Es­tab­lish­ing per­sonal space

To teach a horse to keep a re­spect­ful dis­tance, you must con­trol his feet, earn his trust and es­tab­lish your lead­er­ship.

EQUUS - - Contents - By Jonathan Field Pho­tos by Robin Dun­can

To teach a horse to keep a re­spect­ful dis­tance, you must con­trol his feet, earn his trust and es­tab­lish your lead­er­ship.

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?

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.


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.

1. Meet Gol­drush, a year­ling Ara­bian colt who was raised for quite a while like a Labrador dog. That ended when he be­came danger­ous and I got a des­per­ate call for help from his owner. The fol­low­ing pho­tos show some of the steps I took with Gol­drush on...

6. Ask­ing for many dif­fer­ent yields will be im­por­tant for Gol­drush’s fu­ture. Here I ask for a turn on the fore­hand. I will also ask him to move over side­ways and do a turn on the hindquar­ters. 7. When Gol­drush is quiet and soft, we can share a nice...

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