Leading Horses with Spatial Kindness. What?

The exercise was to halter your horse thoughtfully, asking the horse’s permission for each step of the process, and acknowledging his calming signals. A teenage girl was with her recently off-the-track thoroughbred, a tall dark gelding unsettled in new surroundings. We know how track horses are [not] taught to lead and she was using a rope halter, the kind that’s considered harsher than a leather or web halter. The gelding was engaged, the girl was listening to him, and I was cheering them on.

A woman in the crowd spoke up. Maybe she wanted to correct the girl but she posed the question to me, “Do you approve of rope halters, don’t you agree they are cruel?” and the girl flinched. I put off the question. I don’t think the woman was seeing the same calming signals in the horse that we were.

Later, the girl came to apologize and explain that she didn’t mean to be cruel. He’d always had a chain over his nose at the track. She didn’t want to handle him that way, but he wasn’t safe yet. I generally don’t use rope halters and I also know retraining takes time. She was right to transition the horse gradually to a kinder halter.

I remembered her because of a question from a reader about leading difficult horses and exceptions to rules:

“But if the horse is young mentally or physically it’s natural for them to jump into the person they trust, like they would their mom. And if their mom gets annoyed, it’s also natural for her to respond aggressively. She may not get annoyed. But I’ve seen my share of mares roundly trounce babies for real or imagined infractions. Anyway. For me, this is a safety issue. A horse better not jump onto me for any reason when other options are available. I’d like it if it were because we had mutual trust and respect, but that doesn’t happen with say, yearlings, very often. They lose their focus too quickly. When they are in danger, the human often disappears from their consciousness. Same with a lot of OTTBs right off the track. So…I guess what I’m saying is can we talk about the possibility of needing to train or retrain leading and handling skills with (ack) a bat with a whapper or if it’s a very big horse with very little knowledge, a chain (done safely and correctly) when you HAVE to walk them down from paddock for vet or farrier? Of course, there are horses I wouldn’t use either on…I’m just thinking there is some middle ground here. We have to stay alive or uninjured for our horse’s sake as well as our own. And I believe there’s a point you can back off, just as in riding, until the aids are as light as thinking them.”

Great question and so well described. We’ve all been stepped on, shoved around, tripped over, knocked down, and once I got a black eye when a horse looked at a noise. Handling horses on the ground is dangerous. The only thing more dangerous is being complacent about it.

Horses are hard-wired to spook. It’s anatomy and involuntary flight response. Can we train them out of their survival instinct? I don’t think so but a confident relaxed horse spooks less. A horse trained with fear doesn’t trust humans. The more reactive the handler is, the more reactive the horse. The fact that a horse acts differently with each handler supports the idea of our behavior impacting them. Can a horse respect/fear/love us and never hurt us on the lead? I don’t think that’s a promise they can keep any more than we can.

Consistency matters. There’s a problem when we are affirmative and then switch to aggression. It might work in an odd moment but we damage trust when we change methods. Then it’s hard to tell who’s more unreliable. Most horses hold a kernel of fear inside from harsh training in the past. It does not make them safer in an emergency.

We can’t behave like a mare, as brilliant as they are at herd discipline. Firstly, they have a few hundred pounds on us when it comes to wrestling. There is no secondly.

Let me be clear. It isn’t our space being intruded on, it’s our arrogance. The space is theirs. Some of us have been taught we own everything and we should make ourselves “big” but while we think we’re correcting them, horses read our anxiety as we flail our arms about and yell. They think we’re unpredictable because sometimes we come close to their faces and coo to them and other times, we whack and flap. We pet them or punish them; our hands are erratic and deceptive.

When we are that close horses can’t see us properly and don’t know what to expect so they become a bit like deer-in-headlights. They freeze up until they come apart. In other words, the problems we have controlling them when we are standing close are mainly caused by us standing close.

I hate that moving out of a horse’s space is a release, so I ask horses to prove it a few dozen times a day. They happily oblige.

She mentions the gentle, educated use of training aids like a whip or possibly a chain. Sometimes that might be the lesser evil. When working with an injured or unbalanced horse, if it’s an emergency situation, or if someone is in danger, you might consider their use but they do not guarantee things will go better. We might get better results breathing, keeping our heart rate low, and being consistent. If something is coming apart quickly, our hands and body are useless to stop them anyway. In an utter emergency, I might let out a loud sharp yell and hope to distract for a second, while I get safe and find a way for the horse to self-soothe, usually by moving.

I agree that we might “retrain leading and handling skills.” The goal is to work toward smaller cues, but that takes time and every horse and situation is different. A whip isn’t inherently cruel. I think we get lazy about lifting our own energy. We use whips to make things happen fast instead of giving the horse time to process. If the horse has been hurried too often, threatening the horse makes it worse. Using aids sparingly while weaning ourselves off harsher aids might work, but no guarantee. It isn’t using aids in certain situations that’s the problem, it’s developing a habit of unconscious aggression.

Her idea to “retrain leading and handling skills” is probably more needed for humans. If we listened to horses the way the herd listens to mares, we’d give more horses space. We’d step back when their eyes go still or their breathing becomes shallow. Standing that close, they literally can’t see us and their response time is seven times quicker than ours. We don’t have a chance of getting out of the way. We have to start out of the way.

If the horse is close enough to smash into you, it’s crucial to create a habit of holding more space between you. Do you pull your horse off balance with the lead to get a step? Can you train yourself to lead with an invisible rope, from a small distance yet aware in the moment?

Leading is an art. Trust your body to cue, murmur praise, but more importantly, create a consistent habit of spatial kindness. Give them room to balance, room to self-soothe, and most of all, room to breathe.

Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward

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24 thoughts on “Leading Horses with Spatial Kindness. What?”

  1. Yet another affirming post! My harshly “trained” horse was being put in the stocks for saddling because he would move into the person, and you’ve precisely captured how the person becomes invisible when the horse is afraid. I decided to tack up at liberty so he could consent to every step and now he stands stock still if there are no distractions. I’m working on consensual leading and your words are just what I needed to hear to remind me that I never want to make his anxiety worse, right at the time he’s feeling it. Thank you!

  2. Great post Anna! I cringe when I see someone leading a horse with a death-grip on the halter or rope just under the chin, without an inch of slack in the line. I imagine that the human thinks he has more control leading this way because he foolishly thinks he can out-power a 1000lb horse. With one hand no less! No doubt those are the same folks who think a bit will give them physical control over a terrified or agitated “misbehaving” horse. Then blames the horse when they get run over or tossed off.

    • These mean horses in a vicious cycle, with a master plan to dominate mankind, says someone who never took a second to listen. Your comment is great, thank you, Sueann

  3. This was good to review & reflect! ‘Room to balance, room to soothe & room to breathe’ is especially meaningful to me as I interact with my horses. Last night, I was putting blankets on my ponies as the forecast was for cold temps overnight. My Mo Fox Trotter was standing in his stall and all of a sudden, his head shot up, whites of his eyes showing, clearly upset, when I realized my husband had come into the barn, unbeknownst to me or my horses. If I had been standing right next to my horse, I probably would have been, at least, stepped on or on the ground, and none of it would have been the horse’s fault! Forewarned is forearmed!

  4. Anna, this is wonderfully helpful. “I think we get lazy about lifting our own energy”. Lazy/distracted are kind of the same thing for me. Guilty. Also, reframing that it’s our arrogance that gets infringed on…yeah I don’t usually cringe unless I’m hearing the truth. None of it is every moment, but I can do better, and I am SO grateful for you both holding up a mirror, and recognizing that with certain horses, at certain points (as with the rope halter) a transition to a lighter aid while working to get even lighter, may be necessary. Not getting complacent (hey, rope halter works!) and staying stuck in the heavier aid is also a great reminder. Thank you!

  5. I love this! We all start in horsemanship 101 (whether self taught, or taught by a friend or instructor or whatever) learning some of these basics like safe haltering and leading. If we can back way up to the 101 level and do some retraining (of the humans), and change the way we teach the next generation of horse people, we could make a huge difference!

  6. Wouldn’t horse(wo)manship be easier if there were hard and fast rules lol…

    Unfortunately, I was taught the give enough space lesson the hard way once too. I’m still learning.
    That be-here-now thing is challenging. 😉

  7. Well-done, Anna !! I so appreciate that you acknowledge that leading well is a difficult skill for the human to learn. Seems I’ve been working on that for 10+ years and am not there yet, but closer than I’ve ever been. Closer to the ideal because I’m further away from the horse Spatial kindness, gosh, I love that term.

    Good example from last week. I think of the trimmer who was here throwing her arms wildly at Bear’s head, and it scared him, to the extent he threw his head away from her and hit it hard on a post. Then my other trimmer was here this week, and I asked Bear to pull up his head from the hay on ground, waited, and then he did ! It still surprises me how we can often get exactly what we’ve asked for if we just shut up and wait !

  8. PS. I don’t know if I can tolerate the trial trimmer’s attitude when I think about ZB hitting his head, on his blind side, on that post. She was bit mortified too, but then she said to him ” That’s on you , Buddy, for being naughty.” He had come over to join Cash on the hay net. I takesome blame for not noticing or preparing for that possibility. Bear never moves Cash around and I hadn’t thought to tie Bear up elsewhere.

    I’m giving her some leeway as it was her first time here, but I don’t like that kind of energy around my horses. The audacity, right ?

  9. This is one of your best evers because it hits on so many different levels, so thank you. I lead all horses on what some might consider a too relaxed lead because, well, if they have to move suddenly than I am slightly out of the way already! And I find them much calmer that way, as a horse unable to move is a nervous horse “Where do I go when the lion jumps out? This puny human is not going to be able to save me!” I do lead from behind when we are in a more ‘controlled’ environment (isn’t that a joke?) then at other times I do tend to be a step or two ahead when I lead (not sure you would agree with that) but my girl follows along and seems quite content doing so. Perhaps she is allowing me a few minutes to feel in control and be the alpha mare — for a change! Then she’s had enough and comes up alongside and we walk together. This ‘trust’ and ‘mutual respect’ we seem to share is a direct result of the several years now that I have put into practice what you have taught. We could not be more thankful. xx

    • Thanks, Kathy. I agree with Lucy Rees when it comes to the notions of “alpha” but so glad you and your horse ‘walk together.’

  10. Thank you for writing about the basics (not the fun, flashy, riding) of getting along with horses. A wonderful thought provoking essay.
    A woman at my boarding barn has a sweet, calm, mare. But the woman has a habit of tugging the lead rope whenever the mare moves her head just a little bit. That motion goes directly to the mare’s head! She’s not a cruel horse owner at all, very kind and loving. But in this case, not thinking AT ALL. The one benefit of her tugging was to make me hyper aware of how I handle a lead rope.
    I keep working on ground manners, mine and Aurora’s. In your essay the concept “to ‘retrain leading and handling skills’ is probably more needed for humans” cracked me up! Yup, we know it all and are the leaders! We control you! Stay out of my space but I can invade yours anytime!
    I’m happy when I see someone leading by asking the horse for engagement, for the horse’s attention, with voice and body, not the lead rope.
    Thanks again for making us think about what we’re doing.

  11. The closing line in this article is so important – give them “room to breathe, room to balance, room to self sooth. I have introduced a new mare to our small herd. She is unsettled and so this mantra is my guiding principal right now. I do use a rope halter and am very mindful of its ability to be misused (even unintentionally). The goal is to not need a halter when leading and have achieved that with my other horses over time but understand that it takes time and both of us need to be safe to get to that goal. As always – thanks for challenging us all to be better be more mindful and listen to them more.


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