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A stalking horse is a figure that tests a concept with someone or mounts a challenge against someone on behalf of an anonymous third party. If the idea proves viable or popular, the anonymous figure can then declare its interest and advance the concept with little risk of failure. If the concept fails, the anonymous party will not be tainted by association with the failed concept and can either drop the idea completely or bide its time and wait until a better moment for launching an attack.
The term stalking horse originally derived from the practice of hunting, particularly of wildfowl. Hunters noticed that many birds would flee immediately on the approach of humans, but would tolerate the close presence of animals such as horses and cattle.
Hunters would therefore slowly approach their quarry by walking alongside their horses, keeping their upper bodies out of sight until the flock was within firing range. Animals trained for this purpose were called stalking horses. Sometimes mobile hides are used for a similar purpose.
An example of the practice figures in the 1972 film Jeremiah Johnson, when Johnson and Chris Lapp ("Bear Claw") are hunting elk in the Rockies:
Jeremiah: Wind's right, but he'll just run soon as we step out of these trees.
Bear Claw: Trick to it. Walk out on this side of your horse.
Jeremiah: What if he sees our feet?
Bear Claw: Elk don't know how many feet a horse has!
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The expression is generally used in politics and business. In politics, the circumstances are an attempt to bring down a powerful leader, usually by members of their own party. In business, the circumstances are an attempt at testing the market for a potential (hostile) takeover of a business. In each case, there is the clear understanding that the anonymous party, whether a company or an individual, has a valuable reputation that could be damaged by the failure. The stalking horse is an exercise in assessing accurately the degree of risk, so that a full-blooded challenge is only mounted by the main party when there is a real likelihood of success.
The loser in the exercise appears to be the stalking horse. If the idea is viable or popular, the stalking horse person will be sidelined and the anonymous figure will take over the concept themselves. If the concept proves unpopular, the stalking horse will suffer any negative reaction. The understanding is that the anonymous party is a major player, perhaps only a little weaker than the target itself, and the stalking horse is a minor figure who has little or no reputation to lose. The anonymous figure is not sufficiently powerful, or does not have sufficient confidence in that power, to risk a direct attack first off, and the stalking horse is a form of distraction tactic to enable better positioning.
In politics, the stalking horse figure can expect patronage from the senior figure they are assisting. In business, an associated company that acts as a stalking horse may be given a share in the contracts or the market share that will result from the demise of the business rival. The loyalty in volunteering, or agreeing to be "volunteered", will ensure that their name becomes known to those who matter and should guarantee help in advancing their interests. As a weaker player, they can afford to wait a while for the due reward.
Alternatively, the "horse" may be acting in a more altruistic and self-sacrificial manner, knowing that there is no possibility of realistic reward from the third party for the exercise, and instead being motivated by duty or loyalty to do so for the greater good of the party, organization, or cause to which they both belong. In this case, the "horse" will probably not be a young person hoping for advancement, but an older figure at the end of their career, who volunteers as a gesture of gratitude for all the benefits they believe the cause has given them, or as a chance to go out in a blaze of glory.
In the event of failure, the anonymous party is seen as being sufficiently powerful to protect the "horse" from any real retribution on the part of the target, particularly since the anonymity will allow the third party to step in and pretend to be an honest broker between the "horse" and the target. This is a further opportunity to enhance the reputation of the third party and boost their status at the expense of the target. If the exercise is viable, the third party gains power immediately, but even if it fails it engineers an opportunity to resolve a stalemate and enhance the contender's reputation, so that ultimate success is another step nearer, to the benefit of both the third party and the "horse", who expects to slipstream in its wake.
One related concept is the smoke screen. Like a stalking horse, smoke screens are used to screen and mask an attack. In the literal and genuine form, the smoke screen is still a device used in warfare (in defence as well as attack), but the term is also commonly used as a metaphor. A stalking horse would be a particular form of smoke screen.
Another concept is that of kite-flying. The stalking horse pretends to be interested in a concept themselves, but in reality they are testing an idea for another. Likewise, in journalism, the term "flying a kite" takes the metaphor of the child's toy to mean advancing a concept in which one has no personal belief, or for which one has no reliable evidence, as a similar exercise in "testing the waters". Another similar metaphor is that of a trial balloon. Different examples may provoke different responses. Some may be directed to play to the readers themselves. The idea is "to provoke a response where otherwise there would be none". Like the stalking horse, the means is to use a spurious debate to provoke a real one. The difference is that the concept is advanced, not an individual. In one form of "flying a kite", a journalist claims to be acting on a behalf of a real but anonymous person, while in reality they are acting for themselves; this would be the opposite of the stalking horse.
Another concept is collusion. The difference here is that collusion usually refers to the situation of the first and third parties both declaring themselves openly to the target, but each pretends to be independent of anyone else and acting solely for themselves, whilst in reality they are acting in concert, in joint enterprise and to mutual advantage, at the expense of the target. If one party acts aggressively and the other sympathetically towards the target, it may be an example of good cop/bad cop. In the stalking horse scenario, the first and third parties are still acting in concert and in joint enterprise and still at the expense of the target, but only the first party, the "horse", is openly dealing with the target. In addition, they are not acting to immediate mutual advantage; rather, they are acting to advantage only the third party (the anonymous party), who, at a later date, should in turn give reward to the first party (the "horse").
Another related idiom is that of the puppet-master. One person (the "horse") dances like a puppet on the stage, but another (the anonymous figure) is the one who is actually pulling the strings, unseen by all. The stalking horse appears to be acting for and as themselves, but there are others in the shadows. The difference is that the éminence grise or puppet-master is definitely controlling the puppet, but the stalking horse may not always be acting on the orders of, or to the benefit of, a particular individual; they may instead be acting for a cause, in the hope that some individual will be inspired to enter the fray and take over.
The concept of a "sacrificial pawn" is also in some ways similar to that of the stalking horse. In the game of chess, a pawn may be advanced in the knowledge that it will definitely be lost, but will, in so doing, force out an enemy piece of much higher value and make that piece much more susceptible to attack. This image is also in common usage as an metaphor. The difference with the stalking horse is that not only is the outcome not known at the outset but, furthermore, that it cannot reasonably be estimated without a proper reconnaissance. Therefore, unlike the pawn, the horse might have a good chance of survival. Either way, the "horse" will not benefit from the initial exercise.
The phenomenon occurs particularly in politics, where a junior politician acts as the stalking horse to promote the interests of a senior politician, who remains unseen in case the actions would damage him or her but nevertheless wants to provoke a debate or challenge to a party colleague. In some cases, stalking horses are not working for a particular individual but may wish to provoke a response that leads others to join in. In politics, the truth about the relationship between an individual stalking horse and a candidate may never be known, as both sides may claim that the (alleged) stalking horse acted without the agreement of anyone else.
A classic example of the latter form from the world of British politics was the case of the elderly and largely unknown back-bench politician Anthony Meyer, who challenged and helped to bring about the eventual resignation of Margaret Thatcher in the Conservative Party leadership.
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- Politi, Daniel. "What exactly is a "stalking horse"? - By Ed Finn - Slate Magazine". Slate.com. Retrieved 2013-02-18.
- "Online Etymology Dictionary". Etymonline.com. Retrieved 2013-02-18.
- Jeremiah Johnson (1972) - Memorable quotes
- "Kathleen Reardon: Is North Korea a Chinese Stalking-horse? - Politics on The Huffington Post". Huffingtonpost.com. 2006-07-05. Retrieved 2013-02-18.
- "A Symbolic Stalking Horse - Political Machine". News.aol.com. Retrieved 2013-02-18.
- "Politics | Tory 'stalking horse' Meyer dies". BBC News. 2005-01-09. Retrieved 2013-02-18.
- "Events and Incidents". Fandmpublications.co.uk. 1984-03-05. Retrieved 2013-02-18.
- "Stalking-Horse Bid". Investopedia.com. 1993-04-02. Retrieved 2013-02-18.
- "Stalking Horse Bidders Try To Calm Creditors And Courts | Bowne Review". Bowne.com. Retrieved 2013-02-18.