Jonathan Field: Establishing personal space - The Horse Owner's Resource

Jonathan Field: Establishing personal space

To teach a horse to keep a respectful distance, you must control his feet, earn his trust and establish your leadership.
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Q: I’ve been spending time with a friend’s yearling at the barn where I board and ride. She’s a friendly filly, and she spends the day turned out with a mix of young and older pasturemates. I have been helping out with some basic groundwork and longeing sessions. This filly leads well most of the time and she tries very hard to do what’s asked of her. But she often crowds her handler, getting as close as possible, especially when there’s a loud, scary noise or some other distraction, like another horse calling to her from the field. This can be dangerous, especially if she escalates to rearing or kicking. I’ve dealt with mature horses who don’t respect personal space before, but I haven’t experienced a young horse who gets too close when she feels uncertain or afraid. What can I do to help fix this problem?

J Field photo

A: It sounds like this filly has a great life, and I’m really pleased to hear that she gets daily turnout with pasturemates, because it presents a huge learning opportunity. The interaction and socialization this youngster gets from the other horses in the herd teaches her so much. Another huge benefit is the physical and emotional release that horses turned out with a herd enjoy; it’s much better for them than being kept alone in a box stall.

Also it sounds like this filly trusts people, so it is quite natural that she finds comfort being close to them when she is worried. She likely thinks, “You’re my comfort---let me jump in your lap so you can save me!” This speaks to her good feeling about people.

Having said that, we obviously can’t let this behavior continue. We need to teach her that she can be safe and connected to us but with some distance. This is important at this age but it will be critical when she grows to 1,000 pounds. The good news is that it’s much easier to change now.

I advise you to start training in an area where the filly feels safe. You need to have a “brain to train,” so select a location that is close enough to the herd for the filly to feel comfortable but far enough away for her to focus on her new lesson rather than her buddies. I’d start somewhere maybe 20 yards away from the herd.

After you get through the initial lessons, you can start taking the filly slightly farther away from the herd. You’ll want to do this by small increments: This progression is a lot like learning to swim in the shallow end of a pool and progressing to the deep end. Don’t try to teach her to swim in the deep end, away from the comfort of the herd.

The end goal in any training I do with my horses is to teach them to feel safe because I’m there---not because their buddies are nearby or they are accustomed to the environment or the task. To accomplish this goal, I start where it’s easy and progress to the point where the horse is prepared for all the unforeseen things that can happen. For this process to succeed there must be trust in our partnership with the horse from the beginning. Indeed, the beginning will have a large impact on the end. If I’m a trainer who constantly throws my horse in the deep part of the pool, I won’t end up with that trust I want.

The importance of being in sync 

When I’m handling a horse from the ground or riding, I want him to focus on me. How do I get that? I teach him to move in sync with me. If I move, I want to see the same amount of movement in the horse on the end of the lead or underneath me. Just as he would react in the herd naturally.

Of course that can be easier said than done, especially when a horse is doing things like rearing, kicking and escalating to a point that can be quite dangerous. And these are things a horse can do all at once and very quickly!

To get a horse in sync with you, you must first make sure you are in control of your feet. Yep, I said your feet. To understand why your control of your own feet is important, consider herd dynamics. There’s a simple way to tell which horse is the leader by watching herd members interact: The lead horse can move any one of the other horses but no one can move the lead horse’s feet. The lead horse has control of his or her own feet!

Next, consider this question: Where do all the other horses look for direction? You got it, the lead horse. Other herd members use their eyes and “radar antenna” ears to help them keep track of and stay in sync with that horse. And, of course, if they don’t, they could experience some pressure from that horse or other dominant horses in the herd.

In short, each horse subtly begins to sync with the herd leader. This is horse language at its most basic level. And this is what we need to use when training our horses. Through movement and control of space, we begin to earn the trust and respect of the horse, and we build means of communicating that he can understand. This leads to acceptance of a human as a herdmate and confidence in that person as a leader. When I play with horses, I like to keep in mind the picture of the herd lessons I’ve learned.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #453, June 2015.

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