My last horse was a 17.2-hand Hanoverian-Thoroughbred cross. He was HUGE and a bit goofy, with a full-blown case of “Overgrown Puppy” Syndrome (something I’ve witnessed in other big, sweet horses more than once). Having been “horseless” for several years before “G” came into my life, I was rather indulgent with myself, and with him, lolling in the romance of having a horse of my own again. That admission of foolishness aside, I found it truly difficult to reconcile my own desire to work with him in a positive manner, to show him how much I adored him, and yet keep him from—innocently or not—literally stepping all over me.
“Just because you love your horse, and just because you are nice to him…it doesn’t mean you can’t establish safe and fair boundaries,” writes renowned horsewoman and animal behaviorist Linda Tellington-Jones in her new book DRESSAGE WITH MIND, BODY & SOUL. “This, I feel, is key to horse training of any sort….So often riders make the mistake of assuming that in order to be kind, they must allow the horse to do whatever he wants, or make the horse utterly dependent upon them. I feel this is a trap…The point I must make here is that it doesn’t have to be one way or the other—that is, cold and forceful or kind and soft. There are many ways you can set firm and fair boundaries…you can be just and even-handed with your horse while remaining safe and always respectful.”
This distinction of Linda’s is a bit of a wake-up call for me. I admit I am a pacifist, and on top of that, I abhor confrontation. Stir in my passion for animals and my desire to somehow help right the many wrongs we humans inflict on other creatures the world over, and you have the perfect combination of Little-Miss-Wuss-Meets-Animal-Advocate. The only thing that kept me from getting smushed, crunched, stomped, banged, and rubbed to bits by my new horse was a lifetime of horse experience and a pretty decent riding-and-training education. But Linda’s words reminded me of my earlier years with horses, working with tough cases, problem horses, and green-broke Mustangs. Establishing boundaries with a smack on an encroaching shoulder or a timely tug on the chain lead had never given me pause before. What was it about establishing boundaries that I now found so difficult?
“As a trainer, you need your horse’s respect and attention in order to teach him and gain his trust,” says world famous horseman and clinician Clinton Anderson in his new book PHILOSOPHY. “Establishing your personal space will help you stay safe while doing just that. The first thing your horse has to understand is that you are fragile and he needs to be careful around you…By establishing your personal ‘Hula Hoop’ space (a four-foot circle that surrounds you), you’ll keep yourself safe while working with your horse and earning his respect. Your horse should only enter your personal space if you specifically invite him into it. Otherwise, he should keep a respectful, safe distance.”
Bingo! I need to remember that I am FRAGILE. Yes, I’m the caregiver in the horse/human relationship, but as Clinton says, we need to tell our horses to take care of US. That is an honestly come by reason for establishing respect when working with an animal ten times our weight.
Here’s how Clinton Anderson tells us to establish a personal Hula Hoop space to help keep us safe when working with horses:
1 While holding your horse, draw a circle all around you in the dirt with a four-foot-long training stick or dressage whip. Your horse must stay beyond the tip of your stick when you bend forward and reach with your arm toward him—about seven feet away from you.
2 Teach your horse to maintain this distance by backing him away whenever he moves in closer to you (note: on his own vs. when you invite him in). Back him away by wiggling the lead rope and swinging your stick from side to side in front of you as you walk toward him. Your goal is for him to move back the instant your body language tells him to, so move toward him with as much energy as necessary to get his attention. Alternate the “wiggle-and-wave” method with a second body position: Carry your stick as if it were a ski pole and literally “march” in an exaggerated motion toward your horse until he moves back. When he takes a step back, stop and praise him.
CLICK HERE TO READ A FREE EXCERPT FROM PHILOSOPHY (click on Look Inside on the right side of the page)
CLICK HERE TO READ A FREE EXCERPT FROM DRESSAGE WITH MIND, BODY & SOUL (click on Look Inside on the right side of the page)
–Rebecca Didier, Senior Editor
Rebecca is the coauthor of Linda Tellington-Jones’ new book Dressage with Mind, Body & Soul and believes that often an “aha” moment comes when we see that two horsepeople who may come from very different backgrounds and who approach challenges in very different ways offer the same advice. Rebecca does not subscribe to any one training method, but in her own work with horses, strives to find the best ideas and methods from the many different riders, trainers, and horse experts to whom she feels lucky to be exposed on a regular basis.