hmmm, interesting. My herd does a lot of my work for me. One thing that I find interesting is how often I see "dominant" or "aggressive" interchangeable with "herd leader". I personally think that both of these traits are actually bigger signs of insecurity, which is very common when interacting horses with our "fairytale" world. This insecurity can come from mental or physical reasons. Some of the most physically compromised horses that I've seen have also been the most outwardly aggressive, due to that much stronger of a need to protect themselves and test their leader due to the fact that their "fight/flight" mechanism has been compromised.
I personally have a small herd, usually 5-10 horses, I can seperate them or put them together, it doesn't matter. However, when bringing in horses with a serious gap in their social skills, my herd does a lot of the work for me. The most recent was a mare that was brought in that was supposedly "so aggressive" that she couldn't be turned out with other horses. She is not leader material, but she is very insecure, I like to call it "bully syndrome". That mare never got a scratch, but was instantly put down to the bottom of the herd, yet over one young pony. If I give that mare too much responsibility, and only turn her out with that pony, it affects her anxiety level all the way around with the extra stress put on her. Over the few months that the mare has been here, her whole behavior has changed, along with her muscle tension releasing, coat improving, and a more pleasant demeanor. That mare has spent her whole life by herself besides a few experiments where she was deemed "dangerous". She had no problem finding her way into the acceptance of a good herd without so much as a mark on her skin.
Another example is a 3 yr old that is owned by a friend of mine. The 3 yr old was turned out with a very submissive mare, which the filly was dominant over,as well as my friend. After completely running her over a few times, I told her to bring the horse over and we would work with her. Knowing the fillies tendencies, I turned her out with my laid back, yet firm mare. I had never seen anything like it, the mare was munching on some hay and when I turned the filly out, she took off running and ran smack into the mare! The filly had no respect of personal space. Now, the funny thing, the herd could have cared less about the filly until she pushed on their space. She had to do more than respect that space to be accepted, she had to relax. Every time she let out one of her high pitched, neurotic screams, every ear in the herd was pinned back at her. I did some liberty work along with a herd, and in less than a month, her whole frame of mind had been transformed, it took a lot of stress off of her not to be in charge.
To be "herd leader" is a pretty intense position, but hopefully the person adopts that position overall. However, even the herd leader within the horses should be just that "a leader". When we post threads about how leadership involves minimal physical force, only to defend our space and how we should teach and lead rather than scold and overly discipline, shouldn't we expect the same out of our horse leaders? I see far too many "bullies" labeled as "leaders". This mentality affects the mentality of the whole herd.
I personally love using my herd, but I've seen it go the other way as well depending on the stability of the herd. I've seen herd horses get herd dependent and more neurotic than if the are by themselves. If I see this, then it is obvious that the persons position as leader has not been established.
When we bring horses into our environment, we do have a certain responsibility to them. It is far from natural, but we can offer them security and stability in our world. My lead horse is my best friend, and its nice to know that whatever horse I feel like riding in the pasture, I will not be attacked. Once I am with that horse, it is my job to protect it and no other horse will attempt to go after it while I'm on its back (if I've done my job).
Is there some risk with "setting Hidalgo free"? Sure, but I do think that a good leader horse, like a good leader human, will only use as much pressure as necessary. Unfortunately, in todays micro-managed horse society, a decent lead horse is sometimes hard to find.