Healthy Boundaries

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Huey making me laugh. He’s so gentle I feel completely comfortable letting him nuzzle my cheek but I also can feel his energy and intention and can move him away if necessary.

I love feeding my horses. There are sixteen of them here right now. Feeding is always entertaining. You never know what kind of mood the horses will be in. They change with the weather and the seasons. We know each other really well. For example, Wizard, though smaller in stature, definitely claims his food before Wayne, his gigantic warmblood buddy. Wayne often does what I refer to as his popcorn impersonation when it’s breakfast time – bouncing around with great enthusiasm! He can be intimidating! But I love that he and Wizard feel free to express themselves and show me their personalities. It sure makes it easy to tell when someone isn’t feeling well!

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The herd at feeding time.

Wizard waits at the gate and often backs up to his feed tub so as not to take his nose off the bucket in my hand. The look on his face when he eats is priceless. Wayne bobs around in the background knowing better than to snitch from Wizard (who has very clear boundaries around food). I don’t have to worry about Wayne and his energy, I just walk with a measured pace to his feed tub, standing tall and owning my space. He falls in a few feet away, prancing and dancing in perfect balance and never touches me once. I didn’t have to ‘teach’ him to keep out of my space, he instinctively recognizes and respects my boundaries, as I have respected his over our years together.

It’s this way will all my horses. We respect each other’s boundaries. We all pay attention and move with each other. There is a flow to feeding times that is a testament to our mutual respect. Part of the reason it flows is because I pay attention to how they line themselves up, and feed in the order they determine rather than trying to make up and enforce my own rules. We adapt to one another and find the flow. That flow often changes with the seasons. It also changes as herd members age or have health challenges. To me, it’s all information that informs dietary changes and things I might need to attend otherwise.

When people come to visit my herd, they always remark about how easy going and friendly they are. But what really amazes them is how calm they are. They wonder how I got my horses to respect my boundaries… I can think of a handful of times in all my years with horses where I felt I had to enforce a boundary in a physical way. Those were times when horses came to me with habits that put myself or the people helping me, in danger. Otherwise most of what we might consider boundary crossing behavior problems were symptoms of something else.

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Dillenger and Jean hanging out at a workshop

Jack, for example, developed a habit of biting people. He did it because he was in quite a lot of physical pain. Once the physical issues were managed it still took some time for him to let go of the habit of biting. I didn’t cure him of biting by punishing the behavior. He let go of the habit when the underlying issue was resolved. In the meantime, I knew his pattern and could find ways to work around him that allowed him to express himself without actually biting me.

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Jack getting body work with no  bite in site.

I think one of the worst things taught in some horsemanship circles is this idea that I should never let the horse move my feet or he’ll think he’s in charge. I’ve seen more people get hurt by standing in the horse’s flight path, refusing to budge when a horse is coming in hot. In my experience, none of my horses have ever taken advantage of me for moving with them instead of standing my ground.

It’s important for us to remember that we set the tone. Horses learn how to interact with people from people. I’ll never forget watching a client greet her horse she hadn’t seen for a while. She got right in his face, all snuggly, baby talking and feeding him carrots. She initiated the conversation by putting herself right in his mouth. As she led him to her tacking up area he reached over and touched her hand with his nose. She balled up her fist and punched him in the nose…..

Because he invaded her space and she had to set a boundary….

I’ve watched people stand beside their horse during feeding time typing away on their cell phone and then punishing their horse for coming into their space when the horse next to them charged them. Then they expect their horse to trust them and want to work with them. We almost always have a very small window in which to make decisions about to move or not to move. To enforce a boundary or step out of the way. If you miss that very small window the chances of successfully redirecting the horse’s physical energy are slim. Might as well just get out of the way and regroup.

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Group bodywork! We have these interactions safely because we are all paying attention and in tune with one another.

I get it. Horses are big. They have incredibly fast reaction times. They can easily hurt us. Healthy boundaries are established so naturally and easily with horses. If I expect my horse to honor my space then I feel it begins with me honoring his. I set the tone of the interactions between us. I can set us both up for success or I can create boundary issues by not being situationally aware. It’s my choice to interact with the horses, not theirs. So I begin by honoring their boundaries.

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4 thoughts on “Healthy Boundaries

  1. Yes, yes, yes!!!! Let the horses determine their own eating order. Everyone is happier and feeding time is a breeze. Doesn’t matter if you have 6 or 20. You owe it to your herd to understand their behavior. Andrea, thank you for your thoughts about nuzzling, etc. I typically sit in my pasture for 30-60 minutes a day and I let the horses come to me at their own will. I let each one tell me what they want in terms of touch. I have a few that just like to stand close and breathe in my scent and some that actually like to nuzzle or just put their head in my lap. If you are paying attention, you can read their energy and it is easy though seldom necessary to move them if necessary. I found that one of the key indicators of their behavior is the behavior and proximity of their herd mates. If I want to be close physically I’m mentally to one, I must know where the others are. I have been doing this for about a year and have only had to correct one horse a simple redirection of their head was all that was necessary. Thank you for teaching me how to relate to them on their level. They really appreciate it and I couldn’t be more thrilled to be welcomed in their world

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    • Thank you for sharing your experience of hanging with the herd. Yes, the key is that you are aware of where the others are all the time. If we remain situationally aware we notice the little things that keep us safe. It puts less responsibility on the horse to have to always look out for us. And I’m with you – rarely need to do more than move a nose away gently if someone is getting to be too much.

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  2. I like how you moved from, a horse respecting your boundaries to a horse honoring your boundaries ☺
    In order to remind myself about my responsibilities for his (teached) behaviour, l usually say: a horse understanding your boundaries. For me, this way of saying it (at least in Dutch) makes it clear that it is my job/responsibility to teach a horse in a way he understand my boundaries – not his. So a horse should not respect..but he must understand.
    May be the ‘feel’ with these words is different in English 😊

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    • Janneke, thank you for bringing this up. I was just having a conversation about this blog with someone else and this was the point I was trying to make. Different words have different meanings – and feelings associated with them. I think it doesn’t matter so much which word each of us chooses so much as understanding what feelings the word evokes in us. Because we bring that feeling tone to the conversation with our horse.

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