Boundaries and Horsemanship

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Boundaries are an important part of any healthy relationship and personal boundaries are extremely important when creating a safe and successful partnership with horses.

For clarity, let’s first define what I mean regarding personal boundaries.
According to Wikipedia:
Personal boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave towards them and how they will respond when someone passes those limits. They are built out of a mix of conclusions, beliefs, opinions, attitudes, past experiences and social learning.

When creating a relationship with a horse, we are striving to prove to them that we are worthy of being their leader. In order to accomplish that, we must have an understanding on how horses engage with one another as a herd. The more that you can spend time observing herd dynamics and the unspoken language within a herd, the greater chance you will have in also becoming a valuable member of the herd; a herd, being defined as when two or more horses come together and share space. When a herd is established, it is natural for those horses to determine who the “leader” will be.

Each member of a herd can be seen challenging and pushing the boundaries of the other members. This process determines who their true leader becomes. Each horse gathers valuable information about each other through the process of testing the limits of their herd mates. This activity is a trait among horses and herd dynamics, and it never stops.

Horses, as sentient beings, can read the energy and body language of humans and can quickly sum up if a person possesses healthy personal boundaries. They can sense when you are confident and comfortable within your own body. Horses are always ready to push your boundaries in order to get their way. When I say, to get their way, I don’t mean they are standing there contemplating and plotting how to get one over on you. What I mean is: horses are very social animals, curious, playful, and intelligent. They are puzzle solvers and problem resolvers. Horses know how to make their lives easier. If they believe their way is going to serve them best, then they will do it. Therefore, it is essential for a horseman to have suitable horse boundaries.

A horseman possessing these qualities has a very clear understanding of what is acceptable and what is not. This is particularly true in regards to their own comfort and safety.

For example: even the simple thing on how your horse greets you at a gate can demonstrate what having good boundaries can look like. Do you have to squeeze past your horse or push them away to get through? Or does he politely move away letting you in with plenty of room? How about leading a horse through a gate? Does your horse wait politely for your guidance, to let him go by you or allow you to go first? Or do they charge past you or even through you to get past? Another example revolves around mounting your horse for a ride? Do they stand still or walk off when you try to mount? If they walk off, what is your response?

All of these instances, although common and seemingly simple, are where horses and humans need to have healthy boundaries. First and foremost is safety. Horses are big, powerful animals and without boundaries things can go wrong, lots of things.

However, let’s look at it from the horse’s viewpoint first. They feel safest when amongst members of their own kind; a fact we can all agree on. While some horses have broader boundaries than others and may not need to be right up next to other horses, given the chance, they won’t be too far away either.

Horses have boundaries in order to stay together as a herd, which is safer than being apart or alone. Whether they live in fenced areas, or are free roaming, they know where their landscape boundaries are and the herd leaders ensure the entire herd knows these limits. Horses will assert boundaries to let other members or non-members know what they are comfortable with or what makes them uneasy, such as: how close can another horse stand near them? Or is it okay for another horse to share a flake or graze beside them?

Horses use boundaries while interacting with humans. Can you approach or saddle your horse on their right? Can you pick up their hooves? Can you bridle your horse easily? These are a few examples of how horses might have limits in connecting with us. Horses learn quickly how far they can push the boundaries with their herd mates, which includes you and me.

If you are confident as a leader, and can both create and hold boundaries, two things will happen with your horse and they will become reliable. First, you will earn your horse’s respect as their leader. They will look to you for guidance and structure, and will often choose you to be with over other members of their herd. Second, you are helping your horse to gain confidence in themselves and their confidence in the two of you as a team.

As an animal communicator I have learned, and many have agreed with me, animals never emotionally mature beyond the equivalent age of a 3-4-year-old child. Now think about that for a minute, how does a 3-4-year-old child respond to tasks such as: going out to play, or getting ice cream, or asked to do something? Sometimes they immediately act, sometimes they’re not sure how to respond, or sometimes they just don’t want to do it.

Emotionally, they let us know exactly how they feel about what they are experiencing and so do animals. Think about those times when you try to hose your horse off, or you tried to get them to take medicine. Perhaps you’ve experienced the drama of trying to get your horse to cross a stream, or had your horse try to bull over the top of you to get to the grain bucket in your hand. These are all examples of horses’ emotional maturity.

You can have very smart horses that are physically agile and seem as though they can read your mind when you’re working together. But if you don’t nurture the emotional part of your horse by setting clear, fair and firm boundaries, you will always have a horse that is either trying to take on the leadership role or a horse who becomes insecure and wary which results in your labelling the horse as untrustworthy.

Once you decide to take your relationship with your horse to the next level, that of having a holistic partnership, creating and re-enforcing healthy boundaries is the first step towards achieving that goal. Being patient and taking the time needed to help your horse understand his responsibilities in your partnership dance will strengthen the bond between the two of you. 

Horses, like small children, if allowed to do something you didn’t ask them to do, or ignore something you request from them, they will see if they can repeat the experience. But if we make a promise to our horses, to ourselves, and to our partnership, that we will always put our relationship first and if we can pause, taking the time to help our horses understand, then do the right thing, while it may take longer than you had in mind, one day you’re going to stop and realize you haven’t had do make that correction for a long time.

Most horses enjoy being with people. They are pretty willing to go along with the flow, as long as they understand, trust, and know they will be okay. While there are some horses that find it important to test their human partner’s boundaries, all horses will respect a confident leader who teaches them about clear and fair boundaries.

Many of us struggle with setting healthy boundaries in relationships. When we learn how to successfully and effectively work with a 1000-pound animal to create a safe environment, we can begin to look at all our other relationships through enlightened eyes. Setting boundaries is a way of caring for ourselves. It does NOT make you mean, selfish, or uncaring.

Whatever you are willing to put up with, is exactly what you will get!

There is boldness, strength, and confidence in being assertive enough to set firm and fair boundaries. Boundaries represent awareness and understanding of what the limits are, then respecting those limits. This is one of the most important ingredients to any successful relationship, whether with a horse or elsewhere in your life.

Do you have healthy boundaries?

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