It may be hard to spend 10 minutes with most horse experts without coming upon the claim that “horses need leadership.” This claim is one of many notions about horses that are widely accepted but simply wrong. The claim is a widespread belief not grounded in observation.

Researchers who have spent spent hundreds of hours studying horses in free-range settings conclude that no horse in a herd is better than the others in driving group movements or recruiting mates. If a herd doesn’t have a leader, how does it decide what to do? Horses have never been in the Boy Scouts or the Army. They have never worked in a corporation. They don’t know about leadership.

You may have decided that those aggressive horses with the best spots at the gate at feeding time were the leaders. If you look more closely, you’ll see that the other horses don’t follow them – they move away. The subordinates don’t love those bullies at the top, they fear them and prefer to be with others of their own social rank.

If there is no leadership as humans know it, how can a band of horses make a decision? Turns out they use collective decision-making, something that occurs in any flock of birds or school of fish or herd of horses. This concept gives the horse much more credit than the leadership notion, because it recognizes that horses are independent thinkers, even as they love a herd.

Collective decision-making comes about from two principles: horses have needs and desires, and horses like to stay together. So a thirsty horse on the plains might want to head on down to the creek, but also want to stay with his band. He starts to head toward the creek, and finds nobody is coming along. He can’t bear the separation, and returns to the band. Or he heads toward the creek, and another nearby thirsty horse decides to do the same. Their group of two can now draw others with the same interest. Finally, only horses who aren’t thirsty are left, but their need to be with the others is overwelming. They join up and head to the creek too.

A horse runs on love and fear, not respect. He may fear the bully in his pasture, and try to keep a safe distance, but that doesn’t mean he respects him. He may huddle with his buddies of similar rank, but that is love, not respect. Fear, love, and respect have different meanings. A horse loves and fears, but does not respect.

My horse doesn’t respect me, even though I can drive a car or climb a tree. He can’t do such things, but has no interest in doing so, and will not admire someone who can. But I don’t want my horse to respect me. I just want him to come to the gate when he sees me, to walk down the road with me side-by-side without a lead line, to groan with delight when I scratch his chest or neck, and maybe crack a horse joke or two. I want my horse to love me, and he does, because he knows I love him.