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Space and Respect

Published: 8/12/2014
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Editor's Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and a horse gal since age six. She teaches at Bay Harbor Equestrian Center in Michigan, riding English and Western. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, and many others.

Read more about Amy here.

Read more Journals & Journeys here

By Amy Skinner

It can be hard to resist the oh-so-friendly nature of the horse, his curiosity as he lips your pocket, how sweet he is when he accepts a treat from your hand.
The horse who is oo-ed and aw-ed over has a hard time understanding this behavior and comes to accept the fact that pushing or leaning into the human is acceptable and rewarded.

He has a hard time, then, making the connection between this state and his work in hand or under saddle. Many times, the horse who leans into people loses the connection between pressure in front of him and stopping or turning.

Let me explain.

You may think it couldn't possibly be a problem. He is not pushy, just friendly! He is exercising his natural curiosity and playfulness. This type of horse maybe loves to be scratched and his humans love to scratch him. Maybe he cranes his neck out searching for a treat, and we find this behavior so irresistible that we must give him a treat. But now with his chest and shoulders he is leaning into us, maybe getting a bit close, but in this instance maybe we are OK with it.
Then we go to lead him to the pasture and he gets a bit exuberant, walking ahead of us, and when you go to slow or stop him you might find little connection between the lead rope and his feet.

Later under saddle, you may find slowing and stopping are out of reach, or not as light as you'd like them. This is because in the horse's mind these two situations are closely connected. In his way of thinking, one thing is not separate from the other, and all things tie into the big picture.
Consider round-penning the horse, and imagine if you positioned yourself in front of his head and neck to stop or turn him away from you and he blew right past you. This would be considered a violation of the handler's boundaries, and yet we continually reinforce this type of violation daily when we crowd, hand feed, smother, and generally treat the horse much like a dog. We teach him by our actions:
  • Our space is unimportant
  • His space is unimportant
  • Our rules are not consistent
Not only are our rules inconsistent, we might not really know what they are.

To the horse, there is nothing more frustrating than a lack of direction, a leader who doesn't know how to lead or where to go with that leadership.
More often than not, a crowding horse is the result of a crowding human, who does not respect the horse's space.

Understand me, I am not saying the horse is in charge and that we must cater to his needs day in and day out. And, of course, I am not saying it is never OK to stroke, rub, or fawn over your horse. But I believe whole-heartedly he deserves respect for his feelings and wishes, and if we are to expect him to respect our space, it is vital that we respect his.

I believe that he should be treated with dignity. When I pat or stroke a horse I try to maintain his and my dignity as horse and human partners and know that he knows how I feel about him without violating his space.

As Ray Hunt once said, “you get out of the horse what you put in, the way you put it in.”
If we treat him like a dog, he can never fulfill his potential as a horse, because that is just what he is.

All of us will make mistakes as we learn and grow; I have made countless of them and am still making many today. My horses tell me this – theirs is the only opinion I really hold highly. They tell me when I am handling them in a way that suits them or not. Many of us are still learning the nature of the horse as we learn to work with them and in these cases it can be really helpful to learn from a very educated horse who can fill in for you.

Time, patience, and a little humility go a long way as we work toward developing our feel. It is my sincerest hope that the budding American horseman and woman population will become invested in understanding the true nature of the horse. In spirit, body, and mind, they are just what they are – Horses.

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"There are no problem horses, only problem riders" - Mary Twelveponies