Boundaries, in my opinion, are such an underrated thing. They can take on a negative connotation because they imply confrontation at times, which can be uncomfortable. Most people confuse boundaries with abuse or mean-spirited behavior. But boundaries, with humans or with horses, carry a magic to them, a magic that I didn’t discover until my late twenties.
I had to learn the hard way that we teach people how to treat us.
If we want them to be kind to us, we have to teach them that we are not okay with rude comments. If we want them to respect our privacy, we have to show them where our personal space begins. And if we want them to love us, we have to be vulnerable enough to show them how we receive love.
We cultivate our relationships based on the communication of those boundaries. When we show what we are and are not okay with, we’ve drawn out a sacred space where a relationship can move in and make itself a home. When I finally started getting the hang of boundaries in my life, toxic relationships faded quickly, and more wholesome relationships started to emerge.
And really, horses are no different. Sure, they cannot consider our human-equine partnership at the level that we can. But they do understand and desire leadership, belonging, and safety. Believe it or not, boundaries are what catalyze all these things.
When we exemplify leadership through boundaries with our horses, we allow them to mature into the best horse they possibly can be.
The lack of boundaries, on the other hand, can cause an otherwise talented and kind horse to become dangerous. Without boundaries, your hose could become a liability, a problem, or a project.
Boundaries Promote Safety By:
- Teaching your horse that safe behavior is in their best interest. (Read more about the Pressure and Release Training Method).
- Eliminating confusion in your horse. Consistency will make them less tense and fearful, and less likely to spook or react in a bottled up tantrum.
- Establishing your Leadership. This will lead to happier rides for your horse and safer rides for you, especially in new situations. While they may not know what to do in a new situation, they will still look to you for guidance.
When we work with our horses, we don’t want them to be in trouble. We don’t want them to misbehave or overreact or spook. But in order to bring forth an even-tempered horse in our training, we need to implement boundaries consistently in the smallest things.
For example, if I let my horse rush ahead of me when coming out of the stall, will he listen to me when I ask him to stop on the trail?
Horses, when allowed to practice bad habits, will persist in their bad behavior, and often escalate to worse behavior.
What we don’t often think about in handling is how our horse suffers for our lack of boundaries. Most domesticated horses are bred to be submissive. With the herd mentality in mind, the more submissive horses are expecting to be led by the dominant horse. In the dynamic between you and your horse, you are the dominant leader.
By not stepping up into your leadership role, you risk making your horse feel like he/she needs to step up on your place. For most domesticated horses, this produces fear, because they don’t necessarily want to lead. This is why a “misbehaved” horse might be more prone to spooking. Their bad behavior is rooted in fear.
To make matters worse, when we don’t implement small boundaries, we will overcompensate when our horses escalate their behavior. This only produces more confusion, tension, and fear in our horses around being handled. The combination of all these factors ultimately create a dangerous horse.
If you are just learning about boundaries for the first time, do not worry. The amazing thing about boundaries is that they start to take effect immediately. Follow these simple steps to start transforming your partnership with your horse from hazardous to healthy.
How to Implement Healthy Boundaries
Don’t Allow Bad Habits to Form or Persist
I know we all struggle with this one from time to time, we need to draw a line with bad habits in our horses: habits like stomping their feet, anxious movement at the mounting block, biting, kicking, rushing past you when walking, or ignoring your aids. Stop them as soon as you see this behavior, and use the Pressure and Release Method to reinforce a better one.
When your horse knows exactly what is expected of him/her, he/she will more willingly trust your leadership and be at peace. Not knowing how you’ll react to a given situation can cause confusion. A confused horse will more often be tense, fearful, flighty, or aggressive.
Be the Leader
This is hard for us meeker personality types. Horses are big animals, and we don’t necessarily want to piss them off. But by not reminding them that you’re the leader in smaller struggles will almost always lead to a bigger dominance struggle. If you allow this to escalate, you could end up in a new and scary situation on the back of a horse that won’t listen to your direction.
Reward Positive Change
When teaching your horse which behaviors are not okay, it is equally important to show them the behaviors that you favor. Simple rewards include a pat on their neck, soothing touch or tone of voice, or providing them a break from their task. This will reinforce their training more effectively, and possibly cut down training time altogether.
Stay in the Playground
I thought that exercising boundaries would kill me when I started to practice them. With horses and humans, I thought that no one would want to be around me when I wasn’t agreeable. But what I found instead was that boundaries provide the other half of a partnership a means to relate to you and trust you.
If you are consistent with what behavior you will allow, your horse will respond.
Boundaries are not complicated at all, but they can be hard. Just keep in mind the positive behavior that you want from your horse. You will then be able to respond to that behavior while it’s still in its simplest form. When you reward the baby steps towards progress, your horse will be encouraged and learn more quickly.
This create a safer handling and riding experience for you. But more importantly, it will set your horse’s mind at ease, knowing that he’s not the one that has to call the shots. And remember, always, that your horse is not against you, he’s just waiting for you to be the leader.
Do so with kindness, and you’ll have a loyal horse forever.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do horses protect themselves?
When a horse can’t outrun danger, one of their instincts is to fight back. (The third response is to completely freeze.)
They use their teeth, hooves, and sheer size as weapons. They also will typically give plenty of warning signs.
Your task, as a horse person, is to watch for and recognize those signs. For example, a horse rarely bites without pinning his ears and swinging its head toward the offender first. Even then, a lunge or a nip often occurs before a full-on “skin ripping” bite.
How should you deal with an aggressive horse?
Before you deal with a truly aggressive horse, you should work with a trainer one-on-one to learn how to earn a horse’s respect. You’ll apply many of the same concepts when working with an aggressive horse.
For example, you cannot wait for the horse to show dangerous behavior to correct it. Every sign of disrespect needs to be addressed so that this horse knows you’re paying attention, and that you’re not going to let anything slide.
You also need to be exceptionally aware of where your body is in relation to the horse so that you can always keep yourself out of kicking or biting range.
Can a horse attack you?
Yes, but it is rare. Horses also don’t typically attack without warning or without reason, which is why it’s important to be able to read their body language. In general, stallions and mares with foals are more likely to display aggressive behavior.
How long does it take for a stallion to calm down after being gelded?
According to the American Association of Equine Practitioners, testosterone – the hormone responsible for stallions’ tendency toward aggressive or difficult behavior – will gradually decrease in the horse’s system over several weeks.
Even though this helps, castration is not necessarily a magical cure for poor behavior. Horses gelded at an older age may continue to display behavior problems out of habit. Geldings who previously bred mares also tend to continue to act “stud-ish” when exposed to mares in heat.
Can horses kill each other?
Yes, but it is quite infrequent. Because horses feel safe with other horses, they rarely intend to inflict real harm to each other. Killing another horse removes another set of eyes and ears that can alert the herd to predators, for example.
Stallions, however, operate with a different set of rules. They get very possessive of their herd, and a stallion-on-stallion fight can get brutal. Still, the fight ends when one horse admits defeat, and this tends to happen before any real harm is done. Regardless, a kick to the head or a bite that severs an artery could result in death.
P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:
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