Boundaries: Whose Space Is It?

Horses gallop on pounding hooves that cut the ground and then melt to a stop, whiskers floating in the light. A masterpiece of contradictions, horses frighten easily but are forever curious. Wilder than a dog, much bigger than a cat, with a certain animal magnetism that drew you beyond childish reason. Can you remember your earliest thoughts about horses? It was like a fairy tale.

It isn’t until we meet a horse in real life that the gray areas in the fantasy appear. One of my first memories was sneaking into the pasture to scratch “my” horse, Snickers. I usually had some sugar with me, so I thought he loved me. That day I had no sugar, but he rushed up, planting one hoof on my little tennis shoe, pinning me while he did a body search. It hurt so much, I couldn’t scream and no matter how I pushed on his shoulder, he didn’t move. I did have time to think my first tearful complicated thoughts about horses. It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.

Soon after, I got the lecture about respect. My father taught me all the myriad of crimes I should punish horses for, so they would respect me. There was nothing I wanted to hear less. Besides, I worried that my toes might turn black and fall off. My youthful working definition of respect was fear. I was afraid of the adults I was supposed to respect, so respect must equal fear.

Does that mean we should scare the horse? By then I was falling off my terrified pony and told to not be a sissy about it. Show that pony who’s boss. My pony and I were both extremely clear about who the boss was, and it wasn’t either of us.

When did the reality of horses get more complicated for you? Sometimes we sneak them treats and hug his muzzle, sometimes we make ourselves big and chase him out of our space. Sometimes we scare him and sometimes we stalk him like a coyote and sometimes we bury our faces in his mane and cry. As our emotions run the gamut, the horse gets confused and may start developing bad habits. All along, he had emotions of his own. He seemed to greet us with pert ears and a slight twitchiness to his muzzle, which we still want to think is love, but is it the look he gives dogs as he tries to suss out if they are friendly? One day we might coo and the next day, feeling a bit threatened and bowing to the rule, we’d make ourselves big, waving arms overhead, insisting the horse get out of our space. We were told to set our feet and demand that the horse moves his hooves, this horse who we’d been noodling with hours before.

Show the horse who’s boss, they say. But all we wanted was to get along. We didn’t know then what we know now. We’re right in front of a horse but his vision is so much different than ours, he might not see us. We were all taught fear-based domination training, but that approach has been debunked for years. Do we think that making ourselves the scariest thing in the environment will engender trust simultaneously? Horses want safety and we give them erratic emotional outbursts.

Now that we know more now about how horses think and learn, we can be more effective in training. We may not want to think about the question of boundaries, but we know they are needed for our safety and our horse’s sanity. And there is a much easier method to train horses about boundaries. And by that I mean, ways to train humans since we’re the ones who create the issue with horses.

Try to see the horse’s side. Maybe that look on his face when you arrive is truly apprehension. “Who is she today?” Some mares will mutter under their breath, “What fresh hell is this?” because Dorothy Parker and mares have a lot in common.

Begin here: We’re standing in the horse’s pasture or in the barn. Where do we get off thinking that is our space? If the horse was standing in your living room, he’d think it was your space, but it’s us visiting his home, and although horses can be territorial in some cases, humans are the ones who love to fight wars about borders and boundaries. We are predators. I don’t think horses are even on the same topic as we are when we “make ourselves big.”

And yes, I know I’m talking environment but that is where our personal space exists. The horse has his personal space and we have ours, but both are located in the environment we share with all other animals, machines, and weird light patterns. We think it’s us and him in isolation and he should pay strict attention when his life depends on situational awareness.

But isn’t this whole conversation a bit arrogant? Who made us gods? Humans think we are the obvious superior animal through evolution, but we can’t see or smell or hear as the horse does. We might seem smart in front of a computer, but that all falls apart lost in the woods, or working with horses. Most of us would have no idea what’s happening without our horses telling us.

Let me pose this boundary question again. Is it my space to defend with dominance because of our privileged status as humans? More importantly, is my horse responsible for my safety?

Horses learn by example, expressing their feelings through calming signals and watching what other horses do. We have a choice to communicate as a predator or in the language of horses. As an affirmative trainer, I’ll teach respect by demonstrating it. I will step out of my horse’s space. He feels that as a release, they are always more anxious when we are closer, no matter how much we wish it wasn’t true. Listening to his calming signals, I’ll provide safety.

When we step away, out of their space, we become clearer in his vision, give him room to breathe and assess the moment. Then the horse also recognizes he feels better, relaxes, and feels safer. He is certainly intelligent enough to return our calming signal. Soon the two of you are closer than ever because the space between you is consistent. You’ve taught him to release anxiety by standing in autonomy and that boils down to a more confident horse, and a safer horse.

When you respect your horse, you acknowledge that he is a hardwired flight animal, and it is your responsibility to keep yourself safe by teaching yourself situational awareness. It is your responsibility to respect his space and discipline yourself to be consistent and trustworthy about your own boundaries, so he can do the same.

Partnership will never be about staked out space; it will always be about existing together. No one feels safer when dominated. The animals of the earth live together in a multi-species herd. Horses want peace and that’s the behavior we should mimic.

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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Anna Blake

37 thoughts on “Boundaries: Whose Space Is It?”

  1. Oh, I love this so much.

    First fantasy about horses: from the time as early as I can remember, I had an imaginary “big red bay” who walked/trotted/cantered/galloped beside me everywhere I went. If I was riding in the car, the big red bay was galloping alongside. I imagined all the paths he took to stay beside the car while also staying safe. He jumped all obstacles as if they were nothing. He was with me all the time.

    Is it any wonder when I became an adult and started searching for my second live horse, that I looked for a big red bay? His name is Keil Bay and yes, he is big and red bay and he turned the fantasy into reality.

    The first time I came face to face with the reality of horses – their size, their curiosity, their herd mentality – was the day after I bought my first horse. I was 13. I worked in tobacco (a hideous job) for two summers to save up the money to buy him and had to board him. I arrived at the boarding barn thrilled that I would be, for the first time, going out to the huge pasture to get my horse in and ride him. I took the new bright green halter and walked out to the pasture. He was with his herd and totally ignored me. The herd of about 12 horses ran all over the pasture as one whenever I got close. So I went to the barn and got a bucket and put some grain in it and went back to the pasture. You can imagine what happened next. 12 horses galloped toward me at full speed and I threw the bucket down and ran. Eventually that morning my QH laid down in the sun for a morning nap, and I went and sat with him, put the halter on, and just waited for him to stand up. He was a sweet horse, 4 years old, and very easy to manage. He stayed with me until I went to college. My father sold him and I still regret that I do not know what happened to him after he left my care.

    Thankfully I have managed to learn that the whole show them who’s boss is ridiculous. Even with my daughter’s cheeky Shetland-x pony! When Keil Bay came to live with me, I realized immediately that he knew more than I did and I have allowed him to teach me what he knows. There’s no boss involved. He’s not perfect, nor should he be. When I listen to him things go great. When I listen to the trainers who say show him who’s boss, he does what I say, but grinds his teeth. Their way, we got annoyed compliance. His and my way – we enter some kind of wrinkle in time that feels like I’m astride the big red bay that magically stayed with me for my childhood.

    I hope a lot of your readers today share their moments. What a fascinating thread that will be to read and savor, alongside your beautiful post. 🙂

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  2. I loved this! To me, it’s exactly the relationship we need to have with our horses-to respect them because they are bigger than we are & have much more acute awareness of their surroundings that we could ever achieve. Your statement, “when you respect your horse, you acknowledge that he is a hardwired, flight animal, & it is your responsibility to keep yourself safe by teaching yourself situational awareness” is what I’ve been trying to teach my hubby for years! He enjoys being around our horses but he doesn’t seem to have a clue that a horse can move incredibly fast &, just by its sheer size, can hurt us. We need to be aware always when we’re around horses, and ready to “get out of the way”!

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  3. Oh Anna, you articulate the dance between horse and human so very succinctly. I wish it were easier to “just be” with horses, but it’s a constant struggle to eliminate formerly learned patterns of behavior. I started to learn about horses with a women that spoke of partnership with horses and that has always been my focus, but some of the tools I learned over time were contradictory to partnership. Is it possible to lead in partnership? It is a fine line between leadership and domination.

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    • I totally think there are supports we can offer horses, but that word “leadership” has been hijacked to mean something else. Thanks, Laurie

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  4. Maybe that’s why horses are such a dynamic magnet for us humans, they seek peace and harmony and order in the herd. We can take a lesson from that. You always put us in our place Anna, and I love that!

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  5. Always well stated . And especially well timed. And the Dorothy Parker quote is a frequent and favorite quote of mine ,much used over the past year. Be well friend.

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  6. This is explained so very well.!!! Excellent !! Linda says in a comment she especially likes the last paragraph, and so do I, and the one right before it, too, is especially meaningful to me.

    As always, thank you for your essays !

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  7. Anna, I posted a comment this morning,but it seems to have disappeared into the black hole.Forgive me if you found the comment and I’m being redundant. Essentially I asked the question is it possible to lead in a partnership? I know that a fine line exists between leadership and domination, so how do we find the sweet spot in a partnership where we can “lead” our horses to safety, peace, and a trusting relationship?

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    • Did you see an answer yet?? (Having some tech problems on the website so I appreciate you letting me know.) As I think about your question, the short answer is yes. The long answer is I should write about this.

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  8. One of my favorite things to do was to sit on the ground, in the pasture, and just watch the horses. Maybe that wasn’t really safe, but it felt like it was. Inevitably, Tattoo would come over and sniff me then hang around, at a short distance. I LOVED doing that. But, most of the time, I’m sure I was too much in his space for his comfort-not listening to him and expecting him to “do things my way”. Once again, I wish for a do-over!!

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    • Oh Jean. This blog is my do-over… all these years and still paying a debt. I know the feeling, both sitting there and having my way. It’s what we did then. Thanks for commenting, feeling a tiny bit of fall here.

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  9. Thank you Anna as you have brought so much insight to horses and our relationships. So true about invading their space in their “living room” as it were, and I love how you make us think about our actions, along with many other thoughts. I know I’m a better horse woman reading your posts. I may not comment often, but I’m so grateful for your insight, thoughtfulness, kindness and horse wisdom. Thank you so much for your blog!! ❤️?❤️

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  10. Reading this reminded me of a scene I just witnessed between my two mares who have been friends and herdmates for the last 8 years. My younger mare just had a foal, and after several days of privacy I put the older mare out with them. The younger mare made it very clear through her body language and use of threats that Shadow should stay away from her baby. But Shadow missed her friend and really wanted to be near her. I watched as she oh-so-exquisitely slowly took tiny steps closer and closer to Sonata. She was so patient between these steps, and totally calm and relaxed. When Sonata would throw her head at her with bared teeth, Shadow would calmly turn her head away to send a clear calming signal. I would like to say that Shadow’s perfect example of how to approach a skittish horse ended in acceptance and peace and harmony, but Sonata really wasn’t ready so Shadow had to be content to eat off her own hay pile several yards away. But I learned SO much from her demonstration, about respecting the horse’s space, not being in a hurry, and using calming signals to show you are not a threat. I can read about this in your blogs all day long but seeing my mare do it was the best lesson I could have. I’m 62, and I will never stop learning from these amazing, magical creatures.

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    • No better teachers exist, if only we were more trainable as a species. Thank you, Rebecca. I start a Calming Signals course today and will be smiling at your wise mare.

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