To Get the Most from this Lesson:
When I'm working with a horse from the ground, he stands respectfully away from me and doesn't crowd in. That's because I've taught him to stay out of my personal space, and not to approach me without permission. My personal space is defined by a large, imaginary hula hoop, the edge of which is about six feet away from me in every direction.
Why do I do this? For two reasons. First is safety. A horse that invades my space on his own might knock me down, step on me, or try to bite. If he approaches me only when I invite him to, I'm in control of the situation and therefore safer. Second, and equally important, is the related matter of respect. If I allow a horse to push into me, even in a friendly way, he's learning that he needn't respect me. In groups of horses, only the dominant one--the leader--can invade the space of others. Underlings must stand back, or risk being charged and reprimanded with teeth and hooves.
You must establish yourself as the dominant one, the leader in your group of two. That begins by keeping your horse out of your space.
I'm going to show you how to do that. First, you'll learn how to delineate your "hula hoop" of personal space, using a training stick or whip. Then, you'll use two different methods (the "wiggle-wave" and the "march") to step your horse back, away from you. As a bonus, you'll learn how to "reprogram" a mouthy horse.
1. Begin by establishing your "hula hoop" of personal space. Step away from your horse and, with your stick, draw a circle all around you in the dirt. If your stick is about four feet long, by bending over and reaching with your arm, you should be able to create a space that extends about six feet out from you in every direction. Your horse must stay beyond this space, so that his nose is about seven feet away from you.
2. Here's another way to check that your horse is far enough back. Extend the stick toward his head; there should be about a foot of space from the end of the stick to his muzzle. This establishes where he should be at rest.
3. To teach your horse to maintain this distance, back him away whenever he moves in closer on his own. Do this by wiggling the lead rope and swinging the stick from side to side in front of you as you walk toward him. Do it as vigorously as needed to get him to step back, then stop and praise him, then continue. Your goal is for him to begin moving back with energy the instant your body language says, "Back off."
4. Alternate the above method (wiggle and wave) with "marching" to ask your horse to back up. In this method, carry your stick as if it were a ski pole, and use an exaggerated marching motion, working your bent arms up and down as you step forward. If, as you approach your horse's chest, he hasn't begun to move back, you can flick your wrist such that the stick taps him on the chest as the arm carrying the stick comes up.
5. If your horse gets mouthy as he tries to move into your space (common among young horses and stallions), recondition him by taking the fun out of it. Do this by "mouthing him back"--rub his muzzle vigorously with both hands for about 20 seconds, using enough pressure to be annoying.
6. Don't hurt him as you rub, but be firm enough to get him to step back, as my horse is here. Be like that uncle who used to scuff your head playfully when you were a kid; eventually you learned to avoid him. You want your horse to learn to keep his muzzle to himself.
7. Over time, your horse will learn to stand respectfully at a distance and await instructions, as my horse is here. Be like that uncle who used to scuff your head playfully when you were a kid; eventually you learned to avoid him. You want your horse to learn to keep his muzzle to himself.
The editors wish to thank Ken and Billie Bray of Stephenville, Texas, for the use of their facility for this lesson.
This article originally appeared in the September 2006 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.