Setting Boundaries is always a hot topic. There is the view that says you should keep your horse out of your space at all costs, another view that says setting boundaries is not necessary and you can just politely step out of the way if your horse comes in too close, and there are those who don’t really consider it at all. As usual it is all a question of finding the right balance.
Setting boundaries has nothing to do with the horse, it isn’t about putting a boundary around someone else, it is about protecting our own personal space. We all have a personal space bubble, where we feel more or less discomfort depending on how far away another being is. This may vary depending on how well we know someone and how they are behaving, but we are perfectly entitled to let someone know, including our horse, if they are invading our space and making us feel uncomfortable.
It is important to me that my horse has a voice, that she can express her opinion and doesn’t just follow my directions slavishly, but on the other hand, being given too much choice and no clear direction can also be stressful and create insecurity.
If I feel the need to be clear about creating a boundary around my own space, it is important that I also acknowledge WHY the horse feels the need to push into it sometimes. Pushing of any sort is a coping mechanism, how she copes with her own fear and insecurity, coming in close to the herd where she feels safer. If I am going to ask her to stay out of my space, I then need to follow that with something that is going to help her feel safe in that situation. If I just carry on regardless I am not listening to or understanding her point of view and then we lose trust.
You cannot expect your horse to respect your space if you don’t also recognise, respect and understand their fear.
I am horrified by some of the “advice” that is dished out to people who are seeking help with their horses – it’s like something out of the dark ages. What is it that makes human beings want to make animals bend to their will, regardless of how they are coping (or not) with a particular situation. All behaviour is communication. If your horse is displaying behaviours that are being labelled as difficult, bad, naughty, disrespectful or problematic they are letting you know that they have a problem, not that they are a problem. Maybe they are in pain or afraid. If they are walking all over you and cannot hear you they are not disrespectful, they are highly fearful and in survival mode.
If we choose to go down the route of dominance and control, this always involves inflicting pain, discomfort or fear on some level. We may succeed in shutting down these behaviours by making the horse too fearful to display them, but we are also asking them to suppress strong emotions. This results in a horse who is either dull and unresponsive (depressed) or unpredictable and explosive (anxious/stressed). And if they are stressed chances are we are too. Is this the sort of relationship you want with your horse, one that is built on pain and fear?
There is another way, and it’s not them, but you who needs to change something.
Step off the merry-go-round of life for a moment. The one where we are so intent on success and winning the battles, where we are so focused on some imaginary future that we have completely lost touch with what is happening right here and now. Horses have no interest in our goals, only how they are feeling right now in this moment, and for a lot of them, it’s not great.
Just STOP! Be present. Be mindful. Listen to your horse without reaction or judgement. Allow them to express how they feel and give them a voice. Help them feel safe. Develop self-awareness and acknowledge your own fears which arise in this process – this isn’t about fear of your horse, but the innate fears which hold you back in life. Your sensitive horse sees them even before you do – they will highlight where you are contained by your our conditioned past if you are open enough to hear it. This is what they are showing you with their behaviour, they don’t feel safe and you can only help them if you let go of your own fear, find your truth and connect to yourself and them on a deeper level. Replace fear and control with trust and cooperation.
Last week in my Tai Chi class, our teacher remarked on how
the Tai Chi masters are able to access a timeless quality in their mind, how a
single moment can last almost indefinitely.
This is what it means to be truly present. Most humans are
in too much of a hurry to linger in a timeless presence, always looking forward
to the next place where they would rather be or dwelling on some past event and
unable to let go of the associated negative emotions. Animals on the whole also
experience this timeless presence – they are unaware of time passing and have
no need to watch the clock. This is why many can find it so hard to truly find
the authentic connection with their animals which we all seek. We can only
connect authentically in the present moment – and we both have to be there.
Unfortunately domesticated animals can be less present than
their native counterparts. Why is this? Look at animals in the wild, even the
herd of antelope can be quiet and calm with a lion near by if he does not
happen to be looking for his next lunch at the time. The only time wild animals
experience a sense of urgency is when their safety and survival depend on it.
How often are we humans going about our everyday activities with a sense of
urgency, because it all has to be done within a certain time frame – our
animals feel this, and inadvertantly we put them on red alert for danger.
Have you noticed how your horse responds when you appear
with a halter, or your dog with a lead? Are they really excited to see us and
about what we are about to do next? Maybe they are already putting themselves
on red alert in response to the sense of urgency we bring with us, together
with an item which means a degree of constraint and therefore removing the
chance of escape from this impending situation.
How can we change this feeling? By accessing that feeling of
timeless presence which exists in all of us when we remove the pressure of
time. Being fully present and working at the animal’s pace during the time we
share with them, has health and well being benefits for all concerned.
This is my mission, to access this place of timeless
presence, to work at an animal’s pace towards a mutually beneficial goal which is not only enjoyable for one half of the partnership; and
as a teacher to help others to do the same.
A discussion on bitless bridles inevitably brings up the
subject of control. I am not passing judgement on anyone who rides in a bit, everyone
has their own reasons for doing what they do – I have spent more years using a
bit than not, I am just sharing my own discoveries in recent years.
I believe that if a horse is in a high emotional state they are unable to “hear” you, meaning your requests have no effect. You then have 2 options:
To shout louder – in other words use stronger
aids or equipment. This I would call CONTROL.
the horse’s emotional state so that they ARE able to hear you on a more subtle
level, you are then able to hold a dialogue. This I would call COMMUNICATION.
High emotional states may be caused by fear, pain, misunderstanding or generally feeling unsafe. If my horse becomes emotional in certain situations, instead of trying to control her (which would mean I could get her to do what I want, but wouldn’t necessarily help her feel any better about it), I would question should I be putting her in this situation where she is unable to cope? How can I help her to feel better/safer so that we can retain a comfortable level of communication, so neither of us has to go louder or stronger?
Grace can be a highly emotional horse. In the days when I tried to control her she
could frequently be seen standing on her hind legs or galloping away without
me, lead line trailing in the wind….. Over the years I have put an enormous
effort into understanding how she feels (and how I feel for that matter) and
making it a priority to help her feel better, safer, giving her more freedom
and more choice; even if she does become emotional, she will now choose to stay
with me – as long as she can trust me to listen, understand and have a
conversation; not force her into situations that are more than she can handle.
If you cannot help a horse to cope then they will engage their own coping
mechanisms – which we know as fight, flight or freeze – unfortunately also
commonly known as bad behaviour. Then
you are back to the above 2 options again, CONTROL it, or know that all behaviour
is COMMUNICATION and continue the dialogue.
stillness – a place of quiet confidence, free from judgement, expectation or
attachment to outcomes, where we can reduce our thinking levels and find space
for our intuition to come to the surface.
This is the
mental/emotional state we can access through meditation practice. The value of
this practice is that it gives us the tools to access a more mindful approach
when we are interacting with our horses (or other animals in our life).
The Trust Technique
is a meditation practice that we can do WITH our animals. As well as focusing
on being present we “listen” by observing behaviour, with a time frame that is
led by them, teaching us to work at their pace.
Then when we
interact with them, focused presence in stillness becomes focused attention in
action. We continue the practice of listening through observation and working
at their pace from a place of quiet confidence.
Technique can be taught in one session, but it is not the learning of it that
creates change but the practice. What is it that can make it so difficult to be
still for a few minutes each day, just holding space and observing an animal that
needs your help? Whatever it is, it is what gets in the way of real progress –
that desire to be doing, getting on with it, wanting to be or feeling you
should be somewhere other than where you are right now, that makes us push on
We are so
over-stimulated in our modern world that sitting quietly can be a challenge –
it appears as if nothing of interest is happening. But when we can find that
inner stillness we notice the subtleties of communication which we miss on a
daily basis. That is why horses can surprise us with sudden unexpected
behaviours – they were telling us something all along, but our minds were too
full of chatter for us to notice. They have to do something big to drag us back
into the present moment and get us to listen.
Be present, create
the space to listen to your horse and yourself and learn to work at their pace
– it’s all you need.
It used to be one of my biggest fears – not knowing what to
do. I felt I should have all the answers to everything, and the answers had to
be the “right” ones. The ones I’d been taught, or read in a book, or heard from
some expert of other. But what happens when you don’t know what to do, when
you’re left with that helpless feeling, or even feeling useless?
The journey I have travelled with Grace has included
learning to tap into my intuition or “inner knowing”, and this starts with listening.
When you think you know all the answers you’re not necessarily open to hearing
something new. Having no idea what to do
can be your greatest gift. Time to
pause, ask the question, “What do you need from me right now?”
This is when just being, and not doing, can open doors,
ideas may spring from nowhere. This is not the time to analyse, or ask if this
is the “right” thing to do. Just follow
your gut and do it, you may be surprised by the outcome….
The biggest hurdle to this “trusting your gut” is
self-doubt. Why should I believe this idea that has come from nowhere? It’s not
anything I have heard before so it cannot be right. What if it is the wrong
thing to do and I make a big mistake? It is the opposite to what everyone else
is doing, it cannot be right. Then you may find out down the line that someone
else has tried something similar with great success. Then the validation of
another human being makes it OK. It is human nature, we all have doubts at some
point, it is all about learning to trust and believe in yourself, this is what
gives your horse the confidence to trust in you.
I have just spent two inspiring days at The Donkey Sanctuary at The Trust Technique’s Practitioner Day followed by their open I Have a Dream Day. I have heard James and Shelley’s message over and over again during the last 2 years, but on each hearing there is a realisation of how much I still fall short of the ideal and the inspiration and motivation to continue to do better for the animals (and people) in my life.
I want to focus on something James said which really struck
“There is a gap between what we say we feel about our
animals and what we actually do.”
Everybody says they love their animals – and they truly do,
but do their actions genuinely support their words?
I have been aware of this gap in my interactions with Grace
for a long time, but I saw it in a slightly different way – on one side my
agenda – what I want from her, and on the other side what she wants from me and
how she feels about what I want. I really love this different perspective – on one
side what we say and on the other what we do. This has brought to me some
clarity about this gap. Like many of my species I am often looking for instant
gratification. I jump out of bed in the morning motivated to do better, I work
really hard at it, I don’t see the
results I want quickly enough, I get a bit frustrated, maybe even “give up” a
little bit and then have to start again.
It’s easy really – all we have to do is listen to our
animals – they tell us with their behaviour and their actions everything we
need to know to close that gap. But we need to listen, hear it and act on it. Sometimes
we listen and we don’t hear. Sometimes we hear and we don’t act. Sometimes we
listen and we pretend we haven’t heard because it doesn’t suit us. I’m as
guilty of that as the next man.
It’s very easy to watch experts at work and think that Rome
can be built in a day. We can then set out on our new journey with some high
expectations which are soon disappointed. This is why approaching every session
as if you are seeing your animal for the first time and being present and
acting in the moment is so important.
Don’t get me wrong some people can get incredibly quick
results with the Trust Technique. I have seen changes in an animal with quite
extreme issues within the space of a week – “co-incidentally” their humans
committed fully to the practice – they really put their animals first and stuck
Like many others, I don’t find it so easy. All sorts of things can slow things down – lack of commitment, lack of trust – in the animal, the technique or yourself, lack of self-belief, impatience, frustration – the list goes on. The animal may be highly sensitive – it is then so much easier to make a mistake as we misread or mishear. And of course every human is different, every animal is different, every combination is different and every situation is different, so results will vary widely and is no reflection on “how good you are” at this.
Maybe like me you sometimes pretend you don’t hear what you
don’t want to hear – so your actions don’t support your good intentions. Then
you have robbed something from the relationship bank account which now needs
paying back before you can get back in credit.
What I do know is the more time you are in the present
moment, the more awareness you develop, the quicker you can get back on track
and the more you close the gap.
If the gap is 100 miles wide and you can only close it by a few millimetres at a time – you are still doing better for the animals and people in your life, you are still shaking off the shackles of your conditioned past, the rules and beliefs that you have followed (even if they didn’t really feel right) and moving ever closer to honouring your true self.
Of course it is named after my horse Grace, but the word grace has multiple meanings. The obvious ones are clearly appropriate to training a horse towards the ideal, both in terms of our aims for the horse but also the behaviour of the human.
“Elegance and beauty
of movement or expression”
“A sense of propriety
and consideration for others”
“A disposition to
kindness and compassion”
But recently another definition has come to my attention
“Bring honour to someone
by one’s attendance or participation”
I would say that for me without doubt this is the most
important of all, and you would be hard pushed to achieve the others without
Does your horse grace
you with their presence? Or do they avoid connecting with you through avoidance,
distraction or closing down?
Do they honour you with their participation? Or do they comply through coercion and bribery?
Are you focused on the outcomes of your training or the
honour of your horse?
Before you can expect your horse to trust you, first you must trust your horse and even before that trust yourself.
What does this mean?
It means accepting that whatever is happening right here, right now in this present moment is O.K. You don’t have to like it, but no amount of resistance to it or wishing for something else will change anything.
It means looking at your horse and understanding how they are feeling right now and knowing what you can do in this moment to help them feel better.
It is knowing that you can let go of any expectations of yourself or your horse and any “what if”s or “I should”s.
It means neither attaching yourself to or fearing a particular outcome, allowing yourself to be open to the inifinite number of possibilities that could arise in the next moment.
It means not blaming yourself, your horse or anyone else if you make a mistake – it happens!
The only thing you can ever do is your best in any given moment and that is always good enough.
It was almost 2 years ago that I was listening to “Pause for Thought” on the radio in the car. It was all about WAITING NOT WANTING and I immediately realised that I was hearing an important message. To become more of a human horses needed me to be, I had just started out on the long process of consciously transforming from a “Human Doing” to a “Human Being”. I had been mulling over how I was having a bit of a wobble because I felt like I was not able to do what I WANTED with Grace if I was going to give her the time and space that she needed. This is what I wrote at the time…
“WAITING not WANTING has become my mantra. I have too much WANT for outcomes, success, recognition. It is this that has underpinned everything I do. When things are not going well all my fears are around not being good enough, not being successful, how others will view this, fear of not achieving my goals, being afraid to step back and wait because my progress will falter and I will never succeed if I don’t keep working away day after day to solve everything that isn’t right, like an obsession. And it happens straight away,as soon as one tiny thing doesn’t fall into place, as soon as perfection starts to leave me behind. Telling myself none of this matters – it’s just Grace and me,means the nagging voice kicks in and tells me it does matter and feelings of anxiety and even panic start to arise. So now I can catch myself wanting to be somewhere else in my journey, wanting to do something else, wanting to be better, wanting Grace to be better – to satisfy my nagging ego.
Then I remind myself
of WAITING not WANTING
I need to re-calibrate my dreams and goals, so that our success is in the beauty of what we do together and not the results for everyone else’s benefit.”
Looking back this has been one of the most important lessons I have learned and is still very relevant today, although by comparison I WANT a lot less and WAIT a lot more. I am much more prepared to work at the horse’s pace even if it means dropping my own agenda.
Horses have no concept of time and our need to get things done yesterday or to boost our ego has no meaning for them, and the energy we project at this time is not appealing to them.
If we can WAIT for them instead of WANT something else our energy is much more attractive to them and they will be far more willing and motivated to join with us in our activities without worry or stress. This is what I practice on a daily basis and how I like to support others who may feel as if their horse does not do or give them what they want.