The big chestnut gelding loves to do things. When he sees me coming into his paddock he makes a beeline, coming in hot. He’s developed a pattern with his person, who was taught to stand her ground and defend her space. He comes barreling in hot and bumps into her. Just before he bumps into her she bumps him on the end of his nose.
Horses can be so literal.
After a time the big gelding adopted nose bumping as his preferred method of greeting humans. I really think that to him it was like two people greeting by bumping fists. His nose bumping her hand became their established greeting. It seemed like he thought that’s what she wanted. He was doing his best to comply.
This kind of scenario plays out all the time in the world of horse and human relationships. We set the tone and our horses match us, or they set the tone and we match them. Some things become habitual, like the chestnut barreling into people’s space and bumping into them.
Once these patterns are established the tone of the conversation is pre-set. Each interaction starts on this bad footing and carries through into everything else we do that day. The conversation starts to center around the behaviors we don’t like – we start to think our horse is rude and we need to establish better boundaries.
We never plan to set ourselves up for uncomfortable conversations with our horses. Most often it creeps up on us. One bad day trailer loading and we subconsciously change the tone of the conversation about trailer loading by bringing doubt to the table next time we load. ‘What if it happens again?’ Our horse starts to struggle going right under saddle and we start to anticipate it being and struggle so we ball ourselves up and do weird things in an effort to make it happen. We set the tone that going right is hard.
All of this is in the back of my mind as the chestnut gelding comes barreling into my space set to bump me with his nose. I simply step aside and let him barrel on past. He looks a bit like a cartoon character as he cranes his neck around trying to figure out why he didn’t bump into me. Once he slows down enough to turn around he comes right back to me.
This time I make sure I convey my energetic boundary and verbally say to him that I’m not interested in being bumped into. When it’s clear he can’t stop himself in time I simply step aside. This time he goes on by with less of a locomotive vibe and gets himself stopped as he turns around and observes me standing there. He clearly has no idea what I want so I give him time to think about it.
When he comes my way this time he’s still coming in pretty hot. I hold my hand out in front of me and fluff up my energetic boundary. He stops with his whole face one inch from my hand while his entire body acts like an accordion scrunching up behind his head to get stopped. I take a step back to give him space enough that he doesn’t have to re-balance by bumping into me and he stands there looking at me like I have five eyes.
Changing the tone of the conversation once it’s established does require a lot of clarity in your body language. Body language carries emotional content and sometimes requires a fair bit of intensity to break through strong habitual patterns of interaction. In this case the key was to take away the intensity that had been inherent in the established greeting for all these years.
Stepping aside carried no punishment and no judgment. Simply a statement internally – ‘this is not the kind of conversation I’m interested in having’ – ‘I appreciate your enthusiasm but I don’t prefer to be bumped into.’ Once he started thinking about the conversation instead of acting out of habit, then I could stand my ground and create a bit of intensity in my posture and gaze, and have him hear me enough to respect that boundary.
All I had to do was let him know that my greeting is different than the one he’s accustomed to. I didn’t have to punish him. I didn’t have to stand my ground. I didn’t have to set a stronger boundary. All I had to do was let him know, via my body language, that I wasn’t interested in having that particular conversation with him. Once he knew that about me he never bumped into me again. I set the tone and he matched it.
Changing the tone of an established conversation doesn’t have to be dramatic. All we need to do is become conscious of the patterns we’ve created that don’t serve our relationship. Determine to change the tone of the conversation. It’s not so much about setting boundaries as deciding what kind of conversation you’re interested in having and then figuring out how you can set that tone.