The Halycon Acres herd naturally safely shares space with human visitors

Friday’s Opinion

It’s troubling to see so much being put out there offering formula approaches to reach every horse. The latest mantra seems to be “respect my space” and is often used as an excuse to dominate a horse into submission. This is especially prevalent among novices, who spout the term with conviction, nod in agreement to the need, yet fail to really understand what they are doing to the horse. Sadly, they’re getting this belief from some self-proclaimed professionals. Novices are sponges when it comes to learning, and I think we need to get a better message out there to ensure future happiness – and safety – for horses and their human handlers.

Do you really want to teach a horse to learn through fear, exhaustion or pain to surrender to you? Wouldn’t it be better for both horse and human if space was shared and respect was mutual?

Sure, there’s a time and a place to send a horse off, curtail rude behavior or demand compliance, but for the truly happy partnerships, this is rare.

Smart horses with heart make the greatest competitors if allowed to chip in to the team effort (although they’re certainly not the best mounts for novice riders). Given the opportunity to contribute to the conversation and goal, these horses will outperform more able equines on heart alone. They’ll also turn into eager pleasers once introduced to a human they can respect on their terms. Sadly, the respect conviction some hold, practice and promote that encourages an “alpha” persona (another misunderstood concept) can rob these horses of their spirit as they are demanded to conform to a process that doesn’t consider their input.

Additionally, young horses in particular (now often in novice’s hands) need to be heard, understood and considered individually in training regimens. Putting rote boundaries in place to teach the horse to avoid you until called doesn’t give him a lot of confidence (in himself or you) during the learning process. Some horses are timid, frightened or leery.  Such horses usually thrive when offered a kind, helpful and patient approach “in your space.” Using formula programs that discipline him for having the courage to approach you is counterproductive if the aim is a well-adjusted horse.

Those of you who follow this blog know we had a group from an assisted living facility visiting the herd at Halcyon Acres this month. None of these horses have been programmed to “respect” an invisible perimeter around people. It’s a good thing too, because the experience for these residents would have been far less rewarding – and probably more dangerous.

Instead, these horses are all asked to follow a few simple rules (get along or you’re out of the herd; go into your proper stall without a lead when you’re brought into the barn; no biting, kicking or aggression toward humans; I decide who’s coming in first – and last; and a few other basic requests to help keep all safe and farm operations running smoothly). They’re allowed to be friendly and sociable with humans, and relish the opportunity to approach known and unknown people for a pet and a visit. Of course, each gets customized training in ground work and under saddle training and because they are offered a say in the process, they are eager to have a job to do and choose to watch for and respect requests. Consequently, they can be trusted to be smart, safe and responsive when any human comes into the mix. It’s not about dictating compliance – it’s a mutual trust and understanding that develops from two-way communications.

I have to say, I don’t get this “my space, your space” approach. Of course, there’s a lot to body language with horses and with this arsenal, you can usually put a horse just about anywhere you want. So, it’s hard for me to see why training a horse to avoid you makes any sense at all. I certainly haven’t encountered a horse (at least not yet) that shines when respect is a one-way street. For me, I’d rather encourage horses (both client and farm-owned) to join the conversation and tell me how to make the experience fun, exciting and engaging for them. If that means the herd expresses their excitement at training time and jockeys for position to be first in line, I’m OK with that. In fact, it’s rewarding to have horses that not only enjoy training, but also anticipate the joy to the point they’re competing for the attention. If all were forced to succumb to a formula approach and were “trained” to “respect my space,” I don’t imagine they’d be so eager to saddle up.  Different strokes, I guess.

4 Responses

  1. Nanette,
    This is a really tricky subject. Although many popular training methods offer ‘respecting space’ as a training topic, little is understood or explained about the truth of how the words respect and space should be viewed as a concept for good relationship with one’s horse.

    Synonyms for respect include: high esteem, high opinion, admiration or value. However, many define respect as obedience and submission; which although technically are synonymous with respect, are oppositional when horse’s are involved.

    Respect needs to be mutual when dealing with horses if you care to have a horse you can trust or one who trusts you. The concept of mutual respect in most people’s minds rarely include obedience and submission to the horse. By its own definition, you can start to see the conflict stir…and there will be conflict you can count on that. They don’t tell you that one in the book or video do they?

    Also, how many out there, novice or professional would consider submitting to a horse’s wishes or even have a go at listening to them for that matter? Not many have the confidence or level of understanding to do so, which by the way, has little to do with a horse willingly and deliberately walking all over you. (yet another misconception) A horse with whom you share mutual respect would never think of that unless scared or startled out of his mind. Even then he would offer to try his hardest to refrain from hurting you, sometimes at his own expense.

    Now we have to talk about space. Space is synonymous with liberty, breathing room and freedom. In many methods of training, space is thought of as being something that is mine, not yours and even though I may invade your freedom, you may not invade mine unless an invitation is offered. So space is not offered as equal either. So the two words when placed in the same sentence, can be complimentary to relationship and fostering partnership or regrettably in most cases, oppositional. I personally prefer not to be in opposition with a 1100lb. creature who shows no ill intent, especially when ill intent is usually a human instilled behavior in a horse.

    In my experience, successful relationship and partnership with a horse strives for balance. Sometimes one or the other shoulders more of the load. If the relationship is balanced respect is mutual, respecting the humans personal space is a non-issue.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Katelyn. Your point about being safer with a horse that truly respects you is a good one.

    I agree with most of what you have to say above (in fact, different words, but I was trying to communicate this idea in the blog post), but would like to think people are open to listening to a horse if given the tools to do so.

    You’re right, of course – mutual respect is important if you’re looking for trust.

  3. Nanette,

    I have come across horses that did not “respect my space”-and they are dangerous. Both would raise their heads and walk right over the top of me-like I wasn’t even there at all. One-an Anglo-Arab even charged me on a lunge line-and I had to defend myself with the lunge whip! These horses do exist. They are very dominant and they are scary to be around.

    That said-I only ask of any horse the same courtesies that one horse asks of another. Yes, I did break the whip over the head of that horse that charged-but if he had charged another horse, he likely would have been bitten or kicked! (It took some doing, but we came to an understanding and he went on to become a fine little hunter.)

    My view is this–my safety comes first, then the horse’s. In order to have that, we have to respect each other’s strength and abilities. But I have to be safe-period. Since that horse is so much stronger, faster, and more reactive than I am, it is imperative that the horse respect my space at all times-no questions. If that doesn’t happen, something is wrong. My horses know that is their responsibility-keep me safe. When I’m safe-I’m happy. When I’m happy–EVERYBODY stays happy.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Ellen. I certainly understand your concern for safety – that’s something I strive for too. Clearly, having a horse ‘walk right over the top’ of you is something that needs to be addressed, and that’s not something permissable around here.

      Of course, different horses ask for courtesy in different ways and if this farm herd is indicative of the norm, the ones that get the most respect are those that don’t demand it, but operate with a kind confidence that causes the other horses to want to follow, emulate and please them. In fact, the most effective approach the herd uses to improve the behavior of a bad actor (usually a young gelding or colt) is to isolate him from the herd and then ignore him – sometimes for months.

      I’ve certainly had my share of dangerous horses come through Halcyon Acres, but I haven’t found the agressive ones respond very well to combative behavior (or physical corrections). These horses have been conditioned to behave the way they do through prior handling, though, so it may be a very different situation than what you faced with with your Anglo-Arab. Anyway, a horse that has been turned mean (by people) tends to get more violent and determined if you respond to their agressive actions in kind (they’ve been taught that their only release comes when they disable the human tormentor). So, I wouldn’t recommend to anyone that they try to intimidate these horses with force or pain as it just underscores their belief humans are the enemy and gives them an excuse to attack. What I have found to be effective with such cases is isolation initially (from other horses and humans if they don’t approach in a safe fashion) and then, once they start calling for you begging for some contact (I’ve never had it take more than ten days even with the most severe cases), figuring out what they like to do and focusing on those activities with a lavish reward for the cooperation. This does take time and should not be tackled by a novice.

      I’m glad to hear your charging horse turned out to ‘become a fine little hunter.’

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