Walker has chocolate tipped ears. It was one of the first things I noticed when he arrived as a small, bay thoroughbred, straight off the track but hardly grown up. His ears arouse feelings of mother-like tenderness and protectiveness in me so that I want to shield him from the big bad world.
Unfortunately, this hasn’t always been possible and he’s had his fair share of ups and downs – most notably surviving a deadly bushfire, where I was of little initial help, together with a few nasty illnesses in his 20 odd years on the planet so far. But a part of me still sees the small, hesitant three-year-old from many moons ago and I continue to try to make life perfect and spoil him whenever I can. But in the last few years I’ve started to realise just how far Walker has come from those early years and I can now see him more clearly for the competent, wise and insightful leader that he is.
To be honest, he’s been growing into this over many years. He didn’t start out that way and it’s fair to say that as a young horse he was overly dominant at times. But in the last 10 years he’s become quite remarkable and just this week, he’s caused me to look at him in awe and appreciation once again.
Let me explain. Our beautiful mare Katarina died some months ago and we were in no hurry to replace her in the herd. For the last 6 months the 3 remaining members of the herd have lived together quite companionably following their established routines and pecking order. A few weeks ago, out of the blue, a close friend of mine requested we take a look at a palomino quarter horse in need of a new home quickly. My partner and I had always assumed that the next member of the herd would find us rather than the other way around but we’d had also believed it would be another mare. Chex showed us how wrong we were and it was love at first sight, proving once again that horses often know best.
Chex duly arrived last week and the process of integrating him into the herd began. I had been a little worried about how this would go, fearing that it might exhaust Walker or cause Edward and George undue stress. As it turned out Walker immediately and decisively took Chex under his wing, making it evident to the others that, as leader of this herd, he accepted Chex wholly and completely. As Chex then navigated the complexities of where he sat in the pecking order, Walker intervened when necessary, nurtured and groomed him and ensured Chex knew he was a safe companion to be around. On the occasions when things got a little fraught, he discharged the tension not by aggression, but by simply putting his body between Chex and the others, standing there peacefully until things grew calm and the adrenaline of the situation dissipated. Such is the level of respect accorded to him by the herd and such is the power of this authentic individual in action.
In the days that followed, Walker has continued this process and has also deliberately given time and attention to both Edward and George individually, grazing and sharing hay with them both, before returning calmly to check on his new charge. He manages this complex process of balancing his herd with grace and the kind of innate wisdom and timing that I can only dream of achieving. He simultaneously accepts and nurtures new herd members while ensuring that existing members are valued and cherished. Crucially he only intervenes when absolutely necessary, letting each member of the herd form their own relationships and sort their conflicts out as they may, provided that they do not destabilise the whole. Essentially he is clear and supportive without being disempowering. And when I bring him in for dinner and breakfast he seems energised rather than exhausted, as though even he now realises the distance he’s travelled in wisdom and skill and the enjoyment that comes from knowing what’s needed and being able to do it with minimum fuss.
In short he seems pleased – as though he’s called the latest member to the herd and is now revelling in the process.
Through it all I watch and wonder how best to teach this kind of artful leadership? How best to show what is possible when you meet each member of the herd – human or equine – at the level they are at and give each the encouragement they need to work as whole. Walker understands the needs and quirks of each of his herd members while simultaneously offering a newcomer time to assimilate. He is the safe, reliable space for all of them, choosing dominance only when a subtler communication method does not work to set a boundary or when absolute clarity is quickly needed in a situation.
And at the end of it all on a late summers evening, you can easily see the reward for his efforts – there he is, surrounded by the herd, wandering between piles of hay and eating peacefully with each one in turn, completely relaxed and true to himself.