Boundaries: With All Due Respect

by Anne Gage

By developing awareness of how horses use body language to communicate, understanding the psychology of herd dynamics and recognizing how horses interpret human movement and energy, we can work with horses in ways that make sense to them, develop mutual trust and respect, and create willingness. The previous article focused on how we can start to develop mutual trust and respect by working with three energies – pushing, blocking and drawing – and showing respect for the “no go zone” around the horse’s head and neck.

In this article, the focus is on the importance of boundaries in establishing healthy relationships with our horses. In all relationships, clearly defined and consistent boundaries create structure, maintain order, enhance safety and define acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Individuals with clear boundaries present a sense of confidence, self-assurance and self-respect. If boundaries are nonexistent, inconsistent or not respected, the result is a sense of insecurity, discomfort, tension, mistrust and disrespect. The need for respect of personal boundaries is reciprocal. Your horse should respect your boundaries, but you should also respect his.

If your horse is exhibiting any of the following behaviours, it’s time to check your boundaries:

• Pushiness, biting, flightiness and/or spooking
• Being defiant, sullen or shut down
• Ignoring or challenging you

Boundaries are an essential part of equine communication and herd dynamics. The previous article explained the boundary of the “no go zone” around the head and neck. Another important zone to be aware of is the “girth line”. This “line of respect” is located on the barrel, approximately where the saddle girth/cinch goes. A respectful horse will not take his girth line past a higher-ranking horse’s girth line. If he does “cross the line”, he will do it either:

1) Respectfully, with a lowered head and his barrel bent away from the other horse, or

2) Disrespectfully, with a high head and body bending into the other horse. In the latter case, the higher-ranking horse will reprimand the offender. Horses read this girth line on humans as the midline running from our ear through our shoulder, hip and heel (where the outside seam of your jeans is located).

Another component determining herd hierarchy is the ability of a horse to move his herd mates. The horse that gets pushed into a physical boundary (e.g. fences, walls, trees, etc.) is in a more vulnerable position, and the horse that pushed him there gains respect.

Horses are always aware of these body language and herd rules and it is the only way they know how to perceive and make sense of the world. So, if your horse’s movement causes you to move out of his way or pushes you into a physical boundary, he perceives you as subordinate to him and not worthy of his respect. The same rules apply whether you on are on the ground or riding. Since our relationships with our horses start from the ground and move up, it is best to first establish boundaries on the ground.

Groundwork – With All Due Respect
1) Define Your Personal Space – Whether you are leading your horse, entering his stall or grooming him in the cross-ties, create an imaginary bubble around yourself to define your personal space. Do not allow your horse to move into your space with any part of his body unless you have invited him there. His body should never bend into you, but should be straight or bent around you.

If your horse is pushy, disrespectful, mentally unfocused or aggressive, make the space as large as necessary to keep you safe from potential bites or strikes. If necessary, use a dressage or lunge whip to lengthen your reach. Think of it as your arm extender.

2) Respect Your Horse’s Personal Space – Be aware and respectful of your horse’s “no go zone” and do not send any impulsive, forward energy directly towards his head or neck. If you are standing in front of your horse when he moves into your space, your push should be directed at his chest to tell him to back away from you. If you are standing beside him, the push should be directed towards his shoulder or hip, whichever is moving towards you. Keep your own safety in mind and use your “arm extender” (the whip) so that you are not within striking or kicking distance. Just match the level of energy your horse is using. Too much energy may provoke fear or aggression. Too little energy will not be respected.

3) Stand Your Ground – If your horse is pushy, stand your ground and put up a block with your hand or whip towards his body (not to his head). Ask him to back out of your space by waving the whip horizontally towards his body, tap him with the lash end or use the handle end for a firm, direct push.

While you should always enforce your boundaries, a good place to practice and become more comfortable with the idea is when your horse is cross-tied. This is a place where many horses become agitated and anxious. Their mental stress is exhibited through their physical shape. Horses who are busy when tied have an unbalanced frame – scissored legs, high head, inverted back. This frame keeps them in flight mode. With adrenaline pumping into the blood stream, the stress and anxiety level and his need to move remain high.

Cross Tying for Calmness
If your horse is very stressed about being tied, start with just on a lead rope so that you can allow him to move when necessary to help release the stress he is feeling. If you are using cross-ties, ensure they are long enough to allow your horse to bring is neck to level (poll same height as withers) without becoming tight. You will apply boundaries to encourage – not force – your horse to stand quietly, straight, square and level. How long this takes depends upon your horse’s level of anxiety and respect for your boundaries. The aim is to bring him into a straight, square, level headed frame, which will create in him a feeling of calm, both physically and mentally. Although this exercise is simple, it may not be easy at first.

1) Focus on Straight, Square and Level
a. Straightness. The horse is straight when his spine is in alignment from nose to tail. He will find and feel this straightness when his left hind foot lines up directly behind the left fore foot and the right hind lines up directly behind the right fore. Ask your horse to stand straight by pushing the appropriate hip or shoulder into alignment. If his barrel bends into you, gently press on his girth (about where your heel sits when riding). As soon as your horse moves away from your push, stop pushing.

b. Squareness. When the front feet are square, your horse is more balanced. Getting all four feet square is the ideal, but getting the front feet square is adequate. As you correct your horse’s straightness, he may stand square on his own. When he stands scissored ask him to move one foot backwards or forwards. For backwards, push on the front of the shoulder of the leg you want him to move. For forwards, gently tap his flank. Keep repeating, one foot at a time, until he finds square.

c. Level headed. Encourage your horse to bring his neck to level by gently rocking his head laterally (side to side) with slight downward pressure. Avoid using force by pulling or pushing his head as this will create more stress and resistance. Use a rhythmic swinging movement with the intent of relaxing his neck. Place your hands on the cross ties, directly on the sides of his halter, the bridge of his nose, or use a lead rope attached to the bottom ring of his halter. If your horse tries to raise his head or turn it left or right, use your hand or hands in the same places to block his movement.

2) Be Aware of Your Body Language, Alignment & Energy – Since horses are very tuned in to physical and emotional energy it is important to be aware of your own body shape and mental state. Set the boundaries clearly, calmly and consistently without becoming aggressive, angry or submissive. Make sure that pushing energy from your body (arms, hips, core) is only directed at his body and never towards his head or neck.

3) Stay in the moment – Let go of time frames and expectations and put your focus only on what is happening moment to moment. Your horse may stand quietly for a few seconds only to be distracted by something and change his shape. Just ask him to come back to straight, then square, then level.

By enforcing clear and consistent boundaries, you will enhance your relationship with your horse, bring him into a relaxed physical shape which will be reflected in a calm mental state, and put you both in a better frame of mind. As you do this for him consistently, over and over, he will begin to associate feeling calm and safe with being with you. Remember that you are training your horse every time he can see you and that good training takes time and consistency. You cannot achieve behavioural change, nor build trust and respect, by rushing or being impatient. Your horse will respect your boundaries if you respect your own need for them and show respect for his.