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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:
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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, thus 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 and/or popular, the stalking horse person will lose out because the anonymous figure will discard him or her and take over the concept themselves. If the concept is unpopular, the stalking horse will suffer any negative reaction, but if the response indicates support, the real party behind the endeavor will emerge to press forward with confidence in a positive response. The understanding is that the anonymous party is a major player, probably only a little weaker than the target him or her self, and the stalking horse very much a minor figure—a minnow—who has little or no reputation to lose. The anonymous figure is not sufficiently powerful, or does not have sufficient confidence in his power, to risk a direct attack first off, but the stalking horse is a form of distraction tactic to enable better positioning.
The 'horse' is therefore, in politics, a junior figure who expects patronage from the senior figure, or, in business, an associated company that expects a share in the contracts or the market-share that will result from the demise of the business rival. In the event of success, the 'horse' will be rewarded soon, in the event of failure they will have to wait a while, but as they are on the bottom rung of the ladder they have little or no distance to fall and can only rise. The loyalty in volunteering, or agreeing to be 'volunteered', will ensure 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 there is no possibility of realistic reward from the Third Party for the exercise, but is motivated by duty or loyalty to do so for the greater good of the party or 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 pay-back of thanks for all the benefits they believe the cause has given them and/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 his/her wake.
One related concept is the smoke screen. Like a stalking horse, smokescreens are used to screen and mask an attack. In the literal and genuine form, the smokescreen is still a device used in warfare (in defence as well as attack), but in general usage, it is also a commonly used metaphor. A stalking horse would be a particular form of 'smokescreen'.
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. For example: 'Anonymous sources say that Adam Everyman wants to be President of the USA'. If he doesn't, he will deny it, ruling himself out as a potential contender, allowing real contenders to see who is left in the contest. If Everyman does want it, he has been forced to declare his position too soon, allowing others to search for arguments to counter his threat. The politician would not give an answer when asked the question himself, so the journalist advanced it anyway citing 'anonymous sources'. This is an honorable tradition, but in this example there was no real source to be protected, it was a fabricated story. This would of course be uncommon and indeed unethical, but still it is 'not unknown'. At worst, it fills space on a dull news day, but it might flush out interesting responses from real people, in which case the non-existent sources can be 'discarded' and the real people can be presented as the sort who were being 'protected'. Now the journalist has real stories which can legitimately be pursued. 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: they are acting to advantage the Third Party only, the anonymous party, who, at a later date, should in turn give reward to the First Party, the 'horse'.
Another idiom might be that of the puppet-master. One person, the 'horse', dances like a puppet in the limelight 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 eminence 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 - named - individual: they may be acting for a cause, in the hope that some individual will be inspired to enter the fray and take over.
A final related concept is that of the sacrificial pawn. In the game of chess, a pawn may be advanced in the knowledge that it will definitely be lost, but in so doing it will 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 obvious 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. Unlike the pawn, therefore, the horse might have a good chance of survival. What is definite is that, 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 Sir Anthony Meyer, who challenged and brought about the eventual defeat of Margaret Thatcher in the Conservative Party leadership.