Of Herds and Humans....
It has been said that the social structure among animals which most closely resembles human is that of horses. Since humans can be swayed by pride, peer pressure and unrealistic social expectations it makes sense to look closely at horses to get a basic understanding of our social needs. Horses do what they need to do.
Horses do change their role in the herd but not because of outside pressure. They see a need and fill it if they are in a position to do so. This is very different from humans who quite often change roles based on selfish reasons and not necessarily for the benefit of the herd.
So let's look at horses and see what we can learn. Horses group themselves in a few different ways, by family group, by bachelor group or by a group of assorted singles. Every group has its own hierarchy and works for the benefit of the herd.
The primary kind of herd is the family group. Within the family, there is a lead stallion and a lead mare who take on the parental roles for the safety of the herd. Horses do not operate within a democracy. When the lead horse "speaks", the others must listen and respond immediately. Their lives depend on this type of relationship.
Much like a human family, a democracy doesn't work when raising our young. The lead "stallion" and "mare" have the knowledge and experience to know what dangers lurk around the herd and the other members of the herd must simply act as instructed when orders are given at times when their well being is at risk. Horses operate with a chain of command structure. This is what also works best in human families, especially with young offspring.
Horses rely on each other even to the point of where they will switch up their roles if needed. Horses pay attention and act quickly.
For some reason, humans favour working alone and if our social structure and needs most closely resembles that of horses, then we need to sound the alarm on this social anomaly. When isolated from the herd, a horse becomes nervous, apprehensive and irritable; he simply can't function normally. So it is with humans. We tell ourselves it is desirable to operate beyond our instincts when there is substantive evidence to the contrary.
A horse has two basic responses to danger - Either attack or run away. Running away is his best option as he has limited ability to fight. Humans have convinced themselves of the opposite, that we should fight every danger rather than removing ourselves from the situation, as quickly as possible.
We suppress our natural, life saving instincts and force ourselves to stand and fight. We also teach our young this very damaging approach to danger.
For humans, unlike horses, those dangers take on many forms. In the wild, a horse's danger comes from predators. For humans, our dangers are much more complex but the principle is the same. Why do we insist on standing and fighting when the damage we sustain will be greater than any benefit of fighting?
A horse knows his security is found in staying within the safety of his herd. Humans think we are smarter and so often reject our herd in favour of solitude, and thereby reap the hazards that come with that choice.
Horses instinctively make choices based on what benefits the herd because this is also what benefits the individual. Humans often get this turned around and first seek to benefit themselves and then try to convince themselves that their choice will also benefit the herd, if they are even part of a herd.
Horses find their mental health is best served within the herd. We have already mentioned what happens to a horse who is isolated - nervous, apprehensive and irritable, to the point of not even being able to function normally. If we are most similar to horses, then we need to take notice of this.
Mental health issues in humans are rampant and not to be taken lightly. But what can we learn from horses, whose social needs and structure are so close to our own?
Horses suffer serious mental health issues from being separated from a herd, from being kept alone. And it's not just about being kept from other horses. A horse can thrive mentally by being with other prey animals. It doesn't even have to be other horses.
To put this in human terms, we don't have to be with our family herd to thrive but we need, NEED, to be with some kind of herd. Physical and social isolation is very damaging. Sadly, humans keep telling themselves that this is a favourable position to be in, even a sign of strength, and yet we only have to look at one isolated horse to see how wrong this is.
When the horse is returned to a herd, he can find his security and his place and again function normally.
When humans suffer from mental health issues, our balance, our security, our return to sanity can most often be found when we return to a herd.
I have heard it said that it has been found most beneficial when humans can share their painful experiences in a group...and that this is strange but I would submit the only thing that is strange about it is that we would ever think that this is a strange place to heal.
Horses know that their sense of security is within their herd and the most common type of herd is the family herd.
As humans, we have alienated ourselves from our family groups in favour of so called independence. Horses give us an alternative in either the form of a stallion group, which we see very commonly in humans, as well as in a herd of assorted singles, something we also do as humans. Where we humans fall apart is that we also give ourselves the option of being in no herd, which horses know is the most dangerous place of all.
We structure our work and life to keep us apart from each other as much as possible and then when mental health issues appear, the affected person is looked upon like they are weak or broken when all they need is to be integrated into a herd (any herd) for balance to return.
Of course, I am not addressing serious health issues that have gone well beyond the healing that is facilitated by a herd but I certainly suggest that many, if not all issues would be remedied or at least profoundly mitigated by simply returning the individual to a herd.
If indeed human social structure most closely resembles that of horses, then we must look closely and learn everything we can from horses. Their social structure is based on the horses' knowledge of each other and of their surroundings. Their decisions are made in the herd's best interests. Their optimum mental health is achieved when they remain as part of a herd, even though that changes over the lifetime of the horse.
A horse herd is based on each animal participating for the good of the group, roles changing as needed and a chain of command to facilitate immediate decisions being made for the safety and protection of the herd and each horse being secure in finding their place, albeit changing, within the security of their herd.
Why then should it be suspect if a human finds mental and emotional healing by returning to their herd? This is exactly where we need to go, especially in times of stress.
We are urged to further isolate ourselves from our primary herd and force ourselves to seek a herd of assorted individuals to find healing. Even horses know that the primary herd is the family herd.
A personal example of this is from when I was a child, approximately 7 years old. My mother was attending classes and working. My dad worked and I was attending school full time. My social structure was thrown out of balance because of the prolonged absence of my mother in the evenings. At that young age, my primary herd was my family of origin.
I began to struggle, becoming nervous, apprehensive and irritable. I wasn't able to function normally. For me, my primary herd was disrupted.
I struggled to the point of getting the attention of the school counsellor who decided that I needed to be removed from my family, from my herd. My mother had the wisdom to challenge this outrageous decision, convincing the counsellor to let her have spring break with me. If I wasn't better after spring break, she would have no choice but to accept their intervention. Of course, she proposed this knowing full well what she had planned and the expected outcome.
During spring break, my mom took me to classes with her by day and to work with her by night. I would sleep in her office while she carried out her duties.
What was accomplished? I was returned to my herd and therefore was balanced mentally and emotionally again. When spring break ended, I returned to school as a happy, well adjusted child. The school counsellor was mystified. How could my mother achieve this without the help of "professionals"?
I needed to be returned to my herd. Period. This is what strengthened and balanced me. I shudder to think of the devastation that could have been caused had I been removed from my herd altogether and forced to survive outside that structure of optimum security and safety.
We should never be surprised to see mental and emotional healing in someone who is able to reconnect with their herd, after all, that is how we are designed.
It seems that the "mental health profession" is largely in place to "help" humans learn to resist our natural instincts which hold the source of true healing of mind and spirit and develop ways to cope that we were never meant to learn. How often we see individuals in counselling for years so they can keep trying to learn to function alone, apart from any herd when we have clear evidence that such a life will never give us anything but nervousness, apprehension and irritability and leave us completely unable to cope?
Is it any wonder that severe mental health issues are rampant in our individualistic society? We keep trying to force ourselves into a frame that we are not designed for. If it is well known that humans are akin to horses in our social structure and social needs, why is the source of our disease such a mystery?
The answer is so simple that we refuse to accept it. We want prescriptions that have known devastating risks. We want clinical diagnoses that make us frightened to even think we can cope without the established medical industry.
We have been given the tools for our healing, but they have been frowned upon or even outlawed by a society that prefers the sanitary world of the doctor's office to the messy natural world of real life.
Those who know how to heal themselves without the prescribed methods given by the medical profession are looked upon as suspect, loose canons and not at all reliable when in fact it is these very people who are the most healthy and "normal", who have learned to assess their own risks and needs and reconnect with their herd to reestablish mental and emotional balance.
It seems our society would prefer that we simply learn how to shut off our instincts and learn to cope with living outside of our herd. This is, by far, a more dangerous proposition for the health and wellbeing of a society already putting itself under so much pressure to perform outside of our natural state of being.
If indeed the social structure of a horse herd is what most closely resembles the human instinctive social structure, then that needs to be looked at carefully. The secrets to our well being are right there for us to learn.
In my own present situation, following my instinct to remove myself from danger rather than standing and fighting was definitely the right thing thing to do. It's the only thing that makes sense. The next part of that plan needs to be to connect with a "surrogate herd" while I have to be separated from my primary herd, although, with the modern miracle of the internet, a good wifi connection is all that is needed to stay involved with one's primary family herd.
Being human is messy and complicated, but that is the only way it is real. If we would just set aside our ideas of "higher intelligence" and learn from our peers in the animal world we would find that the answers we seek are not nearly as complicated as we think they should be.
Linda blends warmth, wisdom and humour into every presentation. Enjoy the ride!