Robert Miller, DVM, explains why horses rely on brains, not brute strength, to control a herd.

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Take a look out at your horses. Who rules the roost? Equine veterinarian Robert Miller, DVM, has studied equine medicine and behavior for more than 50 years. He’s travelled the world working with plethora of species, including wild Mustangs, hummingbirds, rhinoceros and bears.

One of his best-known platforms is the method of imprint training, which involves interacting with a foal in specific ways immediately after birth to help shape its future behavior. His relationship with horses began similar to most cowboys: wrangling on a ranch to make a living.

Miller was presented the Western Horseman Award in 2012. He and his wife reside in Thousand Oaks, California.

Q: What qualities does an alpha-horse typically have compared to other horses in the herd?
The herd is designed almost invariably by a mare. In domestication, I’ve seen geldings and even Shetlands dominate a ranch herd. Horses are intelligent animals, but they don’t reason. They don’t think, ‘He’s one quarter of my size, I think I’m going to whip him.’ If one horse shows enough aggression and the other shows submissive behavior, then the little guy runs the herd.

In every Mustang herd I’ve seen, an elderly mare is the boss. That tells me it has nothing to do with physical strength. So what are the qualities that the older mare or lead horse has? It has the following qualities:

  1. More experience. The lead horse has stayed alive that long. To stay safe, if you just follow it, you have a better chance of living in the wild.
  2. Memory of tricky situations. It’s had more experience dealing with dangerous situations. And horses have a fantastic memory, so it’s remembered them.
  3. Control of motion. Horses establish what’s called the dominance hierarchy, or the pecking order. If you observe enough horses (and good horsemen) they control motion. Control the feet and you control the mind. When that happens with this species, which is not true of many other species like cattle or dogs, dominance and leadership are established.
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