When I meet a new horse we often go through what I call ‘the conversation’. This is where we check each other out and decide how we’re going to progress from that point. To someone looking on not a lot is happening but between the horse and myself there’s HEAPS going on. The best way to explain it is by describing an encounter I had a few days ago.
I met a lovely filly for the first time after being called in to assist her new owner. I asked if I could hold her while we stood in the round-yard talking about what had been happening so far. Her owner said she was a flighty thing and was always barging into his space and never standing still. As I stood there the filly tried to push her head into my space so I raised my hand to block her and her head went straight again. I reached out and rubbed her on the forehead then resumed talking to her owner. She tried it again and I blocked her and rewarded her when she stood calmly with her head facing forward. Then she tried turning away from me and tuning me out so I gently brought her head back to the centre. She did this a few times then decided to walk forward. I let her walk but only in tiny circles around me while I rotated on the spot. She did a few laps then decided to stop, at which point I released pressure on the rope and rubbed her forehead. She walked off again and I let her but this time she decided to stop a lot sooner. Within a few minutes she was standing there calmly, not trying to barge into my space, not trying to tune me out and not trying to walk off. She had her head forward, a relaxed neck and a soft eye.
In my conversation I'd explained to the filly that I have personal body space which she can’t push into uninvited and that to be with me was the easiest thing to do. Because I let her decide when to stop moving forward, she’d had a thought process, had made a decision, which is very different to forcing her to stand still, it sticks better. I didn’t give her a hard time about anything, just showed her where it was comfortable, with me. When I walked off she then followed me effortlessly, because she had chosen to be with me. I didn’t send her around in circles so she would join up with me, I just had a conversation with her.
I asked the owner to repeat what I’d done. Immediately he stood very close, almost under the fillys neck, and she started playing with him, pushing into his space. Both the human and horse fussing with each other. I asked him to respect the horse’s body space, ‘the bubble’. We’re asking the horse to respect our space, but it has to be a two way thing. When he did the horse swung her head into his space again, but now it was easy to block with his arm because he had some space. She stood there then tried it again, another block. She tried all her usual tricks, she walked off, turned away, fussed and fidgeted but he didn’t play her game. He stood there calmly and clearly showed her he wasn’t playing anymore. After a while she was being as respectful with her owner as she had been with me, the dynamics of their relationship set on a clearer and safer path.
I find most horses will ask similar questions when they first meet a human. The trick is to give them good answers. This is not about making the horse do anything, it’s about giving answers that the horse can understand and respect. If you have this conversation right at the beginning it saves a lot of time and work later.
Suzy Maloney B.Eq.Sc.
Happy Horses Bitless
Lismore, NSW, Australia
Ph: 0401 249 263
Facebook: Happy Horses Bitless Bridles