My Horse Crowds Me
This might be one of the most common training difficulties that people find themselves up against. The worst part of this opportunity is that most horse owners don't realize that there is a problem. Some of us have become so accustomed to tugging, shoving, and reprimanding that these behaviors become an involuntary action, automatically associated with sharing space with a horse. It is normal and natural for our horses to want to crowd us, drag us and step on us, but "natural" is not a good enough excuse for disrespectful behavior.
I recently witnessed a horse crowd its "Partner" to the extreme. I was attending a Northeastern Horse Expo as a guest speaker. After finishing a demonstration with a horse that was afraid of just about everything, I walked back to my booth by way of the barns. As I passed by the second or third barn, something in the aisle-way caught my eye. I thought that I saw a foot, a human, booted foot swing out into the aisle. You might ask, "What exactly do you mean, swing out into the aisle?" The only way to describe it ... imagine that you were standing at the end of the barn, looking down the aisle, past about 40-50 stalls. Halfway down the aisle, on the right hand side is where the "swinging" took place. Every 3-4 seconds, someone in the stall would swing a boot, like on the end of a rope, out into the aisle. The boot would swing out, bounce off one side of the stall opening and then disappear for 3 or 4 more seconds. I watched the swinging boot phenomenon about 3 or 4 times before I realized what was going on. By the time I got to the stall in question, in an effort to save the human that might be hanging from the halter of a very large horse, it was too late. The horse leaped out of the stall with the rider still attached. I quickly deduced that the swinging phenomenon that I had witnessed was simply a horse owner hanging on to the horse's halter while the horse turned very fast circles in his stall. Picture a reining demonstration with a manikin tied to the headstall and you've got a pretty solid depiction.
The horse leaped out of the stall and headed toward me. The owner was now being scraped over stall door after stall door as the horse trotted towards the barn exit. My next move was to do what any self- respecting, world-famous horse behaviorist would do ... I moved out of the way. I learned a few years ago that lassoing a freight train is not one of the wisest things to attempt. Now clear of the barn, the horse trotted another 50 feet and plunged his nose into some 6" tall, mediocre at best, rye grass.
I thought to myself, "There is no way that what I just witnessed was only for some half-dead lawn." But that is what it was. The owner had opened the stall door and the horse lunged forward toward her. She grabbed on to the halter and held on with all of her might. The horse swung her around like a rag doll, dragged her down the aisle and deposited her on the wet turf because he was tired of eating second cutting T+A. " How could this horse's manners have gotten so far out of check that this gal was now bleeding on the lawn?"
I cannot answer the question, "How did things get so bad?" but I can answer the question, "How did things start to go bad?" I'm sure you've heard the phrase "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure". When teaching horses, it is always easier to fix problems at the first sign of difficulty. I'm sure you know that horses test us. They test us five times for every one time that we are aware of. If we miss the test there is no make-up date. If we don't see the test or if we ignore the test the same thing happens ... we lose ground. If we lose enough ground, the relationship will fall out from under us and we will be at the mercy of our horses' instincts.
What is the first test that our horse will give us in the classroom? The first test is one, tiny, little step into our space. This innocent mistake is the first test and more often than not it is what I would call innocent. Very few horses will deliberately test your space within the first few minutes of class. On the contrary, the horse may step into your space and realize afterwards that they are there. The first natural question that follows is, "Where is my space and where is the horse's?" This is simple. In the classroom, your classroom, all of the space is yours. You are allowing the horse to occupy your space considering he or she follows certain protocol. For the purposes of the forward movement exercises, you must allow your horse to consider some amount of space his own for the session. I think 3 feet is fair. The horse may occupy the first three feet closest to the rail. As soon as you make this boundary known, it is a bit like posting a sign on your property that you are going before the zoning board to do something with your property. As soon as your horse sees you pound that zoning sign into your classroom he will immediately develop the need to find out what is going on over there at the neighbor's place.
He will step one foot on to your property. He will probably look in the other direction when he inadvertently trespasses, and quickly resume his position on his own property. The next time he comes snooping around he will probably take three or four steps onto your property and each time will feel more comfortable about trespassing. Before you know it, he will be at the zoning board meeting pleading his eminent domain case. The laws of eminent domain state that because you have used a piece of property for a certain amount of time, you can claim a degree of ownership in and to that property. You may have heard of these laws described as "squatters rights".
Put simply, your horse feels that he can walk all over you and your property because he has been allowed to do it for so long. Your horse has become a squatter. In the classroom, watch for that first trespassing infraction. If you have set up a boundary at three feet, enforce that boundary. Do not let your horse move your property lines because he wants to own some of your property. My general attitude is that if a horse would like to purchase the right to use more of my property (in the classroom) I will gladly sell it to him. He can purchase the right to use the property by showing me respect, doing what I ask and not testing my boundaries. If you ever see me in the classroom with a horse standing in the center alongside me, you are seeing us after we have negotiated a lease on my property.
This is where the pushy horse begins to be pushy. I have used the classroom as an example but these boundaries are just as important on the longe, the lead or in the stall.
If you set up boundaries ... enforce them.
About the author:
GaWaNi Pony Boy’s profound understanding of the relationships between horse and rider draws students from all over the world, and His Relationship Training™ curriculum has become a vital part of the horse owner’s repertoire. Pony’s approach teaches the necessary skills and imparts the confidence necessary to make positive changes in the horse/human relationship. His courses, bridging all disciplines, are grounded in the firm foundation of what the horse understands best. Pony’s students learn to systematically exceed their own horsemanship goals and accomplish more than they had hoped for with their equine partners. Team Pony Boy, Pony’s far-reaching organization, offers horse owners the continued encouragement they need. To learn more about GaWaNi Pony Boy and to sign up for his free weekly email newsletter with training guidance, visit www.ponyboy.com
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