, the good of the herd has not been preserved, the action of one herd member has affected the entire herd and the trust that had been instilled in that herd member is now lost. To add to this the horse is defensive since there is a change in environment, a handler that may not be willing to take the time to pass the necessary test to earn that trust and many other important points to the horse going through the mind of the horse. That is not to say that the new handler is mean or abusive, they do not understand the social structure of the herd correctly and do not have the knowledge to allow the horse to settle into the process of change. It could also be something that the horse has seen happen to other horses that they feel is not right. Not being able to analyze the situation all they know is that you put them in this position, they trusted you, what is happening is not right and now you cannot be trusted; it is your fault. You have to remember that you earned the position of trust and protection, the one to turn to in time of need and uncertainty, but you are not there when needed.

I have found that the use of an example here has been quite effective and it involves our youngest son when he was about three years old. We had decided that he needed to be with children his own age to help with his social skills and development so we enrolled him in a day care facility. We did all that was right, we checked around, we visited the various places and decided upon one that seemed to be best for our son. From the beginning we had trouble with our son wanting to return to that pre-school after the first couple of days. We talked to the management staff and explained what was happening and we were told that he just needed to give him time to adjust. Well, we found out by sitting down and making ourselves understand our son, in his limited ability to communicate, that he was seeing things that he knew were not right. This affected him to the point that he knew it was wrong and did not want any part of the situation that we had put him in. In addition, we lost his trust and confidence for a period of time until we could prove that we would not put him in a similar position. The loss of the trust and confidence made it much harder for us to earn them a second time.

The initial tests that you will be put through, by the horse, and how you react to them is what will form the foundation of your relationship. This foundation is what supports the additional layers that become the relationship, how long you take in building this foundation, as well as the care that you take, will predetermine how strong that relationship will be.

Once that your initial foundation has been put down it is time to start to progress up the steps and this is accomplished by knowing how the horse’s social structure works. Their social structure works in a way that allows for members to better themselves and progress to a higher position within the herd. That is to say that positions do sometimes change, not always for the good of the individual or even the herd. When a change happens that affects the good of the herd there is always a challenge made to return things to where they should be. Remember that horses are like humans in many respects and do have the ability to dominate and move forward. Care must be taken to choose a horse that has a personality that does mesh with our own. The last thing that a person needs is a horse that is more in control than they are. If this is the situation, then the horse will be the one to control the outcome. What has to be is that you have to be the more in control from the start of the relationship and make sure that you are the one controlling the outcome.

Although this all sounds well and good, there are many people who already have horses, have bonded with them and want nothing more than to have a better relationship then they presently have. There are ways of making that happen, what has to happen is that the owner has to make the first moves and the first changes. Here again we must mention that you have already created a situation that may allow for the horse to be in control of the situation. The horse has accepted things the way they are and are not the one that feels that there is a need to change, you do. Since it is your feeling that things need to change you have to initial change, allowing yourself to start back at the beginning and be prepared to take the first tests that can lead to a position of trust.

Most people and I am sure that you are one of them, have realized that it has been choices that have put you where you are today. And, I am sure that you have also realized that it has been positive, rather than negative choices that have given you a greater feeling of accomplishment in you life. So what you need to accomplish is to take control from and retain the leadership position in the relationship with your horse. But, first we need to understand why the social structure of the horse has to operate in a specific manner.

The social structure of the horse is a specific program that has its guidelines and rigid rules that have to be followed to the letter of the law due to the fact that it has not changed in many generations, it works and it does not need to be fixed. The most important point that has to be realized here is that we are entering into their world and their social structure, they have not chosen to enter into ours. Acquiring a horse in your life is a lifestyle change that will affect your daily life. There is a commitment to the animal that is totally dependent upon the human animal for existence, we must feed it, house it, clean up after it and we are responsible for it health and welfare. In return we expect certain things from the horse in return but our problem is that we do not know how to relay these responsibilities to the horse. In order that the horse be able to return the favor for their well-being there has to be a meeting of the minds. I mean this in the literal form, due to the horse’s ability to use speech is very limited and their ability to understand the language is even less. This is where the understanding and adapting to their social structure is so important. A horse has to be able to trust the person that it has daily contact with, if not there is total mistrust and a defensive wall is built around the horse against that particular person. As I have said before the horse needs for you to make the first move to initiate the relationship. They are a shy and timid animal that in most cases tries to keep to themselves and their accepted herd members. It is also a known fact that horses do not take to change very readily and when change is placed in their life if will take a year or more for that horse to be comfortable with the change that was made. The horse is not only shy and timid; it is also a prey animal. With the mind of a prey animal they feel that each and everything that they see is out to get them, especially any predator animal that comes in close contact with them. Horses need to be reassured on a daily basis that they have made the right decision to start to trust you and continue to build a relationship. If at any time that a horse has been injured or suffered in any way during this the relationship building process through the fault of the horse handler, it will be a much greater task to expand and fortify the relationship once that pain is suffered. Now, if the horse injuries itself by doing the exact opposite of what the horse handler has asked them to do, then what is referred to as a “break through” is then accomplished. The horse will realize that it was due to their own fault that the injury or pain occurred and that the handler was asking them to do what was right. This is a major trust building step made since the horse will start to realize that you will not ask them to do anything that will injure them, you are looking out for their welfare. What has been accomplished is to show that you have placed the welfare of the horse ahead of any other thing that you are attempting to accomplish and the horse will understand that action.

Remembering that you are the person of trust that the horse will turn to for guidance and understanding. Specifically in times of need and fear, one that will project the confidence that will allow them to become calm from your actions and show them that there is nothing to fear, after all you are here. You, through the use of trust and confidence, are guiding the horse through each and every step of the way. This is your project and your commitment, guided by the trust in both yourself and in the horse. Remember that the trust in the horse will allow the horse to place their trust in you and then build a solid relationship through communication skills that you have allowed the horse to teach you. The point of communication is a topic that many people have touched upon, some have been able to explain it but more often it has been a topic of great misunderstanding. The best way that I have to explain it to you is that if you had to move to a different country and had no choice in the matter, say you had to move to a country where you did not understand the language, but also did not have any ability to understand the customs of the country and/or civilization as well. Unless someone who was in that country and also grew up there took an interest in you and decided that it was their mission in life to help you understand what had happened to you and why you got here. That is what we expect of the horse when it enters into our life, we never consider becoming part of their social structure or learning how they communicate. We expect them to become part of our world, but they cannot, they do not have the ability to make that change on their own, we have to come into their world so that they can become part of our world. This is the basic change that has to happen within the mind of the rider and/or handler of the horse, this is continuing to become a horseman.

As I discussed previously about the projection of both confidence and trust we need to go back to a specific point to fully explain what is meant. To do this we must return to the fact that we are constantly confronting the horse’s lack of ability to reason, and through the use of trust and friendship, the horse looks to you for the answer to their problem. The projection of trust is nothing more than showing the horse that there is not a need to fear the unknown; you are there to help them overcome that fear. For it is through the solid feel of confidence that the horse will relinquish its feeling of fear and replace it with the trust and knowing that you are doing what is right for them. This will continue to happen until finally it does become habit within the horse. The trust that is built upon will then continue to grow until the ability of the rider or handler allows them to start thinking as the horse does. Remembering that the rider or handler has the ability to develop the thought pattern of the horse: through their ability to come down to the mental ability of the horse while at the same time realizing that the athletic ability of the horse is much greater than that of the rider or handler. There is an old saying that you will never out muscle a horse and you will never move faster than the horse but you can out maneuver the horse with the use of your brain.

Getting to this point in your development will allow the horse to be able to place much more trust in you and start to be much more relaxed and be reassured that their life is not in danger. When the horse gets to this point in the your relationship they can then release some of the fear and replace it with the beginnings of trust. Once that the trust has been allowed into the relationship it become even much more crucial for you to be aware of anything that could break down the trust and send the horse back to fear and mistrust. Here again we are referring to anything that could cause pain or injury since that is the one true method for not trusting a predator. It does not have to be pain or injury that allows the blood to flow, it could be the misuse of a whip, line, bit, saddle or any other item that you have introduced into their life.

Until next time “Ride for the Brand”.

Bob Burkdekin

My work with horses and owners is dedicated to the thousands of horses that I have had the distinct pleasure to meet, learn from and allowed into their lives. That acceptance has given me the insight that is necessary for the understanding of their world and how I had to alter my thoughts and actions to become the same as theirs. These horses started out as my clients, became my friends, then my teachers and finally my mentors. For that I am forever grateful. Learn more about Bob and subscribe to his blog at


Fundamental Horsemanship recommends the following books:

The Ultimate Horse Behavior and Training Book: Enlightened and Revolutionary Solutions for the 21st Century

Cherry Hill's Horse Care for Kids: Grooming, Feeding, Behavior, Stable & Pasture, Health Care, Handling & Safety, Enjoying

Imprint Training of the Newborn Foal: A Swift, Effective Method for Permanently Shaping a Horse's Lifetime Behavior

1967 Kentucky Derby – Proud Clarion

Proud Clarion (1964-1981) was an American Thoroughbred racehorse best known for winning the 1967 Kentucky Derby. Owned and bred by John W. Galbreath, he was foaled at his Darby Dan Farm in Lexington, Kentucky. His sire was Hail To Reason, the U.S. Champion Two-Year-Old Colt for 1960, and his grandsire was Royal Charger, a son of the great Nearco. Out of the mare Breath O’Morn, Proud Clarion’s damsire was Djeddah, a major stakes winner in England who in turn was a son of the French champion and 1942 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner, Djebel.

Racing at age two for trainer Loyd Gentry, Jr., Proud Clarion showed little of what his pedigree promised. Out of three starts, his best result was a third in a minor race. He finished his two-year-old season with earnings of just $805. As a three-year-old, he won a few sprint races then in the immediate lead-up to the 1967 Kentucky Derby, he ran second to Diplomat Way in the Blue Grass Stakes.

1967 Kentucky Derby

Ridden by Bobby Ussery in the Derby, Proud Clarion was given little consideration and was sent of by bettors at more than 30:1 odds. The fourteen-horse field included Diplomat Way, Ruken who had won California’s Santa Anita Derby and was the bettors second choice, plus the overwhelming favorite, Wood Memorial Stakes winner Damascus.

Leaving the starting gate from post position seven, Proud Clarion raced ninth near the back in a pack of horses until close to the ¾ mile pole when jockey Bobby Ussery made a move. By the mile pole he was sitting fifth then in the homestretch accelerated through an opening between Damascus and Diplomat Way. He caught front-runner Barbs Delight then raced on to win by a length in the third-fastest time in the Derby’s history to that point.

Proud Clarion finished third in the Preakness Stakes and then fourth in the Belmont to winner Damascus. Proud Clarion won six of his thirteen starts in 1967, with his only other significant stakes win coming in the Roamer Handicap at Aqueduct Racetrack. He returned to race at age four in 1968, starting nine times out of which his best was two second place finishes.

Retired to stud duty at his owners Darby Dan Farm, Proud Clarion met with some success, siring at least 30 winners of stakes races. He died in 1981 at age seventeen at Spendthrift Farm in Lexington, Kentucky and is buried in their equine cemetery.