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Protecting Your Space --- Or Not

Posted by vwkoch, in horse handling thoughts 05 March 2012 · 278 views

I’ve made it clear in previous blog entries that I have a problem with people who harp on horses needing to have “respect” and to “stay out of your space.” It’s not that I don’t believe that horses SHOULDN’T respect their handlers. It’s just that those buzzwords seem to come from people who want to dictate every little thing their horses do, which I think is a terrible way to form a good relationship. My horses are spoiled rotten, but they still respect me. They know that they can only get away with something if I LET them get away with it, even though I let them get away with a lot. I much prefer that kind of relationship to being a dictator.

My attitude toward making horses “stay out of your space” is similar to my attitude about “respect.” My horses are welcome to come into my space any time they want, because I know they will get out of it whenever I ask. To me, it’s HAVING control that’s important --- not EXERTING it all the time.

People who harp on horses needing to have “respect” and to “stay out of your space” say that it’s all about safety. My attitude toward safety is like my attitude toward “respect” and making horses “stay out of your space.” I want it to be a mutual endeavor between me and my horse. I think I’ll be a whole lot safer if my horse is looking out for my safety instead of just me trying to be careful. I can’t anticipate every possible problem, and I don’t want to try. I don’t want to spend all my time around my horses worrying about how I might get hurt. I want to know that, if I slip up occasionally, my horses will be looking out for me.

I interact with my horses in such a way that we become friends, rather than me being a dictator. My horses CARE about me, so they don’t want to hurt me. Because we interact so intimately on a frequent basis, they know how fragile I am and how careful they need to be around me.

People who think “respect” is about “dominance” try to earn respect by appearing stronger than their horses. They would never want their horses to learn that people are fragile --- but if a horse thinks you’re strong, it won’t feel the need to watch out for you. My horses respect me because, when I want to be, I’m more DETERMINED than they are. If I want my way, I’m going to get it, but I don’t need to get my way in EVERYTHING. I can be determined and fragile at the same time, so I don’t need to worry about my horses knowing I’m fragile. We’re not going to FIGHT over “dominance.” I only need to insist on the being the boss when it matters --- and it doesn’t always matter.

I was recently reading an article by yet another trainer talking about safety and keeping the horse in its space. His example was the situation where “you're standing next to a small shed with the horse between you and the shed. That's not really a good place for you to be. What if the horse spooks at something? What if someone unexpectedly walks out of the shed and spooks the horse? The horse will no doubt try to desperately get away from the shed. And if you're in the way....”

I agree with him that you’re placing yourself in harm’s way if you’re standing in the place the horse will run through if it gets scared. However, where SHOULD you stand? If you’re between the horse and the shed and something spooks him so he jumps toward the shed, you could get crushed. If you’re in front of him, you’re especially likely to get run over if he spooks, and if you’re behind him and something scares him from behind, he might kick out and get you instead of whatever scared him. There is really no safe place to stand around a horse (although some places are safer than others). You just need to be aware of the possible danger and alert to the environment, so you can protect yourself as well as possible.

However, suppose the horse is out to protect you, too. Suppose he makes an effort when he spooks to AVOID hurting you. Wouldn’t having that kind of relationship make you as safe as you could be when you’re around him?

My first pet horse was pretty trustworthy, and one day, she proved my point in a most spectacular way. We lived in a place where the soil was clay, and it would pack like concrete into a horse’s feet. The only way I could get it out was to hammer a screw driver into the mass and use leverage to pop it out all in one piece. One day, I was sitting underneath her, hammering the screwdriver into the clay in her front foot. (Yes, it was stupid, but I was a kid; she was pretty bombproof; we were in her nice safe stall; and I trusted her.) At that moment, some idiot decided to walk down the side of the barn, dragging a stick along the side, so it sounded as if the barn were under a machine-gun attack. My horse jumped straight up into the air, then came straight back down again. She stayed where she was, trembling, until I crawled out from under her, THEN she wheeled around and ran out the (open) stall door into her paddock as if the devil were after her. Scared as she was, she knew I was vulnerable, and she wasn’t going to run off if it meant she would trample me. That situation would have been dangerous under ANY circumstances, but it was made less so because my horse looked out for me when the unexpected happened. She protected me far better than I could have protected myself. I stayed safe in that situation because MY HORSE wanted to keep me safe.

Another example has to do with my current pet horse, who is far too flighty to be considered trustworthy, although she does try to be good. This example also has to do with cleaning feet. At the time, I had an injury that temporarily reduced me to having only one functioning arm. In order to clean my horse’s feet, I would sit on a stool and put her foot in my lap. When this incident happened, she was against the wall and I was sitting on the side away from the wall. I considered myself to be safe from dangers from three of the four possible approaches. Nothing was going to approach from the wall. If something came from behind her, she’d run forward. If something came from behind me, wherever she moved, it would be away from me. However, if something came from in front of her, she might whirl and run over me. Although I didn’t trust her not to shy, I did trust her to try not to hurt me. With that trust, and an eye out for dangers, I proceeded to clean the foot in my lap.

What I didn’t notice was that somebody had put a lunging whip in the rafters over our head. (I didn’t notice it because it was a pretty stupid thing to do.) While I was cleaning my horse’s foot, something (a bird?) dislodged the whip, and it fell out of the rafters. To make matters worse, it fell between my horse and the wall --- a perfect excuse for her to whirl over me and take off in a panic. However, all she did was flinch and stiffen. It was a pretty big flinch, but she clearly evaluated the fact that her escape route would involve trampling me, and she chose not to do so. By then, the whip was on the ground, so it wasn’t quite as scary any more, although she was still concerned over having been attacked (as evidenced by her stiff, “nervous horse” posture). When I reassured her, she decided everything was okay after all, and I continued to clean out her foot (all the while heaping tons of praise upon her). When I finally got up, she got a VERY big treat reward for her cooperation. As before, I stayed safe in that situation because MY HORSE wanted to keep me safe.

I am sure some people would say it’s impossible to convince a horse to watch out for its handler when it’s reacting to something scary. However, I think the examples I’ve given show that horses will, in fact, look out for people they care about (and respect!). Horses, in general, would prefer not to trample people. Unless they’re in a total panic, they don’t trample their foals or run off of cliffs. Therefore, it is clearly possible for even a scared horse to retain enough sense to avoid trampling a person, if it is motivated enough to do so. That motivation will be lacking when the handler positions himself as a big, strong dictator. However, when the handler is seen as a fragile (but determined) friend, my horses have shown that they WILL take care of me.

Certainly, handlers must be aware that ALL horses are dangerous, simply because they are big and unpredictable. Handlers should take the primary responsibility for their own safety. However, I feel a LOT safer when I know my horse is looking out for me, too.

I don’t “dominate” my horses. I don’t dictate every move they make. I earn their respect (and teach them judgment) by allowing them to make some decisions on their own, as long as they demonstrate good manners. I don’t need to harass my horses constantly to remind them who’s boss. They know I’m the boss when I want to be, and it is enough for me to know that they will obey me when I choose to demand such obedience. They are welcome in my space whenever they want to be there, because we are friends, and that friendship keeps me safer than all the “dominance” in the world. I care about my horses, and they care about me. That relationship is the one I want and the one I think everyone should have. Be friends with your horses --- and be safe!

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