The question that often arises, “If my horse is taught to respect my personal space, will that make him hard to catch or not love me anymore? Shouldn’t my horse also be my buddy?” If you have ever wondered the same thing, this article is for you.
Is Your Horse Also Your Buddy?
To begin, we need to address the mistake of projecting human emotions onto our horses. Remember that horses are wired differently than humans. Their brains are mainly concerned with survival and body maintenance. Their emotions are more primitive and instinctual. If a horse’s behavior conveys that he ‘likes’ us and wants to be our buddy, you can bet it’s because we are meeting his instinctual need for leadership and safety. It’s not for the same reasons that humans befriend each other.
I am an avid proponent of helping your horse know that your personal space is to be respected. He should not ever come into your space unless you ask him to come in. This is huge for establishing leadership and trust. A great exercise for that is what we call, Feeding With A Flag. The concept is that any time a horse is aggressive or acts like a bully at feeding time, we come in there with a flag and run him off the feed. He is not allowed to come back in until he can do it with no signs of aggression or pushiness. If we drove a human friend away like that, it could permanently end the relationship in a hurry. But remember that a horse is not a fellow human.
The Horse Separates The Difference
So, since the main point of the Feeding With A Flag exercise is to drive the horse away, could it temporarily make the horse a little hesitant about approaching you? Yes, that could temporarily happen. He might get a little confused and unsure about coming up to you. But we must give the horse some credit here. He will begin to separate the difference. Remember that a horse is a prey animal. He is usually paying a lot more attention to you than you are to him. They notice the slightest changes in your body language, cues, and general approach. It doesn’t take long until he understands when you want to catch him vs. when he needs to not crowd your space.
For more help on catching your horse, click here.
What Type Of Buddy Is Your Horse?
Now, this is the part that I really wanted to talk about. Can your horse be respectful and still be your buddy? Do you see your horse as your buddy? If he has no regard for your space and actually causes YOU to yield away from HIM (the opposite of what should happen), is that the type of buddy you want him to be? Is this type of horse really seeing you as his leader that he can trust enough to let down his guard and follow? Is that a healthy horse/human relationship? Suppose you have a human friend that bullies you around and has no regard for your presence. Is he really your buddy? Absolutely not.
Any time I encounter a spooky horse, I can almost guarantee that horse is also horrible at respecting space. The horse is spooky because his instincts are on high alert. He has not been convinced that his human is the leader he is looking for that will provide the security he needs. And part of providing that security is setting boundaries about personal space. Your horse needs a leader more than a buddy.
I would much rather have a horse that was a little hesitant about walking up to me than one that totally ignored my space and ran over top of me. If you have a horse that is ‘in your pocket’ and crowds you all the time, don’t mistake that for affection. That horse is basically ignoring you and doesn’t look to you for leadership or guidance.
This 5-minute test you can do with your horse will reveal which type horse you have: The Respect Test
Be The Horse’s Leader Not His Buddy
Think about the lead horse in a natural herd environment. That lead horse gained her position because she became really good at getting the other horses to yield their feet away from her. Yet, all those other horses look up to that lead horse. They look to her for guidance and safety, and they really respect her. So that lead horse is able to say, “Hey, get the heck out of here. It’s not time. I’m not allowing you to eat right now”. Yet, a minute later, all those other horses will buddy up to that lead horse. They will follow her anywhere, and do whatever she asks. In human terms, you might say the other horses ‘loved’ that lead horse.
To be clear, the priority is not to ensure your horse is your buddy and ‘likes you’ in the same way we think of human friendships. Don’t make that goal more important than doing what needs to be done. Establish a healthy horse/human relationship of trust and respect.
It’s kind of like the parent that always wanted to be the child’s buddy instead of the parent. The child didn’t need another friend. The child needed a parent to guide him along the way, set some boundaries, clearly convey expectations, and provide a safe environment. This type of friend-parenting usually doesn’t end up too well for either side.
Trust and Respect
With clear communication, your horse will easily know when he needs to move away from you, and when he needs to stand there and be caught. And as you work on these things, as you work on yourself, the horse will pretty quickly develop the habit of respecting your space, not be pushy at feeding time, not try to bully you or other horses, and he will also look to you the same way a horse in the wild looks to the lead mare. He will know that he can let down all his instinctual defenses because you have proven that you always have his back.
To listen to my Podcast on this subject, go here: Can My Horse Be Respectful and Be My Buddy At The Same Time?