Over the years I have seen many problems that people and horses have with their relationship. There are probably few relationship issues that I haven’t seen. Perhaps the most common thing I see that comes up time and time again are when horses creep up and crowd people. It seems an almost universal issue and is the same no matter what level of education a horse or person has, or performance discipline or age group or what country I’m in. A bloke could make a living just out of teaching people how to stop their horse walk all over them.
So let’s look at why this happens and why it is such a common relationship problem.
People often refer to a horse trespassing into their space as being disrespectful. This is invariably not true. It has nothing to do with respect or disrespect. To understand what is going on we have to examine why a horse moves into the space occupied by another.
In a herd (wild or domestic) there is no democracy. No horse has equal rights or the same voting power as any other horse. They all occupy a specific place in a herd that is determined by which horse they can dominate and which horse dominates them. Horse A dominates horse B, and horse B dominates horse C. This can be complicated further when horse C dominates horse A. Nevertheless, this order of hierarchy determines each horse’s place in the herd and where the leadership lies.
The importance of this should not be underestimated. It shows that horses seek leadership. Leadership in any gathering is a must for a horse to feel safe and comfortable. Evolution has shaped horses to seek where the leadership exists. They need to know which horses they can lord over and which horses rule over them to feel safe and comfortable. Having an equal is not an option for a horse. The horse world is not an equal opportunity world.
How do horses determine who they are in charge of and who is in charge of them? The answer is that the one who directs the feet of the other is the one in charge. It is that simple.
When a horse enters a herd, they very quickly try to establish which horses they can direct and which horses can direct them. Initially, there may be some shuffling of position and instability, but fairly quickly order descends and stability is re-established by each horse knowing their place in the group.
Knowing this very simple principle of horse behaviour, one has to ask why so many people have trouble with horses invading their space?
Again, I think the answer is very simple. Consistency!
When a horse and a human come together, neither knows which is the leader. It is the nature of horses to ask the question of the human, “Are you in charge of me or am I in charge of you?” They do this by trying to move the feet of the human. There is nothing wrong with this. It is perfect natural and should never be thought of as disrespectful. Instead it should be looked at as the horse trying to establish the rules of leadership of this new relationship. The horse is just asking the question in the same way it would ask it of another horse.
Some human answers the question by giving up space to the horse. Instantly, the human has told the horse that it is the horse that is the leader. Other times, the human does not yield up space and may even convince the horse to give up some of its own space. In this instance the human has told the horse that it is not the one in charge, but the person is the leader. Again, the horse is perfectly fine with that too, because it just wanted an answer to its very simple, but essential question.
However, when the relationship is new and the rules are not established in concrete, sometimes a horse will ask several times, “Are you in charge of me or am I in charge of you?” It may get asked over and over until the answer is clear and believable in the horse’s mind. This is where people get into trouble.
Good horse people never have a problem with offering a clear and consistent answer to the question their horse asks. As a result, in a fairly short time their horse understands with crystal clarity the relationship and stops asking the question. However, a reasonably large proportion of owners do not answer their horse’s question with clarity and consistently. Sometimes, their reply to Flossy’s question is “I’m in charge of you,” and sometimes it is “You’re in charge of me.”
This lack of clarity and consistency leaves Flossy confused and stressed and without an answer that they can rely on or believe. The relationship with their owner is in jeopardy because they do not know who is in charge and offer leadership. As I have already said, leadership and knowing who is in charge is a vital component of a horse feeling safe and comfortable.
The outcome is a horse who either keeps asking the question all the time in an effort to have a final resolution they can rely upon or they shut down and becomes much more unresponsive. Either way, the human has filled their horse’s life with stress.
At clinics I see a lot of horses that have resulted from owners not providing clear and consistent answers and leaving their horses in limbo as to their role in the relationship. It’s not disrespect. It’s not rudeness. It’s not wilfulness. It’s simple people being unclear as to who is leading the dance.