A few months ago, I had the privilege of sharing a guest post on my friend Heather Wallace’s blog, Bridle & Bone – A Beginner’s Guide to Building Trust in a Horse. In the article, I covered boundaries, kindness, relaxing around horses, and embracing imperfection in riding in order to build a bond of trust with any horse you encounter.
I was surprised when most of the feedback from that article was around the boundaries aspect of trust in horsemanship, which inspired the whole focus of this article.
Why Are Boundaries so Important with Horses?
The obvious benefit of boundaries for horses first and foremost help keep humans safe. Basic training for every horse should cover the amount of personal space to allow a human, how to lead quietly beside them, and riding cues that assure that people can remain as safe as possible around them. These examples of boundaries are necessarily cast in a negative light because they are preventive.
What might not be obvious about boundaries, though, are their positive and constructive characteristics. Boundaries are in fact key in building trust in horses. When a horse can rely on your consistency in your expectations of them, they have the comfort of knowing what behaviors are appropriate and what reactions they can expect from you.
Horses in the wild revolve around a leadership structure. Knowing where they stand provides a comforting homeostasis, even moreso because they are naturally fearful animals. Since breeding has narrowed domesticated horses today toward the more passive personalities (in contrast to the dominant darwinism that takes place in the wild), most of the horses you will encounter today will quickly thrive under another’s leadership – namely, yours.
Boundaries for Safety
The first place to focus on boundaries is safety, whether your horse is trained or not. Your horse should adhere to the following guidelines:
- Provide you with a comfortable amount of personal space. They should not rush into you when afraid or try to push through you to get to their destination.
- When leading, your horse should walk on the right hand side of you and slightly behind you.
- Should not bite, kick, or stomp anywhere around you, passers-by, or other horses when being handled.
This will take some time to reinforce with a freshly-trained horse, so if necessary, try to isolate training on each of these boundaries until they understand each concept on their own, then build on those isolated lessons. After time, you can and should reinforce all of these boundaries at all times. Though they may not like the structure of these “rules” at first, they will be safe around all humans they encounter, not be a liability, and be much more likely to have positive experiences with humans.
Even in the “Negative Boundaries” category, these are all plainly in the horse’s best interest, in addition to ours. Now for the fun part: How to build your bond with a horse through boundaries.
Boundaries for Partnership
All of the boundaries outlined above can apply to this category, but the key is to be consistent in your reinforcement. A horse should know the moment they have crossed over a line, and the communication should be consistent with the crime. That is to say, the higher the danger, the more you will need to get their attention right away. Some behaviors can be corrected in a mild form, and should be as long as they get the message.
For example, when a horse steps into your personal space when learning to lead at a proper distance behind/beside you, a quick jerk to the lead rope and a couple steps backward should suffice, unless they don’t understand. If they repeat the invasion of your personal space, a couple more assertive tugs on the lead rope and perhaps backing up a couple more paces will get the message across. And as soon as they do what you want them to, even in a limited capacity, praise their efforts, either with a gentle pat, soothing tone of voice, and eased body language.
A higher-alarm boundary breach would be a horse that barrels into you when they spook. Although the behavior is understandable, especially in those early months of bonding where they establish you as their leader, you need to make it clear that it is not okay. As quickly as possible, you will need to get their full, undivided attention. This might mean backing up, circling outwards, or even yelling to get their attention. Doing this changes the nature of their spooks, because with reinforcement, they will look to you in their distress to set the tone of their reaction to the trigger.
Boundaries for the Rider, Handler, or Trainer
The key with boundaries, whether a low-stress or high-stress situation, is consistency. The horse needs to know at all times what reaction they can expect from you. If you tell them a behavior is unacceptable one day, then let it slide another day, it is confusing (even if it is what they want in the moment). Then often as riders, we will get annoyed with the behavior that resurfaced, even though we were the ones who let the slack out on the line. In our irritation, we will then implement a reaction that is too extreme for the behavior, simply because we are frustrated. Caving to that pattern too many times, at the hand of our own inconsistency, could very easily lead to abuse.
By adhering to consistent boundaries, our horse will become accustomed to their “safe zone” with us, and will rely on the behavior that they know will please us and keep us on good terms with them. What I find so remarkable about horses over the years is that they really do not want to disobey for the sake of disobeying. Most refusals or retaliation to our requests come down to these three things:
The beauty of our boundary systems as riders, trainers, and handlers is that when our horse is stepping out of bounds when they know better, when they push buttons that they usually don’t, or refuse to follow our lead, we have a quick clue that something might be wrong.
My mental check when a horse is out of sync is to firstly try to find a misunderstanding. I try to figure out if I’m not communicating well with them. If need be, I might ask a friend to watch our interaction to see if they observe something I might have missed. Then I will try to find an ailment of some sort: a limp, imbalance in their walk, favoring a certain part of their body, their movement under new tack, or changes in personality. And lastly, I will try to look for signs of stress and fear. Their fear may indicate their natural and unique set of fears. Escalated reactions to those fears could indicate past trauma as well.
When we pick up on these aberrations in their behavior early, we can engage curiosity to troubleshoot the root cause before our horse needs to resort to an explosion, shut-down, or tantrum. Our attunement to their needs will further reinforce the trust we have already established through the structure we gave them.
The Outcome of Boundaries in Horsemanship
More than any other ingredient, kindness is the ultimate balance to boundaries. Kindness keeps us asking questions when our horse communicates with us, guards us from micromanaging, and keeps our focus on the partnership we so desire to build between us and the horse. Our horses are still allowed to have bad days, but like us cannot take their bad days out on us in a harmful way. By remaining straightforward, consistent, and kind in your interactions, all the horses you work with will trust and even enjoy seeing you approaching down the barn aisle.
What boundaries in handling our riding can you not live without? Tell me all about it at firstname.lastname@example.org