Maintaining the integrity of personal space when working with horses is crucial for safety, trust, and bonding. It helps ensure a successful partnership with these animals. Uninvited penetration of a handler’s personal space is a behaviour that is preventable and manageable yet often overlooked. Likewise, awareness of the horse’s personal space is just as important as defending our own.
Personal Space Overview
Everyone has an area of personal space surrounding their entire physical body. This comfortable “bubble” size may vary in individuals and within different relationships. We will consider a person’s personal space approximately an arm length around the body. Discomfort, resentment and conflict often arise when personal space is invaded without permission.
Honouring Personal Space of the Horse
Horses have their own personal space that greatly varies with different individuals, circumstances and experiences. Although a horse’s personal space would logically be larger than ours it is arguably more sensitive to invasion due to strong survival instincts and can be exasperated by rough handling or traumatic events. Foals may become panicked when crowded by a person (McDonnell, 2004). For the case of a mature horse that has a positive view of people we shall consider a horse’s personal space to be about 1.5 meters surrounding the body which is about the area a horse will maintain when with an affiliate horse at liberty (McGreevy, 2004).
Some horses have adverse reactions to having their space rudely entered. Many horses have learned to tolerate ignorant space intrusion by people while others may become defensive. Fearful horses are typically more sensitive and generally have a larger comfort zone than others. When numerous horses with fearful tendencies were observed it was clear by the body language of the animals that penetrated personal space often produced fearful or defensive reactions. It is important to know where the panic threshold is with fearful horses. Repeatedly crossing the boundaries by ignoring the horse’s body language will negatively affect the horse’s trust in people and could become dangerous. In circumstances where a horse is “pushing” their handler around, it might be argued in some cases that the horse is merely maintaining his own space.
It is believed by some that when a horse reaches out and gently touches a person with its muzzle that permission is being granted to touch him. Pat Parelli maintains the “the Friendly Game” is about gaining permission to touch your horse using approach and retreat. With any horse it is wise and thoughtful to enter a horse’s space respectfully with continued observation of any reaction. If the horse becomes agitated or fearful it may be wise to back off and try again. Horses accept approach front the front by the neck more readily than anywhere else. Mutual respect and courtesy is important in horsemanship.
Crowding and Personal Space Invasion
This is often seen when a horse is being led, at liberty or fed hay or (especially) grain. The handler will often feel crowded, overpowered and may take a few steps back. It may appear that the horse is leading the human or even “pushing” them around. A horse that crowds a person is more likely to step on someone, knock someone over, knock a person with his head and spook too close for comfort (Jahiel, 2004). Crowding from horses may appear harmless at first but if this behaviour is encouraged or left unchecked it often progresses to be annoying at best and dangerous at worst. Continued space invasion should not be considered “cute” as this behaviour often helps develop a “rude” or “ill-mannered” horse. Escalation of space invasion from horses can become a contributing factor to various other behavioural issues such as nipping, biting, excessive head rubbing, cornering, and an aggressive attitude. Poor communication on the ground often translates to poor communication under saddle as well.
Causes of Crowding
Crowding is not natural for horses and often becomes a learnt behaviour. In the wild horses are generally well spaced out with at least a body’s length between them (except when mutual grooming occurs). Overcrowding in a paddock often results in physical conflict. Crowding of handlers is common in horses considered to have behaviour issues or a lack of training. Handlers unknowingly reward crowding behaviour with treats or scratches. A handler allowing a horse to rush them for grain trains the horse that space invasion is acceptable. Poor socialization in horses can contribute to space issues and crowding as they have not learned to respect space from other horses. Bottle-fed foals are notorious for overcrowding (McGreevy, 2004). Stallions may be more prone to overcrowding by ardently protecting their own area. Horses may barge in close to someone looking for comfort. They receive reassurance and have learned crowding is acceptable. Crowding is more often a case of poor handling or training rather than disrespect or ill intent (Gingrich, 2009).
While newborn foals are kept close to their dam’s side, it isn’t long before momma decides it’s time to teach the little one the negative results of crowding. It is important for handlers and owners to do the same with youngsters. Consistently moving the foal out of one’s personal space when invaded will go a long way towards developing a well trained mature horse.
Becoming observant to equine behaviour and body language helps a handler to gauge a situation and react appropriately. Gently but firmly directing the horses’ feet to move out of one’s personal space at the beginning of an encounter will help avoid further crowding. Maintaining a clear idea in one’s mind of exactly where those boundaries are at all times helps to determine when to correct an intrusion of space.
Crowding should be corrected clearly, firmly and consistently. Teaching the horse to back up a couple steps to receive a treat seems to work and would be an example of positive reinforcement in this type of training. In the case of a horse seeking comfort from a person the animal can be asked to back away and then reassured from a more comfortable distance. If a horse penetrates personal space with more speed and directness a firmer response from the handler is required. The extent of the crowding behaviour determines the firmness and distance the horse is asked to back away.
Asking the horse to move out of one’s bubble requires the horse to move away from a stimulus. The stimulus could be pressure from your hand, a tap from a whip, or a swinging lead rope. Waving of the hands or arms works well. It is considered a good practice to move the horse away twice as far as it came in while refusing to give ground by keeping one’s feet still. This type of training is good for any horse as working with humans dictates that horses must learn to move away from pressure when prompted. This pressure yielding usually translates well under saddle and helps to improve the response from the reins and legs (Tellington-Jones, 2006).
Specifically spending time working on space integrity is a great idea with many horses. If the handler walks around constantly swinging the end of a lead rope the horse quickly understands that walking too close to the handler results in contact from the swinging rope. Many people teach their horses to willingly follow them around on a lead at a consistent distance from your body. The horse learns to follow the handler’s direction and stop, turn, speed up or slow down as they do with slack on the lead. This exercise can become similar to a dance and the mutual connection between horse and handler is unmistakable.
Sharing Space with Horses
Horsemanship would not be complete without the ability to invite a horse into one’s personal bubble for a good scratch or ear rub. It is also a wonderful feeling to have a horse “ask” with a gentle outstretched neck to come in for some attention. While personal space protection is important for horses and humans, being able to safely share a horse’s space is necessary and essential for bonding and a good relationship. By taking the time to work on mutual space integrity with horses a better working and safer relationship is established. As long as the horse has a clear understanding of personal space and knows how to move away when asked, sharing space with a horse is a very rewarding experience.
McGreevy, Paul. (2004) Equine Behavior; A Guide for Veterinarians and Equine Scientists. Chapter five pg. 130, chapter four pg. 89. United Kingdom, Elsevier.
Tellington-Jones, Linda (2006). The Ultimate Horse Behaviour and Training Book. Chapter Behaviour and Training Issues pg 57. North Pomfret, Vermont. Trafalgar Square Publishing.
Jahiel, Jessica (2004). The Horse Behaviour Problem Solver. Chapter 13 pg 193. United States, Versa Press/Storey Publishing.
McDonnell, Sue. (2004). Taming the Aggressive Foal. http://www.thehorse.com/ViewArticle.aspx?ID=2331
Gingrich, Ryan (2009) Ask theBehaviourist: My Horse Keeps Crowding Me! http://www.ridemagazine.com/editorial/ryan-gingerich-ask-behaviorist-my-horse-keeps-crowding-me