How do we keep ourselves safe around horses without dominance? Boundaries.
In my last post, I talked about dominance and why I don’t use it or find it a helpful term in horse training/horse keeping/horsemanship, but what about safety? Does saying no to the dominance lens mean that we can never tell our horse no? That even if we may get hurt in a situation, we have to just let it happen so the horse can be free?
It’s totally okay to tell a horse what she can/cannot do to your body – it’s totally okay to say “no” – it’s totally okay to keep our own needs and safety in mind -
and we don’t need dominance to do it.
We need boundaries.
Dominance in the horse world often says, “I want your submission, so I am going to violate your personal space, decisions, and body”. Dominance is projected on the other, often looking to control another’s body and decisions. Dominance is often the disregard and violation of the horse’s boundaries and self.
Boundaries say “this is what I need – this is what I am comfortable with – this is what you can and cannot do to me”.
Dominance is about controlling the other – looking for obedience from the other – Boundaries get you in touch with yourself and what is okay and not okay with you.
Boundaries are kind, and they keep us safe. They are kind because they keep us out of resentment (we can be clear about our boundaries before someone has the chance to cross them, leaving us feeling walked over and disregarded). They are kind because they are clear (less confusion for everyone involved). They are kind because when we know how we want to be treated, with respect and dignity, we in turn often inspire those values in ourselves and in others.
“Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They are compassionate because they’re boundaries keep them out of resentment.”
Boundaries are crucial in every thriving relationship and they aren’t mean – at the core, they promote self-accountability.
They can keep us safe and clear around horses, and unlike dominance, they are about us, our bodies, and decisions – not about controlling and violating the boundaries of the horse or another person.
I used to have an issue making boundaries because I thought they were used in the same way as dominance. I thought they were the abuse of power.
I was very wrong - boundaries are one of the kindest things we can do for our relationships. They are about honor ourselves, and thus, honoring others.
Boundaries are crucial, and they ask us to get in touch with how we are really feeling and what we really need without apology. They require self-awareness. Our boundaries may disappoint other people and horses - they very well may include saying “no” - but they ultimately keep our relationships clean and our hearts free to live openly.
“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to l0ve ourselves even when we risk disappointing others” – Brene Brown
How do we set boundaries with the horses we love? First, we get in touch with how we are feeling and what we are needing.
Let’s take the example with Artemis.
When Artemis the foal started pushing her butt into me, I got in touch with where I thought she may be coming from to deepen my understanding of her. I asked myself what her feelings and needs may be (we may not always get it right, but we can always ask again). Artemis to me seemed excited (feeling) because she wanted her butt scratched (need).
Now that I am more clear about what’s happening on her end (something I may not have done had I simply labeled her or her behavior “dominant”) I ask myself – how do I feel about this situation? What are my needs?
Let’s say when Artemis pushed her butt into me I started to feel nervous. I have a need to feel safe when I am around Artemis, and when she pushes her butt into me, I feel uneasy. Now I can make a request from there. I want to request that Artemis ask me to scratch her butt in a different way. Instead of swinging her butt into me, I would be happy to scratch her butt if she would stand next to me and wait for me to move to her butt.
Now this is something I can actually communicate to Artemis.
Knowing what I want to request gives me something to actually work towards with Artemis.
I made a boundary that I don’t want Artemis swinging her butt into me. Combined with positive reinforcement, I can actually communicate with Artemis how I would rather scratch her butt, thus replacing the swinging butt behavior.
If I didn’t want to scratch her butt at all, that would be an okay boundary to make too! I get to decide what makes me comfortable and what makes me uncomfortable, and I get to determine my own boundary without apology. Just because someone asks us to satisfy his needs/wants, doesn’t mean we have to do it. We should give when it feels right to give and not give when it doesn’t. Sometimes we feel like “bad people” when we don’t want to give something, and so we make ourselves give it even when we don’t want to. This is where resentment starts, even with our horse. This is where I believe the desire to “dominate” as retaliation starts – we haven’t put up proper boundaries, so we feel walked over or taken advantage of, and we start to feel resentment towards the horse. From this space, we “claim our dominance” as retaliation.
Instead of looking to dominance and submission, you can make boundaries for many different behaviors that you don’t feel comfortable with – biting, pushing, etc. The key here though (as I’ve said many times) is not to mistake boundaries for obedience. Maybe you don’t want your horse to walk so close to you because it makes you uncomfortable – asking for more space is a boundary. Taking a horse into a round pen to “move her feet” so that she “respects” us – that’s not a boundary. We are encroaching on her territory there, perhaps even crossing her boundaries without permission.
Boundaries are important in any relationship. They actually keep us out of aggression and violence. They honor us and honor the other.
Rather than thinking of behavior as “bad”, boundaries help us to see certain behavior as “unwanted” (a seemingly nuanced but important distinction). With the help of +R, we can start transforming unwanted behavior into something that works for both the horse and human.
In one of my next posts, I am going to get into the real “how-to” of dealing with “unwanted” behavior, such as Artemis swinging her butt. There is a way to communicate these things to collaborate with the horse J I’m excited to share more with you all soon!